Meet Philly’s Next Top Chef Contender

Kevin Sbraga, part of the Starr empire, is a cheftestant on the new season of the culinary competition show

During the last season of Top Chef, we had Northeast Philly native, 10 Arts‘ chef Jennifer Carroll to root for and in Season 7, which premieres on Bravo this Wednesday, June 16th at 9 p.m., we have another local competitor to cheer on! Kevin Sbraga, currently executive chef at Rat’s Restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, operated by Stephen Starr, is one of the 17 chosen cheftestants who will battle it out in Washington D.C. (seriously? D.C. got picked over Philly?) for Top Chef honors and prize money. Sbraga has done his tour of duty throughout the Philly region: he was Culinary Director for Jose Garces’s restaurant, chef de cuisine at the Grill at the Ritz-Carlton and already has a big culinary competition win under his belt: Best Meat Presentation at Bocuse d’Or USA. We caught up with Sbraga on the eve of the premiere to find out what he learned from Starr and Garces might give him an edge on the show, plus how he thinks his life might change after the show airs.

You’ve worked for the two main heavy hitters in Philly (Starr, Garces). What did you learn from each of them that you think will help you in Top Chef?
From Garces, I learned a lot about flavor – how to build and layer food. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at that. He’s also a great businessman and leader and he’s brought the food industry in Philly to another level. He’s brought upscale-casual restaurants to Philly that are chef-driven and I love that.

Stephen [Starr] is very detail-oriented. He catches everything – nothing really slips by him. When you work with him, or even if you’re just walking with him through one of his restaurants — the things that he notices! He never gives up and he keeps striving for something better. That can help anyone that participates in Top Chef. Also, his persistence and his drive — Stephen in a go-getter. He just doesn’t stop and I think that’s reflected throughout his business and business model.

Starr was a judge last season – did he give you any pointers? Was he supportive of you going on the show?
No, he didn’t give me any pointers. I really know what Stephen likes – it’s not easy to cook for him, but I know what he looks for. Each judge and each chef is very different. And he was extremely supportive of me going on the show. Extremely.

You’ve worked at a lot of high-profile places in Philly, but you’re a pretty low-profile guy – word on the street is you’re kind of a chef’s chef. What do you think are you strengths and weaknesses as a chef?
It’s both a strength and a weakness: I’m never happy and I’m always trying to do better, to get to the next level, to make my food better. I’m relentless. It’s a strength because it’s always interesting, but it’s a weakness because it creates inconsistency. Overall my strengths are: my cooking skill, technique, presentation. The one that stands out to me the most and to other people is plate presentation. My personality is a strength as well, I believe. But I can be shy. I don’t necessarily need to be in the limelight. That could be considered a weakness.

Which character from previous seasons did you most relate to? Who do you think you’re most like?
I’ve watched every season. I think I’m very different – I know a couple of the guys that have competed and I may have characteristics that may be similar, but I think I’m very different than all of them. I don’t know that there was a particular favorite. I enjoyed watching all seasons. I don’t think the person I wanted or thought should win won every time, but that’s the name of the game.

Did you get any tips from any of our other Philly chefs who have been on TV – Jen Carroll, Jose Garces?
No. Not at all. I wish I would have! I would have loved to speak with Jen Carroll and still would – I don’t really know her. With Jose.. that guy’s so busy it’s hard to keep up with him.

We have to ask – does it worry you that the name of the restaurant you work at is Rat’s? If people don’t know the context, it’s kind of confusing.
No. Not really. I think a name is a name. The name is catchy and people will never forget it! It can remind people of Ratatouille – I have a 5-year-old daughter and she calls it Ratatouille because that’s what it reminds her of. I’m not too worried about that.

Is your daughter excited about you being on the show?
She’s pretty excited. She created her own cooking show a few weeks ago. She was on punishment and couldn’t watch TV, so she was in her room, playing in her own kitchen and my wife asked what she was doing and she said, “Making a TV cooking show!”

What are some of your favorite restaurants in Philly?
All of Stephen’s restaurants are really good – they are very consistent and very good. And Jose’s restaurants and Marc Vetri, too. I just ate at Amis about a week ago – my wife and went there for our anniversary. There’s a lot of small places – in Chinatown and on Washington Ave. There’s one that comes to mind: Pho Ha on 6th and Washington. I could eat that once or twice a week and be really happy. And My Lai Wah in Chinatown. If I want a cheeseteak I go to Jim’s on South Street — to me that’s the best in the city. And a hoagie down at Sarcone’s in South Philly. It’s the little places that really do it for me.

So, you grew up in Willingboro, NJ, but most of your restaurant career has been in Philly – are you a Jersey guy or a Philly guy? Our readers need to know which side of the Delaware you stand on.
I’m a Jersey guy – let’s put it that way. To me it’s the same – I’m 10 minutes from Philly. It’s the same thing to me.

How do you think your life will change once the show airs?
I have no idea what the hell’s going to happen – I really don’t know. Right now, I just focus on cooking good food and we’ll see what happens. It’s definitely life-changing in many ways – it makes you look at things differently. Another thing I’ve noticed is my standards have kind of changed. You expect more from yourself and you expect more from others. I think it’s because of competition. You really expose yourself to millions of viewers and their critiques amd their opinions and you have to hold yourself to a different standard.

*Photo courtesy of Bravo