Talking with chef and owner Kevin Sbraga
1. Can you introduce yourself?
There’s Kevin Sbraga the father, the friend, the Christian man. There’s Kevin Sbraga, the restaurateur of Sbraga Dining, who is a chef and owner of several restaurants. Then there’s Kevin Sbraga, the celebrity chef.
2. How do those components tie together?
The one thing that’s consistent is a desire and passion to be excellent at all the components. I want to be an amazing dad. I want to be an amazing friend. I want to be very involved in my church and do good things there, and I want to run successful businesses and have a place where people really enjoy working.
3. What sort of restaurant is Sbraga & Company?
Sbraga & Company in Jacksonville will be a non-traditional raw bar and grill. Our raw bar isn’t just about shrimp cocktails; instead we’ve created a shrimp ceviche that tastes like shrimp cocktail. The grilled items won’t just be steaks; we’re looking at grilled fish and a ton of grilled vegetables instead. We’ve showcasing the best of the ingredients being produced in this area.
4. How would you describe your style of cooking?
Sbraga & Company will be an American restaurant featuring American food. America really is a melting pot and we embrace that, along with the influences it brings. For Sbraga & Company in particular, we’re starting with the ingredients and looking at the influence Native Americans, West African slaves, French and Spanish have had, and how those influences have impacted this region.
5. How did you approach the creation of your menu?
Our menu was really birthed at the farmer’s market. I saw ingredients I thought were really exciting and felt comfortable building the menu from that.
6. Were there particular things that stood out for you at the farmer’s market?
The first ingredient was watermelon - I saw a ton of them, and I saw watermelon sizes I’d never seen before. I also saw field peas being shucked at the market, an ingredient I hadn’t seen on any local menus I’d tried at that time. Another item was okra, which we get in Philadelphia but down here it’s bigger, firmer and more beautiful. The last ingredient was a bunch of fresh fish that had just been caught.
7. How will watermelon show up on the menu?
We’re doing a watermelon salad. You see watermelon and tomatoes combined quite often - whether it’s a salad, a gazpacho or something along those lines. We just want to focus on the watermelon itself, so we’ll pair it with goat cheese and we dress it with olive oil and a touch of acidity and salt. The dish is refreshing and light with just a touch of sweetness.
8. How did you make the menu after touring the market?
We put together a spreadsheet with columns for fruits, vegetables, starches, meat, fish, poultry, and shellfish, and we built the menu off that. We didn’t try to recreate any particular dishes; we just looked at the ingredients and started writing the menu from there.
9. How long did it take to come up with the menu?
The first menu was pretty easy. I sat down with a few people and we came up with a menu in 4 or 5 hours. But there’s a refinement process. I wish there was a better way for us to track it because I’d really like to see all the different variations and how they changed. We must have revised the menu at least 100 times in the last 3 months. At least 100 times. I’ll write it down and then an hour later, or the next day, I’ll think “what if we do this instead of that?” Then an hour later I’ll think, “I don’t want pickled mustards seeds on that - I want pickled cucumber instead because I like the texture better.” And on and on, we keep going over that exercise.
Then we start cooking and testing things out. We started that before we came to Jacksonville. Once we moved here we spent more time meeting vendors and farmers, talking to other chefs and making friends. From there, we took what we learned and re-visited things on the menu. I have no doubt that through the process of training and opening the restaurant there’ll be even more revisions. By the time we’re open I can promise you the menu will have changed 200-250 times in a 4 or 5 month period.
10. Would you describe Sbraga & Company as a fine dining restaurant?
There are components of fine dining but it’s going to be a very comfortable and casual place. We want the level of service and attention to detail to be the quality of a fine dining restaurant but without fine dining stuffiness, attitude or snootiness. If someone wants to pick up a piece of chicken with their fingers, so be it! They can do it and I’ll be happy seeing it, because honestly, that’s what I’m going to do. At the same time, we want to be sure your water glass is always filled, we want our staff to know the menu thoroughly, and we want people to have a good time - that’s our ultimate goal.
What we’re trying to achieve is a way of dining - a place that is a return to the supper table, where guests come not only for food but they also come for the hospitality and ambiance.
11. Why did you decide to highlight breads on your menu?
About two years ago we decided to start making our own bread at Sbraga in Philadelphia because it was hard to know how much bread we’d need each day. When we were ordering bread from the outside it was good quality but some days we’d be throwing out a lot of bread and some days we’d run out, so we decided to invest the time and money into doing it ourselves.
As we grew, we discovered that having our own bread was an important component of what we did. When we came to Jacksonville we realized a lot of people weren’t doing their own bread, so making our own was something we could highlight. We've built a kitchen just for pastry and bread, which is rare for restaurants.
Our approach to serving bread will be a little different - we won’t automatically provide bread to everyone as soon as they sit down. Too often, that type of bread service is almost an afterthought. We'll have a dish called a Bread Board that will feature four different types of bread made with fresh grains, which haven’t been sitting on a shelf for a year. The Bread Board will also have fresh radishes, whipped butter and fresh cracked sea salt and pepper. It’s not just a warm breadbasket - there’s thought and passion and effort behind it.
12. Are there particular styles of bread you’ll feature?
There are a couple of different styles we’ll be doing. At this time there are four different breads – the first is Rustic Bread that’s crusty on the outside and light and airy in the middle, with a touch of sourdough. We’ve been doing this bread at my other restaurants for a very long time.
Our Angel Biscuit is more focused on the South. It has yeast, so it’s a little bit lighter and fluffier. We’re also doing a savory Corn Bread, made from great corn that we’re milling ourselves and folding into the bread for texture. The last style is Pretzel Bread, which is a nod to Philadelphia and the soft pretzels the city is known for.
13. Do you see baking bread as a potentially separate business for you?
I would love to do that and we’ll be equipped to do that, but it’s not the top thing on my list. Maybe in 6 months we’ll be talking about that. For now, we want to make sure we’re doing well at the restaurant and executing what we do perfectly. But I hope that one day we can sell bread to other places.
You’ve spoken about having a passion for modern American culinary techniques. What techniques are you referring to and how will they be utilized at Sbraga & Company?
Right now modern American techniques have reverted back to old times. One of them would be this massive, 6-foot wood burning grill we have. There’s a return to cooking like that.
Five years ago, we were cooking a lot of things in a circulator under a process called sous vide. And three years before that, everything was under the foam gun. Food evolves, we evolve, and techniques evolve. We continue to pay attention to it but we’re not controlled by it. Those influences will be in our cooking although you may not even notice them. Our food isn’t based on technique; it’s based on the ingredients.
14. Can you tell us about your menu?
There will be about 40 items on the menu, including dessert. Most of the items will be small plates, which are meant to be shared in a communal dining experience where everyone gets a little taste of many things.
From there the plates are broken down into different sections. One section is called “Snacks” and will feature items that are quick and easy. Some may be designed for eating with your fingers and others will require a fork and knife. There’s another section called “Raw Bar.” We looked at the idea of raw and really focused on that. We didn’t want the bar to be oysters, clams and shrimp cocktail. We wanted to incorporate a vegetable dish so we looked at making a ceviche style dish out of vegetables. We looked at making tartare, either from beef or lamb.
Another area is “Soups & Salads.” We looked at a tomato and fennel soup along with an oyster soup and a traditional oyster chowder. Another section will be “Crops.” In there, you might find dirty rice with sautéed mustard greens. You might also find beets with radishes, or roasted turnips that are lightly caramelized, or potatoes with buttermilk and bacon.
Beyond the small plates we’ll also feature a small selection of “Large Plates.” We’ll have a whole-dressed fish with piri piri sauce, which is our take on salsa verde. We’ll also feature a wood grilled steak that is big, meaty, and dry aged with simple roasted carrots that are done really, really well.
15. Do you have any favorites?
The dish I’m most excited about is called Country Captain. It comes from the coastal area of Georgia and was influenced by the slaves who’d come from Barbados. In its traditional form, it’s a beautiful curried chicken made with currants and served with rice. We were looking at Country Captain along with another local dish, chicken and waffles, and wanted to figure out a way to combine them.
The first thing we did was to substitute the rice and currants for a rice waffle with currants inside of it. The waffle will be served with a sweetened butter that has some dried fruit in it. Our next challenge was to make a fried curry chicken. We have an extremely popular Hot Chicken dish at The Fat Ham in Philadelphia. I’ve been given the nickname “The Chicken Whisperer” in Philadelphia because of it. We used the Hot Chicken technique from The Fat Ham for our fried chicken and came up with a beautiful glaze for the chicken. So now our Country Captain is a stewed, curried chicken that’s fried and served over a rice waffle. I’m super, super excited about it because I’ve not seen anything similar anywhere else, and because I love fried chicken!
16. How did you get on Top Chef?
I had a couple of buddies who were on the season before me. One of them won. I reached out to congratulate him on the night he won and told him he needed to help me get on the next season. He gave me the producer’s email and encouraged me to reach out to her, so I emailed her to say that I wanted to be on the show. She told me that I’d missed the deadline but told me that if I got something to her by the next Monday she’d take a look. She told me that on Thursday. I filmed a video Friday and shipped it out so she’d have it on Monday. Afterwards, I went through the entire application process and was able to get on the show.
17. You won Top Chef, season 7. How much is being a chef on Top Chef like being a chef in the real world?
They’re not even remotely alike.
18. How did you bring your background as a chef to Top Chef?
I don’t know that I brought my background to the show. I think Top Chef really exposed a lot and drew things out of me.
19. Like what?
Daring to be different. The pursuit of excellence. Top Chef challenged me in every single way - mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
20. What made you want to be a chef?
Both of my parents are bakers and I grew up in the bakery and around food. I loved that. I wasn’t the kid who watched cartoons - I was watching Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Great Chefs, Great Cities. Now I have two kids, a 10-year-old and 5-year-old and they’re surrounded by food all the time and they have a passion for it. It’s not anything that’s pushed on them. I don’t ask them to come in the kitchen with me and neither does their mother. They want to be there and they want to learn. I was cooking with them on Sunday and asked what we were going to have for dinner and my daughter said she wanted gnocchi. What 10-year-old says they want gnocchi? We made it together and it came out exceptional. Even the process we used was a little different than I’ve used before. So even in my home, in the company of my kids in the kitchen, I'm still developing.
I love not just cooking, but I also love eating and I think that’s a part of why I enjoy being a chef so much.
21. What brought you to Jacksonville?
I’m here because the developers of Unity Plaza approached me, and I liked what they had to say, and I liked what I saw. And just as important, it was the city of Jacksonville and the location of Unity Plaza.
I remember getting here on a Sunday night. We woke up Monday, had coffee at Bold Bean, and that was it. I liked the quality of what they were doing and I saw a line out the door, which told me that people were also excited about what Bold Bean was offering. Another thing that struck me is that when I drove around this neighborhood, I didn’t see a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s; I saw small restaurants doing really well and the community supporting them. That’s what I want to be a part of!
22. Did you look at other cities?
Yeah. We’ve been pursued in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. For one reason or another, those cities didn’t happen. There was interest, but it never came together. But Jacksonville happened and it makes sense for us. Back in March, I brought 10 of my team members from Sbraga Dining to Jacksonville. We got in two SUV’s and drove all night. When my team got here, they said “We get it, Jacksonville makes sense for us.”
23. What role will you have at Sbraga & Company?
When it opens up I’ll be here all the time. I’ll be involved in the day-to-day operations to get things going. And like any of my other restaurants I’ll be there, checking on the food, making sure things are right. Will I be there every day? No. I have a team of chefs who will run things. I’ve got really, really good people. At this point there are four Sbraga Dining team members who have moved here. Two have worked with me for the last four years, and two have worked with me previously. From there, we’re building our team here in Jacksonville. At the end of the day it’s the people who make the difference. It’s not just Kevin Sbraga, although the restaurant will still reflect my ideas, standards, and passion.
24. How has Jacksonville been so far?
The relationships we’ve been able to build thus far have been inspiring. We just got off the phone with a wood purveyor before this interview. Normally, when we get wood, the guy drops off the wood and we get what we get. We hope that it doesn’t burn too fast and the moisture content is just right. But when we talked to this guy, we got questions like “What kind of wood do you want? How do you want it mixed? How long to you want it dried?” And on and on. We were sitting there with our jaws on the ground at the time and consideration he took in finding out more about what we wanted.
Two weeks ago we bought Mayport shrimp from a woman who invited us to go onto the shrimp boat to see how they did things. She had some of the best shrimp, if not the best shrimp, we’ve ever tasted. The freshness and quality of it was absolutely amazing.
The other day, we talked to a chicken farmer. He was asking us things like, “How many pounds do you need your chickens to be? How do you want them raised?” To have someone ask those questions is amazing. I feel like a kid in a candy shop. What’s here and available is truly, truly awesome and we’re so excited to be a part of this kind of community.