Chefs compete for Sbraga-ing rights

PHOTOS: JAD SLEIMAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER And the winner: Kevin Sbraga (center) honors Garbacz, as Rouleau licks his wounds . . . and fingers.
PHOTOS: JAD SLEIMAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER And the winner: Kevin Sbraga (center) honors Garbacz, as Rouleau licks his wounds . . . and fingers. (JAD SLEIMAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: March 22, 2013

BANANA bread. Gumbo. Hot browns. Shellfish. Rice. Citrus.

No, this isn't a rundown of a culinarily gifted fraternity's refrigerator contents. It's just a few of the ingredients and dishes that have inspired intra-staff cooking duels at Sbraga, where chef-sanctioned battles keep the minds as sharp as the knives.

Kevin Sbraga, who opened at Broad and Pine in late 2011, knows about creating on the fly. He won season seven of Bravo's "Top Chef" by adapting to every bizarre challenge thrown his way, from developing a plate inspired by the phrase "bring home the bacon" to crafting a dish that could be eaten by astronauts in zero gravity (seriously).

The preshift faceoffs at his prix-fixe restaurant - funded in part with his contest winnings - aren't quite so ridiculous, but they're every bit as competitive.

"It's Sbragadome," joked chef de cuisine Jose Adorno. "Two cooks enter, one cook leaves."

The whole thing started with a dispute over a name. Last spring, Adorno hired an intern from Johnson & Wales University named Ruben to work the garde-manger station. Soon after, a second employee, also named Ruben, came on board.

"Jose said we can't have two guys named Ruben in the kitchen, because it would be too confusing," said Sbraga general manager Ben Fileccia, who's competed twice and is still looking for his first W. "So we decided to have a battle between the two of them. Whoever lost would have to go by his middle name."

The theme: What else? Reuben sandwiches.

Ruben No. 1 put together a traditional take on the deli staple, making his own dressing and sauerkraut and toasting his bread in bacon fat. Ruben No. 2 took all the sandwich's elements and stuffed them inside an empanada.

Although Adorno thought No. 2 "killed it on originality," No. 1 captured the hearts of the judges' panel, which also paid mind to taste, presentation and execution.

"By the end of the battle," said Fileccia, "we had a Ruben and we had an Esteban."

Although neither cook still works at Sbraga, the energy of the competition stuck. "We try to make people chefs, and not cooks," said Adorno, who, with Sbraga, oversees a line of 10 or more cooks on his busiest nights. "So I said, 'Let's just start a series to keep the juices flowing, to keep the creativity high.' "

Gumbo ice cream

Although there were no hefty gauntlets to toss on the dining-room floor, Sbraga staffers began employing the medieval-challenge system. A chat about the Kentucky Derby inspired a battle of hot browns - an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce - between Fileccia and line cook Michael Rouleau. (Rouleau won.)

Front-of-houser Colin Cook called out Adorno's gumbo game, to which the chef responded with a quartet of tastes: traditional gumbo, a salad with a gumbo vinaigrette, a crawfish lobster roll and gumbo ice cream, made by infusing shrimp, sausage and vegetables into heavy cream.

"Never in my life would I have come up with gumbo ice cream had there not been [these] challenges," said Adorno.

"How do you compete with gumbo ice cream, for crying out loud?" lamented Cook, who lost. "What sucked even more was that it was actually good."

Soon, so many staffers wanted in on battles that Sbraga began formalizing the proceedings, drawing up a freewheeling, March Madness-style tournament that considers both winners and "wild cards."

Their most recent competition, which went down last Thursday, pitted Rouleau against sous chef Greg Garbacz with the theme ingredient of olives.

Olive all

Heads down, Rouleau and Garbacz took the challenge seriously, putting together beautiful-looking dishes that wouldn't seem out of place on Sbraga's dinner menu.

Inspired by a high-school job working at a tuxedo-alteration shop where his old-school Italian boss munched on pistachios and olives all day, Rouleau brined delicate pollock in arbequina olive juice, then poached the white fish in olive oil to serve over homemade "almost-hummus" and a pistachio sauce.

Inspired by a classic Nicoise salad, Garbacz olive-oil-poached high-grade ahi tuna, tossed a tuna tartare in olive dressing and worked the theme ingredient onto his pretty plate in other ways (black-olive puree; dehydrated olive powder; olive deviled egg).

The judges (Sbraga, Fileccia, Adorno and myself) tabulated each dish's score on a scale of 40. Garbacz came out on top, earning the distinction of having his chef-coated arm raised by Sbraga like a proud prize fighter.

Then it was back to work.

"The cooks, we don't necessarily get to show off what we can do. That's one of the things I like about it," Rouleau said of himself and his fellow line jockeys, often so locked into everyday tasks that they don't have a chance to stretch their legs.

Although Sbraga compliments his current kitchen staff as the best team of cooks he's worked with, he still wants them to improve. "They could push each other more," he said. "Competition breeds excellence."

Seeing them sweat

Sbraga's time on "Top Chef" helps him identify with his gladiatoring employees, although he's yet to step into the arena himself. "I see them sweating, thinking, getting a little nervous," he said. "It sucks. You're exposing yourself to judgment by your colleagues, your peers. That's tough. It takes a lot of balls."

According to the bracketology, Garbacz and Adorno will compete against a third contender who wins a semifinal going down in two weeks (theme ingredient: coffee). There's no cash purse, tall trophy or sparkly belt awaiting the eventual victor, but the benefits of these head-to-head diversions spread beyond the winner's circle.

"When we do these battles, we're not holding back. If somebody's at one level," explained Garbacz, holding his hand high above his head, "everybody should be at that level. This shows everyone where that level is - where they need to be."

Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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