I had the pleasure of recently interviewing New Jersey’s own Chef Kevin Sbraga. Chef Sbraga was the winner of “Top Chef D.C.”, which aired last Wednesday on Bravo. I was cheering on Chef Sbraga from the beginning. He definitely made New Jersey proud. Chef Sbraga has worked under Chef Joses Garces as his culinary director. (Note: For those that don’t know who Chef Garces is besides being an Iron Chef, he is the owner and operator of a number of restaurants in Philadelphia.) Chef Sbraga also took part in the 2008 Bocuse D’Or USA Competition, which took place in Epcot Center in Florida. His meat dish won the “The Best Meat Dish” of the competition. Currently, Chef Sbraga is the executive chef at Rat’s Restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ, although next weekend (September 24-26) is his last. He is leaving to pursue his culinary dream of opening his own restaurant. He plans on opening this restaurant in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania sometime next year. Chef Sbraga has a bright future ahead of him and I look forward to cheering him on.
Tony Mangia: I would like to start off by congratulating you on being crowned this season’s “Top Chef”. You definitely deserved it. I was rooting for you the whole way. So let me start off by asking what was the “Top Chef” experience like?
Kevin Sbraga: It was a wild and crazy ride like none other. I can’t compare it to anything else I have ever done.
TM: Not that I want to downplay your achievement on “Top Chef”, but I would like the rest of the interview to be about you and your food. So let’s start from the beginning. When did you realize cooking was your passion?
KS: I was very young when I fell in love with cooking. But it was in 9th grade that I knew I was passionate about it.
TM: How did you go about pursuing your passion for cooking?
KS: I started off washing dishes and doing prep work in my dad’s bakery. Then I went to a vocational high school, as well as working as a dishwasher/prep cook in [a local] restaurant.
TM: You attended Johnson and Wales in Miami. Can you tell us a little bit about your culinary school experience?
KS: I attended Johnson and Wales in Miami as well as Providence, [Rhode Island]. But experiences were great, but very different. I learned a lot and met a lot of great people.
TM: If there is someone out there that wants to be a chef, do you recommend them going directly to culinary school or do you think they should get their feet wet by first working in the industry?
KS: They need to go wash dishes first. They need to start on the bottom and see just how demanding this profession is.
TM: I was reading that you plan on leaving about Rat’s Restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ to open a small restaurant in Philadelphia. Can you tell us about your vision for this new restaurant? Is there a particular cuisine you plan on focusing on?
KS: My vision is to have a small (20 to 40 seats) high-end restaurant with an ever evolving menu. I want to create a dining experience that currently does not exist in the area.
TM: Where do you get your inspiration for your dishes?
KS: I am inspired by raw ingredients.
TM: What is it like working in your kitchen?
KS: Tough, but fun.
TM: What ingredients could you not live without?
KS: Salt, lemons, olive oil, fresh herbs
TM: Are there any ingredients that you just dislike using?
KS: None that I can think of.
TM: You took part in the 2008 Bocuse D’Or USA competition. What was it like cooking in this competition?
KS: The Bocuse D’Or USA was amazing. The most challenging 5 hours of my life.
TM: When you participated in the Bocuse D’Or USA you were the Culinary Director of the Garces Restaurant Group in Philadelphia. What was it like working for Chef Jose Garces?
KS: Chef Garces is very demanding and has a very high level of attention to detail. I learned a lot about building flavors from him.
TM: How have you applied what you learned as Culinary Director of the Garces Restaurant Group to your career today?
KS: I learned a lot about restaurant operations as well as building flavors. Jose is a master in the restaurant business.
TM: Do you have any plans for writing a cookbook?
KS: Not any time soon. I am focused on opening my restaurant.
TM: Do you cook for your family on your days off?
KS: Not really, work is work and home is home. My wife does most of the cooking, although we eat out often.
TM: What is your comfort food and why?
KS: Spaghetti, grilled cheese, scrambled eggs…these are all things I grew up eating.
TM: What advice could you give to someone who wants to be a chef or restaurateur?
KS: Work from the best in the business.
TM: What’s on the horizon for you? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
KS: I am not sure. I am leaving it in God’s hands. His plan is working out much better that I could have ever imagined.
I want to thank Chef Kevin Sbraga for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview with me. I wish Chef Sbraga nothing but the best. And I can’t wait to eat at his new restaurant. Enjoy!
Living to eat,