Reality TV Chef Offers Tips On Multicultural Cooking

Many American families who will be gathering to share holiday meals this week, are multicultural. So, in order to keep everyone happy, what should the table look like? Chef Kevin Sbraga is the latest winner of the hit show, TOP CHEF, DC, on the Bravo network, and is, himself, a member of a multicultural family. He gives host Michel Martin some suggestions for multi-ethnic dishes that are sure to please a variety of palettes.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, let's turn to the holidays and everybody's favorite part of them: the meals. We were looking around our office and realizing that many folks will be sitting down to holiday meals - and they already have - with relatives and friends who may be from very different cultural backgrounds. So instead of turkey and mashed potatoes they might be used to, talking into homemade pasta, maybe tamales, maybe sauerkraut and pigtails. And all that variety could make for a very nice multicultural mix, or maybe a big, fat mess.

So, we wanted to ask, what is the answer to keeping everybody at the table happy over the holiday season? And who better to school us on meals for culturally diverse families than Chef Kevin Sbraga. He's the latest winner of the hit show "Top Chef D.C." That's on the Bravo network. He is also a member of a multicultural family, and he's with us once again. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. KEVIN SBRAGA (Winner, "Top Chef D.C."): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Kevin, you were telling us when we last spoke after your big win on "Top Chef." Congratulations once again.

Mr. SBRAGA: Thank you.

MARTIN: That your mom is Italian-American and your dad is African-American. So you grew up with a mix. Did they have to do any negotiating around holiday meals?

Mr. SBRAGA: Well, both of my parents are separated. And what was interesting is, we would have an Italian-American meal earlier in the day and then an African-American meal later in the day.

MARTIN: Well, that doesn't work for everybody and everybody might not want to have two different meals. So, what would you recommend? Just put everything on the table that everybody wants to eat? Or do you think that there's a better way to maybe make it a little bit more coherent?

Mr. SBRAGA: Well, first, there's no pleasing everyone. All you can do is try your best. Second, is, yeah, to put as much out there as possible. Put a little bit of pasta. Put a little collard greens out there. Put some rice and beans out there. I mean, my wife comes from a Hispanic background. They're from Puerto Rico. And when I cook, we have a little bit of everything.

MARTIN: Well, let's say the table space is limited. Or let's say that finances are a little limited and you don't feel you can afford to do everything that everybody might like to see. What do you think is the best way to go about deciding what's really important and what isn't?

Mr. SBRAGA: Well, I think there's always a few standout dishes. You know, for me, with my mom, it was her salad. Very, very simple, but, you know, olive oil and vinegar, and that was great. So, that for me had to be on there. And maybe a pasta dish. And, you know, with my dad and his background, the starches and the vegetables, whether it was the cabbage or the collard greens or the mac and cheese. So I felt like that needed to be there.

And then we have my wife's component. And they do a roast pork at Christmastime called pernil, and that has to be there. That's a must. I mean that thing is amazing. So I guess basically what you have to is pick and choose your favorites.

MARTIN: Do you ever alternate? Do you ever say, OK, roast pork this year and then next year something else?

Mr. SBRAGA: Absolutely. We've done that multiple times. Even the way that we prepare turkey at, you know, let's say Thanksgiving is different. You know, there's a more traditional American way. And then the way her family does it is completely different. When we have it at home, we flipped and flopped. And one year we had it one way and one year we had it the next. I mean it's how we worked it out.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about preparing a multicultural holiday meal that pleases everybody, or at least, as most people as you can please. As chef. Kevin Sbraga tells us you cannot please everybody. He is season seven winner of the reality show contest "Top Chef D.C." on the Bravo network. And he's telling us how to put together a multicultural meal that can please just about everybody. So, now you've whetted my appetite, as you would imagine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What are the two different turkey preparations that you were telling us about? There's a traditional turkey recipe that I think a lot of us know. What's the one that you were saying that your wife's side of the family, who's from Puerto Rico prepares that you have to have sometimes? And throw that roast pork in there, too, while you're at it.

Mr. SBRAGA: Absolutely. So, my mother-in-law, Loitta(ph), she takes the turkey and she pokes holes in it with a knife and she studs it or stuffs it with little pieces of garlic and little pieces of salt pork. So the turkey breast picks up that saltiness and that porky-ness and the garlic. And she cooks it in the oven bag and slowly cooks it for probably about six hours altogether. So when the turkey comes out, it doesn't come out whole and beautiful like you would expect. It comes out more like shredded meat.

A lot of times there's something called confit in French, which is slowly poached in its own fat. It's, you know, you do that with pork or duck. So it kind of takes on that pulled pork or pulled meat type of resemblance that's absolutely amazing. Then of course you have the traditional turkey that's just kind of roasted in the oven and maybe brine it before or marinate it before.

And then there's the roast pork. And they marinate that in something called sofrito and not everyone does it, but, you know, some of them do. And sofrito is like garlic and herbs and peppers all rubbed in there. Then they season that and then slowly roast that until that's falling apart as well.

MARTIN: That sounds really good. Now, what sides do you feel are a must? What has to be on your table?

Mr. SBRAGA: There's got to be yams. That's a must. That's like the first thing that has to be there. The second thing is mac and cheese. I think that's a must for me. Third is some type of stuffing. I enjoy a pasta salad or a potato salad or just a regular salad. I think that kind of cleanses the palate and that needs to be there as well. You know, there could be rice and beans, there could be the collard greens, the cabbage. Also, there has to be cranberry sauce, whether it's Thanksgiving or Christmas, I need cranberry sauce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK, that sounds very every man, and here you are, you're a trained chef. You've been to culinary school and you're still eating the food that all of us eat. I'm kind of intrigued by that. You don't ever try to show off and throw some, I don't know, you just threw the confit thing in there for me. But do you throw anything in there to show off?

Mr. SBRAGA: No, showing off is for work. That's not for home. Home is, you know, I know how to turn the chef on and off in me. And when I'm at home I like to enjoy the family and enjoy other people's cooking and just be a regular person and enjoy the food and the company. When I'm at work, that's when I turn the fanciness on.

MARTIN: OK, let's look ahead to New Year's Day. There are certain dishes that a lot of people are used to having. I know in the African-American tradition the black eyed peas have to be there. The collard greens have to be there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For a lot of people, pig's feet, but - some people, it's chitlins. But, I'm sorry, that's a step too far for some of us.

Mr. SBRAGA: Oh, yeah. I can't do it.

MARTIN: You can't do it either?

Mr. SBRAGA: No.

MARTIN: Thank you. But New Year's Day, looking ahead, what do you think has to be there?

Mr. SBRAGA: The black eyed peas. That's, you know, as soon as you said that, I was thinking of my dad and honestly, he's the only one that eats them, but they have to be there every year. You know, it's just part of it. It has to be there.

MARTIN: So, what's your word of wisdom for kind of bringing the traditions together?

Mr. SBRAGA: Enjoy it. Embrace it. There's no set rules. Especially nowadays, so many people are multicultural. Sit down, enjoy the food. Yeah, it's not like mom or maybe it's not like dad, but sit down and enjoy it. Embrace it. Embrace the other cultures and just have a good time with it.

MARTIN: Top Chef Kevin Sbraga is the winner of the latest season of the reality show "Top Chef D.C." on the Bravo network. He was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much and happy holidays to you.

Mr. SBRAGA: Thank you, and you as well.

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