Looking back, celebrity chef Kevin Sbraga said his first clue that a career in the kitchen was in his cards may have been he favored cooking shows over cartoons as an adolescent.
He also preferred hanging out at his father’s Willingboro, N.J., bakery over playing ball with his friends.
His culinary epiphany, though, came in seventh-grade, when Sbraga and a classmate put together a restaurant plan for a school assignment.
“I really got into the project,” he said this week. “So much so that I guess you could say that I’ve always known I would do this.”
The 2010 winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef D.C.” and owner of two Philadelphia eateries is venturing South.
Sbraga & Company is scheduled to open Nov. 14 above Unity Plaza at 220 Riverside, the upscale apartment community in Brooklyn buoyed by retail stores and restaurants.
The owners of Downtown’s Candy Apple Café & Cocktails are planning to open another eatery, HOBNOB, in the coming months next door to Sbraga’s restaurant.
“What’s happening here in this neighborhood, the mixed-use approach, reminds me a lot of what’s happening in Philadelphia and other cities,” said Sbraga, who lives on-site in an apartment.
“Within the next year or two, as things continue to develop here, there really will be no reason to leave here. Everything’s within walking distance,” he said.
Being recruited to Jacksonville
Sbraga & Company is intended to be a reflection of the owner’s passion for serving creative cuisine and ensuring everyone around him is comfortable.
“I want people to be able to come, have a good time, share food, share conversation and be treated well,” Sbraga said.
That’s the case with all of Sbraga’s ventures, said Ben Fileccia, Sbraga Dining Group’s director of operations.
But the Jacksonville eatery will particularly embrace inclusiveness with menu items meant to be shared and an open design featuring communal tables and interactive customer-chef experiences.
Sbraga has Northeast Florida roots — his paternal grandmother lived in Jacksonville until she was a teenager.
Still, he never visited Jacksonville until being drawn to the area by Kenny Gilbert, a fellow “Top Chef” contestant and Fernandina Beach restaurateur.
Sbraga was recruited to become a 220 Riverside tenant by NAI Hallmark Partners principals Jeff Conn and Alex Coley.
“I didn’t choose Brooklyn, Brooklyn chose me. And, I’m blessed to have this opportunity,” he said.
Sbraga and his team describe the new venture’s menu as a contemporary approach to sharing Northeast Florida’s cultural influences.
With a waterfront view and locally sourced elements such as reclaimed wood, the interior deliberately has a relaxed ambiance.
A wood fire grill is showcased in the eatery, a raw bar is the place’s centerpiece and nothing is cooked outside of the customers’ view.
In the background, diners will hear Sbraga’s hand-picked sounds of rhythm and blues and soul, along with a smidgeon of bluegrass and Southern rock.
“The design encourages a communal feeling of bringing people together — especially people who may be from different backgrounds,” said Esha Dev, Sbraga’s communications director.
Sbraga said he’s spent much of the last six months selecting regionally sourced seafood, meat, vegetables and grains, an endeavor he described as an awakening.
“The ingredients are different here — delightfully different,” he said. “I want to put the focus back on the crops.”
Among his regional finds: Rice from Congaree and Penn Farm & Mills in Jacksonville; olive oil from Georgia Olive Farms in Lakeland; and local shrimp, which Sbraga said will be presented as raw bar, central ingredients and main menu items.
“The shrimp coming off the coast here are so sweet and they are so fresh, that they really make you think about what shrimp is supposed to taste like,” he said.
Learning to succeed from failure
The Jacksonville restaurant will be Sbraga’s fourth. He opened his flagship eatery, the upscale Sbraga, with the aid of his $125,000 “Top Chef” prize. In 2012, it was selected as an Esquire magazine “Best New Restaurant.”
A sister restaurant, the Southern-themed The Fat Ham, opened in 2013. A third venture, 1980s-themed Juniper Commons, closed about six months after its December 2014 opening.
Sbraga said he’s benefited from the Juniper Commons experience by learning to put more value on training and attention to detail.
Still, the restaurant’s failure “was a tough pill to swallow,” he said, before pointing to a group of about 25 trainees taking a written test on the restaurant’s menu items and their ingredients.
“They’re given a food guide to study so that they know what they are serving,” Sbraga said. “That’s the level of detail of training that I think also makes us different today.”
Sbraga studied culinary arts at vocational high school and at Johnson & Wales University in Miami. He also studied abroad in Brussels, Belgium.
By 2007, he was winning culinary awards in Philadelphia. The next year, he became culinary director for the company operated by internationally acclaimed chef Jose Garces, a winner of the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” competition.
The father of a 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, Sbraga is becoming accustomed to living part-time in Jacksonville and Philadelphia.
“This absolutely is the most exciting time of my life and one of the biggest challenges of my life,” he said. “Opening two restaurants, then opening a third and closing it, and now getting the fourth one up and open and doing it right — that’s something that I’ve had to think about every single day for the last six months.”
That’s where hiring the right people comes into play, he said, before raving about General Manager Pete Lattanzio and pastry chef Erika Weisflog.
“The thing that’s often overlooked (in articles featuring Sbraga) is the team around me,” he said. “I surround myself with a great team.”
Sbraga said he picks managers and other employees based more on their attitude and sincerity than their resume.
“We can teach someone how to cook and we can teach someone how to serve, but hospitality is innate,” he said. “It’s not something you teach. … You either want to take care of people or you don’t … and those who do are the type of people I look for.”