Kevin Sbraga Talks Top Chef, Life Changing Experiences, and Inspiration For His Restaurant

Kevin Sbraga at his restaurant Sbraga.
Kevin Sbraga at his restaurant Sbraga. Photo: Jason Varney

Kevin Sbraga, winner of Bravo’s Top Chef: Season Seven debuts his first restaurant Saturday. Following his triumph on the television show, the Burlington County, NJ native has been dividing his time with traveling the globe in search of inspiration and readying his 65-seat restaurant for its highly anticipated opening. On the eve of its doors opening Grub Street caught up with Sbraga to get the low-down on the restaurant, its menu and what inspired it. Check out what the Top Chef told us straight ahead.

Tell us a little about what your menu will have in store for us.
It’s still coming together right now as we speak. Really its about great product and not doing to much with it and letting things shine and go from there.

It’s a four-course prix fixe menu that we will offer. And we will offer an a la carte menu at the bar.

How often will you change the menu?
It will change pretty often. I’m already thinking about some changes that I want to do. I would say you’ll start seeing changes in about two or three weeks. Maybe less.

Right now, we have six options for each course. At least that’s what we have planned.

Most likely the bar menu will be a shortened version of the prix fixe menu.

What kind of changes did you make to the space’s interior?
It’s completely different in there. We really softened it up and made it a lot more warm and cozy. We added a lot of reclaimed wood, and added a lot of neutral and earth tones to it. We reused almost every piece of marble (left behind by former tenant Chu Man Chew). And we built a bar in there. There was a mock bar before but it just didn’t work for us, so we put in a real one.

How much input did you have in the design?
I came up with ideas, showed the architects places that I liked and things I liked and they kind of went from there.

You’ve been traveling a lot in the past year doing research for this, what are some of the things that inspired you?
I was lucky enough to eat at some really amazing restaurants, and one of the things I noticed was, at the very best of them there were no boundaries or limits to what they were doing. Meaning: They weren’t stuck in one cuisine. When I was in Paris back in March, eating in two and three Michelin star restaurants, I noticed there was a lot of different, global influences. That’s probably what inspired me the most by all this travel.

So, will we see that experience play out on the menu?
When this menu is finalized and people finally see it, they aren’t going to see French. They’re not going to see Italian. There will be touches of both here and there. The food is decidedly American. It’s a melting pot. It’s good food and great ingredients with global flavors.

How much influence did you carry over from your time spent working for the likes of Stephen Starr, Jose Garces and Georges Perrier?
From Garces, I took building and layering flavors. From Perrier, it’s sauce work and attention to details. The most important thing I ever learned from Perrier — and I can still hear him saying it — was, “take care of the guest; that’s your job.” That’s the most important thing I learned from him. From Starr, I learned about management, lighting and setting the mood. He knows how to set the environment. You can see that reflected in the interior here.

With so much attention placed on other Top Chef winners’ restaurants like Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato and Michael Voltaggio’s Ink, do you feel like the stakes are high for yours?
Someone asked recently who I thought was my competition. It may sound arrogant, but I told them I didn’t have any. What that really means is, I can’t control what anyone else does. I can only do my best to control what’s happening in my world, in this restaurant. I can only do my personal best. I can’t focus on what everyone else is doing. This restaurant is me, an expression of me, my wife, my family and what we’ve talked about for many, many years. Is it better than Stephanie’s restaurant? I don’t know. Is it going to be better than Voltaggio’s restaurant? I don’t know. I really can’t compare. I just want this to be the best experience I possibly can deliver.

When you were spending all this time working on your restaurant, where were you eating?
Sushi Sumo. It’s right behind the Starbucks [at Broad and Pine streets]. We ate there at least once a week. We ate at Pine Street Pizza numerous times. And then there’s a Mexican spot up the block on Pine Street. I can’t remember the name of it.

Will your bar have, like, a bar scene, or is it more for walk-ins?
It will be mostly for walk-ins and people waiting for tables. I don’t see it so much as a bar scene. What we saw over the weekend during our dry runs is it gets packed really fast. This isn’t really the kind of place where you’re going to want to sit two deep at the bar. It’s just not that place.

Do you think you would be where you are now if you hadn’t won Top Chef?
No. It was a life-changing experience.

How has your Top Chef experience carried over to your restaurant?
One of the things its done for me is to really go for what I believe in. You know, you have that instinct and you have that gut feeling, and sometimes you have to go for it. The menu, my prix fixe menu, is one of things. I’ve had comments and feedback like, “Oh, I don’t understand a prix fixe menu.” Well, I don’t want to create a restaurant like anyone else’s. This restaurant is different. This not small plates. This is not appetizers and entrees. We’re creating a dining experience and that’s how we’re going to set ourselves apart from others. That’s just one of the things I learned from Top Chef: You have to go for what you know and what you believe in.

Do you think that mindset is what gave you the edge to win?
Yeah, I think so. It took me a long time to get to that point. And if you look at all the great chefs and all the great restaurateurs, even in this city, they all did something different. Thirty years ago Georges Perrier put together the finest French restaurant anyone had ever seen here. And then Stephen Starr, with multiple concepts, nailed it. Jose Garces did it with tapas, and Marc Vetri with Italian that wasn’t just spaghetti and meatballs. That’s really what I want to do with this restaurant, to take dining to the next level.

Where do you think you would be now if you didn’t do Top Chef?
I don’t know. Probably still trying to work on this project and work somewhere else full time.

In some of your preview dinners over the past year, your wife Jesmary was doing desserts. Will she play a role in Sbraga?
Yeah, she’ll be here a few days a week. She has a full time job and we have kids, but she’ll be overseeing the restaurant. She’s one of the owners. I told her that when I take a day off, she might have to get on the hot line, plate up food and expedite and stuff.

Sbraga, 440 South Broad Street, (215) 735-1913

Kevin Sbraga Talks Top Chef, Life Changing Experiences, and