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.”…