Black Chef Marks A First For Reality TV

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Kevin Sbraga has become the first African-American (and he is part Italian, too) winner of the reality TV show "Top Chef" — earning $125,000 and a spread in Food & Wine magazine. Host Michel Martin talks with Sbraga, who beat 16 competitors, about what he learned learned and what influences his cooking philosophy.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

He calls himself the Barack Obama of the cooking game, and here's what a competitive cooking reality show called Kevin Sbraga in its last episode.

(Soundbite of television program, "Top Chef")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PADMA LAKSHMMI (Host, "Top Chef"): Kevin, you are Top Chef.

Mr. KEVIN SBRAGA: I am?

Ms. LAKSHMI: You are.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Kevin Sbraga is the latest Top Chef. He came out the winner in Bravo's seven-year-old program. He joins us now from Philadelphia to give us a taste of his journey through the culinary arts, which not surprisingly started in his childhood. Welcome, and congratulations. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. SBRAGA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what does it mean to be top chef?

Mr. SBRAGA: I'm still trying to figure it out, what it exactly means. No matter how much you try to prepare for it, it's something that you can't prepare for. It's something that you've got to take in every day and try and live up to that expectation and understand it.

MARTIN: Where did the Barack-Obama-of-the-cooking-game idea come from?

Mr. SBRAGA: You know, six years ago, not too many people knew who Barack Obama was. And two years ago, he came and became president. And, you know, that's who I felt I was. I was someone that no one knew too much about, and I was just going to keep pushing forward, and as the weeks went by and the season went by, I got stronger and stronger. And in the end, I pulled out a victory.

MARTIN: We were talking about this a little earlier. So I figured we might let everybody else in on it, too. Is ethnicity part of the Barack Obama identification?

Mr. SBRAGA: Not really, although I am half African-American and half Italian-American. But that really wasn't what I was aiming for. It was more about, you know, the fact, the adversity that he overcame and how hard he worked towards it.

MARTIN: The underdog makes good.

Mr. SBRAGA: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: Comes out on top, as it were.

Mr. SBRAGA: Yes.

MARTIN: And where does Sbraga come from? What's the ethnic origin of Sbraga?

Mr. SBRAGA: Sbraga's an Italian name. It originally comes from the area of Rome.

MARTIN: Does it translate any way into English? It's a yummy name. It makes me think of, like, a good sausage or something. It sounds like a good name for a chef.

Mr. SBRAGA: It's a great name for a chef and a great name for a restaurant, as well. I'm not sure that it translates to anything as of yet, but give me five years. It may translate to something very big.

MARTIN: All right, Sbraga's, yummy. Okay.

Mr. SBRAGA: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: Well, here's a little bit of the show from the challenge at a Major League Baseball game in Washington, D.C. You know, one of the other contestants called you the bad boy of "Top Chef." I'm not sure but here's a little bit of a flavor.

(Soundbite of television program, "Top Chef")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: We are going to the Nationals baseball game and going to run our own concession stand.

Mr. SBRAGA: There's no way we can all do six orders and put the food up.

Mr. ANGELO SOSA: Chill out, please. Chill out.

Mr. SBRAGA: No, I don't have to chill.

Mr. SOSA: All right, go (bleep). You're the bad boy on the show.

Mr. SBRAGA: I'm pissed. I mean, like, I don't work for you. I do my own thing.

MARTIN: What's up with that? What's going on, man, getting a little heated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SBRAGA: Yeah, it's hot in the kitchen. Tempers flare. You know, essentially with that particular situation, we all agreed to do something one way, and Angelo decided to change it at the last minute. And, you know, no one else spoke up, so I decided to. I mean, I'm not going to be pushed around like that.

MARTIN: I see. So you beat out 16 other chefs who gathered in Washington, D.C. for this competition. The final round was in Singapore...

Mr. SBRAGA: Um-hm.

MARTIN: ...where you apparently blew the judges away with your roasted duck with dumplings and fruit dessert. You appropriated the name Singapore Sling for that dessert. Where did the inspiration come from?

Mr. SBRAGA: It was a combination of things. The Singapore Sling, it was something that I had the idea before I even left for Singapore. And there's a traditional cocktail called Singapore Sling. So I wanted to be able to incorporate that into the dish. And then I took a dish that my wife does, a coconut and lemongrass soup, combined the two together and came up with Singapore Sling 2010.

MARTIN: So where did your love of cooking come from? I understand that your folks owned a bakery.

Mr. SBRAGA: Yeah, my father and mother were both bakers and, you know, when you grow up in it, I don't know that - how you can not have a love for it. You may not be a chef or a restauranteur but you'll always have a love for food. And, you know, my five-year-old daughter I can see that in her already.

MARTIN: And the bakery is hard work. I guess you learned a work ethic from that as well?

Mr. SBRAGA: Exactly, a bakery is very hard work. My dad having been in business for 44 years, I saw how much he went through and how hard it was and I learned a lot. You know, other kids were watching cartoons when they were young and I was out working in the bakery.

MARTIN: Did that make you mad, though? I mean, sometimes that's, you know, you might look back on it now and think that was a good experience but at the time most kids would really rather be riding their bikes or playing basketball with their friends.

Mr. SBRAGA: There were times that it bothered me because they got to do things that I didn't get to do but in the long run it all worked out, so you know, it's a tough thing.

MARTIN: What do you think you learned from Top Chef?

Mr. SBRAGA: The most important thing is to be myself and cook the food that I want to cook in the way I want to cook it. Too many times we focus on trying to please everyone. And, one, it's impossible to please everyone but, two, you don't really express yourself. And I think food is not only a craft but it's also an art and if you're not doing what you're passionate about, your food suffers and that's part of it.

MARTIN: How do you think your heritage plays into the way you approach being a chef? Or do you think it factors in at all?

Mr. SBRAGA: As far as the way I cook now, I'm able to look at those ethnic foods and refine them or redefine them and really cook in a way that's very interesting and very creative.

MARTIN: You mentioned that your wife is also a chef. I understand she's a pastry chef?

Mr. SBRAGA: Yes.

MARTIN: How do you all work that out? Or do you just avoid being in there at the same time? I mean, I'm telling you, it does not go well when my husband and I are in the kitchen at the same time. We have totally different styles, you know.

Mr. SBRAGA: At home she does the majority of the cooking. I've done a little bit more recently but she mainly does it at home...

MARTIN: Oh, so that's how it is.

Mr. SBRAGA: Work is work and home is home, you know. We try to separate the two.

MARTIN: Okay, and I understand that you're planning to open your own restaurant in Philadelphia?

Mr. SBRAGA: Mostly likely Philadelphia but it could be south Jersey. I'm looking at restaurant spaces now and developing the concept and just finishing the business plan.

MARTIN: What's it going to be like? Can you give us a hint?

Mr. SBRAGA: Very, very small restaurant, no more than 40 seats and maybe as small as 20 seats. And essentially, the restaurant is going to be a dinner party. There may not be a choice on the menu. You may just make a reservation and what we're preparing that day is what's offered. You know, it gives us an opportunity to be creative with the food and have fun with it but also it gives us the opportunity to create an environment or an experience for our guests.

MARTIN: So, Kevin is it going to be one of those places that if I call you and you act like you don't know me? Is it going to be like I have to wait six months to get a reservation? Or I'll have to be like, oh, Kevin, remember that time we talked and blah, blah, blah and you'll be like: who?

Mr. SBRAGA: I hope there's a six-month wait on reservations but as far as me not knowing, the reason why I want it small as that, that way I can connect with everyone and that way I can relate to them. I don't want it to be a place where it's just a food factory.

MARTIN: Kevin Sbraga is the latest winner of Top Chef and as you heard he's planning to open up his own restaurant which he says, he claims he'll let us come. Well, we'll see about that. He happens to be the first African-American to win that contest. He was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SBRAGA: Thank you, thank you for having me.

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