For Willingboro's Kevin Sbraga, a dizzying road to winning 'Top Chef'

Kevin Sbraga watches himself on the finale of "Top Chef." Of the win, he said: "First and foremost, it will help me get my own restaurant, which is what I've always wanted to do. That was the major reason I went on the show."
Kevin Sbraga watches himself on the finale of "Top Chef." Of the win, he said: "First and foremost, it will help me get my own restaurant, which is what I've always wanted to do. That was the major reason I went on the show."
Posted: September 17, 2010

Early mornings are nothing new to a baker's son.

As Thursday dawned, chef Kevin Sbraga faced not a hot oven but a media scrum:

A dozen media outlets on the line, a photo session for Food & Wine magazine, and promotional videos to be shot for Bravo, the cable network.

Wednesday night, Sbraga - who lives with his wife and kids in his childhood home in Willingboro - was announced as the winner of the seventh season of Top Chef after outlasting 16 competitors in the weekly series of cooking challenges.

The prize includes $125,000, a magazine spread, and a showcase at the magazine's annual festival in Aspen, Colo.

The win has a twofold benefit. "First and foremost, it will help me get my own restaurant, which is what I've always wanted to do," said Sbraga, 31. "That was the major reason I went on the show."

Second, it will elevate his profile, nationally and locally. During the six years he has cooked steadily in the region, Sbraga has collected a dizzying list of entries on his resume and a reputation as a chef's chef - a steady hand in the kitchen.

Household name? Not so.

"Intensely creative, very focused, all about the food" is how Bradlee Bartram, vice president of operations for Starr Restaurants, describes him. Sbraga is ending a term as executive chef at the Starr-managed Rat's restaurant in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

Food dominated his childhood, and the focus was Harvey's Bakery, owned by his parents, Harvey Beachem and Maria Sbraga, with locations in Pennsauken and Willingboro.

"When other kids were watching cartoons on Saturday morning, I had to go to work with them," said the chef. He uses the surname of his Italian American mother; his father is African American, and Sbraga notes he is the first African American Top Chef.

Sbraga said the PBS cooking shows of Graham Kerr had inspired him to take culinary arts in high school at the Burlington County Institute of Technology, where "I was a clown but was always passionate about food. The first year, I almost got kicked out doing dumb stuff."

But it was there that he won his first cooking competition.

And where he met Jesmary Santiago, his wife of eight years and a pastry chef. They have a daughter, Jenae, 5, and a son, Kevin Angelo ("Angelo"), who is 3 weeks old.

After high school, Sbraga left for Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., and in his second year did an externship in Brussels, Belgium.

"Everything was in French," he said. "Total culture shock."

He came home, transferred to Drexel University, and got a cooking job at a hotel. That lasted six months.

Determined to cook seriously, he enrolled at Johnson and Wales' campus in Miami. Five days a week, he commuted 125 miles each way across Florida to work at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Naples. Sbraga is the third Top Chef winner - after Hung Huynh and Michael Voltaggio - to have worked there.

When Jesmary was offered a pastry job at Joel Antunes, a high-end restaurant in Atlanta, he took a chef's job with Buckhead Life Restaurant Group at its Pano's & Paul's restaurant.

Shortly after, his mother got sick. Before she died in summer 2004, the couple returned to Willingboro, working for Georges Perrier - Jesmary as pastry chef at Brasserie Perrier and Kevin as sous chef at what was then Le Mas in Wayne.

"That wasn't my cup of soup," he said.

Perrier, though, became such a friend that he trained Sbraga for Bocuse d'Or, the prestigious culinary competition, two years ago.

Sbraga's path then became a hopscotch: a short stay at Washington Square with Starr, 21/2 solid years at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, a moment at Le Jardin, and a role as culinary director of Jose Garces' operation. Sbraga was laid off during the economic downturn before he landed as a consultant at Union Trust steak house.

That puts us at March 2009, when Sbraga attended a Top Chef casting call at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue.

He went through numerous interviews before shooting started in Washington last spring. In the meantime, Sbraga had joined Starr at Rat's and awaited Wednesday's finale, while his wife, who teaches at their high school alma mater, awaited Angelo's birth.

"The show was a very humbling experience," Sbraga said. "It taught me to become a better chef, to dig deep. I was playing it safe for a very long time. I'm not scared anymore."


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at mklein@phillynews.com.

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