The Story Behind Philly Chef (and onetime Top Chef champ) Kevin Sbraga’s New Jacksonville, Florida, Restaurant Sbraga & Company
I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin Sbraga from the first time I met him, during tryouts for the Bocuse d’Or USA in Orlando, Florida, back in 2008. At the time, Kevin was culinary director for the Garces Restaurant Group. While he didn’t make the team, I was struck by how bad he wanted it, and what a humble guy he was. I wasn’t at all surprised when he won the next big-time competition he signed up for, taking the crown on Season 7 of Top Chef. He swiftly parlayed that success into the launch of his first Philadelphia restaurant, Sbraga, where he serves a multi-course prix-fixe menu, followed by the more casual, pork-centric The Fat Ham, also in Philly.
Kevin’s launching a new restaurant, Sbraga & Company, in – of all places – Jacksonville, Florida, on November 14. We caught up with Kevin by phone during our hiatus late this summer to talk about how this project came together and how he plans to keep his growing collection of restaurants functioning up to his standards.
How in the world did you end up in Florida?
A group of developers were out scouting chefs from all over the country, and they happened to make a pit stop in Philadelphia, where I got to meet them. I showed them around Philadelphia and cooked for them at Sbraga and Fat Ham. About a month later, I got an invitation to come down to Florida. This was April 2014.
I kind of fell in love with them. They’re not operators at all. They have nothing to do with operations. They are developers. They develop mixed-use properties. They said, “We have this space and we want a national chef.” Pretty much the way the deal was brought to me was that they’d build it but I’d manage it. It’d be my restaurant, my design, my team.
This brings up an interesting point. A lot of customers don’t realize that when you see a chef is opening a restaurant in so-and-so city, the chef’s commitment is actually pretty minimal. A lot of the time, they’re actually consulting, or there’s a management contract, but it’s not particularly hands-on. And, a lot of the time, that shows in the product. It sounds like you very purposefully did not want that to be the case.
That’s very accurate. You open one restaurant, then another that’s even bigger. Then you go national and that’s huge. At each step, you lose some control and you have to be okay with that, and other things you can’t be okay with. These guys were such great partners because they said, “We don’t want to operate it; you operate it.” That’s it. It gives us a sense of control and allows us to control everything. It happened to work out that everybody was on the same page.”
What’s your personal connection to Florida?
I lived in Florida for three years: I was in Naples from 2000 to 2003, working at the Ritz-Carlton. I went to Johnson & Wales [culinary school] in North Miami. Ever since, I’ve gone to Florida at least once a year, whether to Miami or the West Coast. I love Florida. It’s just awesome to be able to go back.
What about Jacksonville in particular speaks to you?
The thing that was intriguing about Jacksonville is that it was more “Southern” than “Florida” in terms of style and culture. It gave us an opportunity to cook in the South and study the ingredients and study the culture. The scene is up and coming and exciting. I knew it made sense and knew it clicked when I went to have coffee the first morning I was there. Not only was the coffee good and well-crafted but the place was making all their own pastries. I felt that what they were doing there could work in Philly, New York, Portland, Miami. It’s a city that’s looking for more. There are a few chefs at the forefront, helping to raise the stakes there, and they’d also fit in [in those other places].
Are you at all concerned about being perceived as a carpetbagger, or coming off as a Northeasterner with a superiority complex?
Absolutely. But it’s not in my culture to be like that. It’s important to me that other people know that’s not the case. From my first visit, I was inspired by the city, by the culture of the city, by the history, by the people and what’s going on there. It may not be a food scene that everybody’s talking about yet, but that’s how food evolves. We’re just doing our thing and adding to what’s already going on down there.
What’s your process like? How’s this going to work?
I have a director of hospitality, Ben Fileccia, who’s very involved. And another guy named and Greg Garbacz, who was the opening sous chef since day one at Sbraga. I remember talking to them about Jacksonville and them saying “What are you talking about?” But when they got down there, they got it. The next morning we went to the farmer’s market. They saw peas being shucked. They saw boiled peanuts, the best I ever had. They saw a ton of watermelon and tomatoes. That’s where the concept was born. It was born right there.
How big is the space?
It’s about 175 seats, plus two private dining rooms. There’s an office building near us. It’s a great place for somebody who wants to have a celebration.
And the range of food?
About eighty-percent of the menu is small plates, snacks, a lot of vegetables, some fruit, salads, a raw bar. The other twenty-percent is larger items. It’s a return to the dinner table, meaning people sit down, share food, break bread, discuss life, and have a good time. It’s not where you go and order an entrée and keep everything to yourself.
Do you think that’s where food is headed?
It would be easy to say yes. But I don’t think everything is headed that way. We do that at The Fat Ham but not at Sbraga, where it’s a four-course prix fixe menu, not meant to share. I don’t think every restaurant can be that way. Each restaurant has to be different. In Jacksonville, I didn’t see a lot of that. How cool would it be to return to the supper table? How cool to have a bread board hit the table, radishes, and sea salt and four people dig in and just join in that?
Does that come from a specific memory of yours?
It does. I didn’t realize it at the time. But from age 13 to 18, I lived with my dad, and at my dad’s we had dinner every night. We had supper. There were two or three vegetables and a protein and a salad and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to recreate here.
How are you going to make this work and stay hands-on from your home base up north?
I have a team down there. Right now there are three people from Philly, one is there permanently; one temporarily. I have my whole management team going down periodically. For the opening, we’ll all be there. We’ll probably be there for three months straight to get it up and running, then try to find a little more balance. It’s only a two-hour flight so it’s not too bad. If I opened something in Connecticut, it would be actually be harder to get to it, or even to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for that matter.
Did you have any good road trips during the development of Sbraga & Company?
Yeah, I took my kids down there [in late July], with my dad and my stepmom. We went and hung out. I moved a few people down around the same time and stopped in Columbia, Charleston, Savannah. What was exciting about it was actually driving. We stopped at Anson Mills in Columbia, and that was exciting. One of the places we found amazing was a place called The Grey in Savannah. We thought we were discovering it but then found the New York Times had already written about it! It was very cool.