“Top Chef” Winner Speaks

When I caught up by phone with Kevin Sbraga, executive chef at Rat’s restaurant in Hamilton, 36 hours had elapsed since he was crowned the winner of this season’s Top Chef. Since then, he admitted, “It’s been pretty crazy. There really are no words to explain it..."

"Even though you know for months in advance that it’s coming, you can’t be prepared for all the attention, all the celebration. When someone you’ve never met comes up to you and says, ‘I’m so happy for you; I feel like I know you…’ that’s pretty powerful. And to see your family in tears, it’s all great.”

After the decision was announced on Wednesday night’s show, Sbraga jubilantly exclaimed, “Jersey’s taking that belt home!” But he also said, “I feel everything right now – happy, sad…very emotional.”

Sad, he explains to me, “for my fellow competitors who didn’t win. You become so close to them [over the course of the competition], you feel bad for them. Also, you’re sad that your family can’t be there at that moment to celebrate with you. And most important, I was sad that my mom couldn’t be here to see that.”

Sbraga’s mother died in 2004, shortly after he and his wife, Jesmary, moved back to Sbraga’s hometown of Willingsboro to be with his ailing mother and his family. He and Jesmary still live in his childhood home with their daughter Jenae, five, and newborn son, Kevin Angelo, who is exactly three weeks old.

Asked if he, Sbraga, is getting much sleep these days, he laughs and says, “I’m in New York right now, so last night I slept great!” Jesmary, a pastry chef who teaches at her and her husband’s alma mater high school, Burlington County Institute of Technology, is taking time off at home reveling, he says, in the new baby and her husband’s newfound fame.

He seems truly grateful when he says, “Since all of this is happening at the same time, it makes things so much easier on me that she’s home.”

It turns out that Jesmary had a strong hand in the dessert that many regular followers of Top Chef think may have given Sbraga the edge in the final challenge, in which the three remaining chefs each prepared a four course meal.

Sbraga made what he calls “a reimagined Singapore sling.” Since the finals took place in Singapore, this seemed an inspired choice. “About 99% of it was planned in advance of the finals,” he says. “The coconut panna cotta part came from a soup my wife makes, but I used gelatin. She also makes poached pineapple. I poached about ten different tropical fruits I found in Singapore. At Rat’s, the bartender and I had been working on Singapore slings for a while. We finally settled on one, and I froze it for the dessert. Now, at Rat’s we have Grenadine and pineapple juice to use. We didn’t have these in Singapore, but it turned out even better.” Sbraga says the dessert just may show up at “the new place.”

Kevin Sbraga will be leaving his position at Rat’s on September 26. He intends to open his own restaurant, hopefully, he told me, by next spring.

But it will likely be in Philadelphia, not New Jersey. “I looked in New Jersey, but restaurants are a lot more expensive to open here. For one thing, the liquor licenses are so expensive. And I have more experience in the Philly market. I’ve only worked in New Jersey for the last fourteen months. I know the Philly market much better.”

Sbraga came onboard Rat’s in July 2009 as a member of the Stephen Starr organization, which took over management of all the food outlets at Grounds for Sculpture, including Rat’s. Before signing on with Starr, he had worked for two other Philly luminaries, Jose Garces and Georges Perrier.

But the location of the new restaurant is still up in the air. “If the right opportunity comes along in New Jersey, and if we can put together the funding and find the right spot….,” he says, adding the understatement, “…my options are pretty open right now. It’s important to be with the right backer. A lot of people are willing to back me, but we have to be on the same page. This won’t be a restaurant where there’s got to be a 25% bottom line [profit]. It won’t be big production, like a Cheesecake Factory.”

He continues to talk about the new restaurant in the present tense. “The concept is that it’s small, high-end dining. Only twenty to 40 seats. Intimate – not a food factory! Right now we’re getting into the details: selecting coffee, teas, awesome breads. The menu changes often, perhaps every day. The food is not American, not French, not any one thing. All kinds of global influences.”

He is aware of the potential risks associated with being named Top Chef. “It’s imperative that we get it right the first time. I knew going in – all 17 of us competitors knew – that going on television would raise expectations. After the first episode aired, expectations on all of us doubled overnight. I want to be able to deliver. I have to deliver.”

No matter what transpires, though, Sbraga swears he will always be a Jersey boy. “My wife and I have been house hunting for about a year now. We just haven’t found the right place yet. But I plan on still living in New Jersey. I will always reside here.”

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