Top Chef champion Kevin Sbraga just celebrated five months at his eponymous restaurant on Broad Street in a location everyone told him to avoid. Eater sits down with the former reality show champ to discuss the secret to his success where others have failed, which Top Cheffers aren't cut out to be everyday cooks, and if being a big personality is more important on TV than being a winner.
Before you ended up here at Broad and Pine Streets, what other locations did you scope out for your restaurant?
Actually I had a couple spots I almost took that didn't work out right. I was in first where Percy Street BBQ is now on South Street, and I actually had a deal in place on 12th and Spruce where Odd Fellows Cafe is. Oh, and the Farm and Fisherman at 11th and Pine Streets. But, I made the right choice here.
All of those places have pretty good mojo. How did you end up here where so many people have failed, and in the case of Chu Man Chew, in just over six months? Chefs are known to be superstitious. That took some balls.
Well, people see Broad Street as this place littered with chain restaurants, so it gets a bad rap. There was only one person in Philly that suggested I take this place. But, everyone else thought I was crazy. Other chefs, even my representation. They all said don't do it.
So why did you do it then?
It has easy access to all public transportation, and if you're coming in from out of town, it has parking and is a quicker ride. I thought about who my customers would be, and a lot of them were Top Chef fans who would either be driving in from the suburbs, or coming through town on vacation or a day trip. Picking this spot was calculated. It made a lot of sense. Also, I figured if I make it here, it might inspire other people to see this location as suitable for small chef-owned restaurants. I would love to be a trailblazer.
Do you think you made the right choice?
I absolutely did. I am doing very well, and we're seeing a lot of return customers, which is what really makes you a success. If you just have the rubberneckers who come in once to see the TV guy, that's going to burn out quickly. Broad and Pine is easily accessible for locals, too. It's just that the Philly foodies need to get over the stigma attached to the location. And I think they are.
Is the bulk of your customers still Top Chef fans or has that died out?
I don't think it's died out, but most of my customers are locals. The people who live upstairs in the building, the folks who had an amazing meal, and want to experience it again. I'm very happy with the mix. But, yes, of course the TV fans are still coming in, too.
You didn't jump right into the restaurant after you won. It seemed you traveled a bit and did some local dinners here in Philly. Was it a smart move to do that?
Obviously you have to strike while the iron is hot. And, for Top Chef if you win, you have to do certain appearances afterwards. But, you need to make sure you open sooner than later. Honestly, if a couple of those deals didn't fall through I would have opened sooner, too.
Cheftestants who didn't win Top Chef but were huge characters seem to have a lot more Twitter followers and fans than you do.Angelo Sosa, Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, and even locally, Jen Carroll, seem to have a lot more opportunities than you did to make more money. Is it better to be a character than a winner on the show?
That's a tough question. I think it depends on what you want out of the show. Look at someone like Harold (Dieterle), who won season 1. He is most definitely known for his restaurants Kin Shop and Perilla than he is for being on the show. I wanted to open a restaurant. Other people want to be famous. You don't see a lot doing both on the show. I think those of us who are restaurateur focused will be able to stretch out the success longer, though.
So can you give me an example of anyone who wanted to be famous more than to be a restaurant owner?
(laughing) Well, there's no way someone like Angelo can work the line every day and be happy. He can do it, and would be a success. But, he likes the consulting he does, the brand he has, and what he has become. He probably wouldn't ever want to just go back to one restaurant and cook six nights a week. Ultimately my goal is to be the Sbraga Restaurant Group. Not Kevin from Top Chef.
How has Top Chef changed? Early on, before it was a hit, there seemed to be very chef-driven challenges, and the audience was more engaged. This season, they were in Texas, and in a late season challenge, they had to ride bikes and be judged by the expert palate of Pee-Wee Herman. Does that really lower the value of being on the show as a chef instead of a character?
There were some really ridiculous challenges when I was on that were more frustrating than problem-solving. And, it does manufacture tight deadlines and drama that wouldn't occur in a real kitchen. I will say that after I got off the show, I didn't stress as much about stuff. If I have an event coming up like 60 miles away, I know I can come up with something on the fly and it'll be great. Before, I would need to see the space and probably over think it. So, there were some things I took away that helped me more than just winning the show.
So, Top Chef was the right choice?
Absolutely, I wouldn't trade that opportunity for anything.
Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan gave you a lukewarm critique that took jabs at your time on the small screen. In his review, he says "winning a game show and getting an upscale new restaurant up to speed are separate skill sets," "Where is a remote control when I need it?" and "someday soon, the Sbraga show, with a little more rehearsal, still has a chance to become as good as it appeared on TV." Do you feel that your review, which ended with two bells and read like a three bell review, was dropped a bell because of your celebrity?
His feelings about the show were obvious, and I agreed with some things he said and didn't agree with others. Was I happy with the review? No, of course not. I don't think any chef ever is. But, was it fair? Yeah, overall I think it was fair.
What's next for you, chef?
For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I have no idea. Obviously, I am focusing on my restaurant 24/7. But, the next thing? Who knows. Maybe a restaurant in NYC. Maybe Miami. I really can't tell you.