Three years after being crowned on season seven of Top Chef, Kevin Sbraga continues to show he’s worth his salt. Prize money and a marquee name helped him open the doors of Sbraga restaurant in Philadelphia in 2011. But a packed house and immediate accolades—including a nod from Esquire as one of the country’s Best New Restaurants of 2012—are early signs of more to come from this seasoned chef. Not one to rest on his laurels, Sbraga recently launched an intimate six-seat chef’s counter, with a six-course themed tasting menu that changes every two weeks. Maybe rapid rotation is just an unintended side effect of Top Chef Quickfire syndrome.
What do you cook when you’re off the clock? When you own your own business and it’s your first one, you’re always on the clock. But I spend time with my family and friends. I still like going out to eat. I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, so I like to watch football.
One trend you wish would go away? Hamburgers. It’s just a hamburger—we’ve been eating them for years. I don’t understand what the big deal is. There are some delicious hamburgers out there and I enjoy eating them, but I don’t get the craze about them.
What’s the most overused spring item that you love anyway?Probably peas. Peas are huge in the spring and everyone uses them but they’re great. There are some places that do dishes with peas five ways, or you’ll see peas on every single course. It’s overkill, but I don’t think you can have spring without using peas.
Your favorite kitchen tool? My spoon. It’s so versatile—you can sauce a plate with it, use it as a spatula to flip something over or bang on the counter to get someone’s attention. It’s in my back pocket as we speak. It’s a great quality spoon. Any time I buy new spoons, it’s the same brand—but this particular one I’ve had since 2001. I haven’t had to throw it at anyone yet.
What is your guiding principle to cooking? Make it taste good. It starts with good ingredients, followed by good technique and proper seasoning. It’s about no boundaries. I’m open to any flavor combination and any ethnic influence—it just has to taste good. That’s it.
If you had to choose one ingredient to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? Salt. I think it’s the single most important thing we use in the kitchen. I prefer La Baleine fine sea salt, but we use kosher salt in our kitchen.
What’s the Next Big Thing? Trends change so often. Right now, I think it’s just about good food. It’s not about the fancy techniques or the farm-to-table thing anymore. The days of the themed restaurants and the gimmicks, I think they’re over. People really just want good food.
Finish this sentence: There’s never enough time to ...? Sleep. You get home at 1 or 2 a.m. and have to be up again by 7 a.m. It’s tough.
Do you have any advice for to the reluctant diner? Just sit back and relax. There’s no need to be a food critic or analyze every single detail. Just relax and enjoy yourself—that’s what you’re spending money on.
What’s your process to developing new dishes? Most of the time it comes from inspiration. A lot of it has to do with travel, eating out at a lot of places or which ingredients are in season. The one chef that inspires me the most is this French chef named Pascal Barbot, who has this small restaurant called L'Astrance in Paris. His menu changes all the time. The thing that inspires me the most is that he is in his own lane—just does his own thing. He’s not “trendy” but he’s still ahead of the trends. I really admire someone that can do that.
What was your biggest kitchen disaster? We had a salamander catch on fire at another restaurant I worked at. It was just being careless. The food caught on fire, the whole salamander caught on fire and we had to use a fire extinguisher to spray it all down, which shut us down the rest of lunch. It’s about paying attention to the details. If you don’t learn from it the first time, there’s something seriously wrong.
WHO’S THIS SBRAGA GUY?
Hometown: Willingboro, N.J.
Education: Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., and Miami.
Mentor(s): Arnaud Berthelier of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, Fla., and George O’Palenick, chef instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I.
What makes you so special? Winner of Top Chef Season 7, Best New Restaurant 2012 by Esquire magazine and “Best Meat Presentation,” Bocuse d’Or USA, 2008.