What's NOT on My Resume: Kevin Sbraga
No one starts out on top, especially in the food business. In this weekly column, chefs and restaurateurs across the country share the stories of their humble beginnings.
He grew up working in his father’s bakery in New Jersey, so Kevin Sbraga knew he wanted to be a professional chef from the age of 10. His path to attending Johnson & Wales University; competing in the Bocuse d’or; working with Iron Chef Jose Garces; winning Top Chef season 7; and then opening his own Philadelphia restaurants, Sbraga, and most recently, The Fat Ham, all started with the letters: KFC.
“My first job was at a brand-new KFC in Delran, New Jersey,” Sbraga says. “I was 16. I wasn’t driving yet, so my dad would drive me to work and back.” His duties included making the mashed potatoes and gravy. “It was kind of gross,” he says. “It was just out of a package and all you did was add hot water and there it is.” Becoming so intimate with the processes at the fast-food restaurant changed his dining habits a bit. “I grew up with a KFC down the road from me and I liked it as a kid. But after working there I wasn’t really a fan anymore.” That wasn’t why his tenure there was so short, however. “They had me working real late and my dad didn’t like that so he made me quit after about three months.”
Even though it was brief, Sbraga says he walked away with some solid lessons that prepared him for his future career. “My work ethic was enhanced there. I learned about cleanliness, because that place was pretty clean. And I learned how to handle high volume at a quick pace.” He pauses, and laughs when he realizes that the menu at his latest restaurant, The Fat Ham, hearkens back to those days. “Some of the menu items are the same - fried chicken, mac and cheese,” he says. “And when we fry chicken at The Fat Ham I can’t help but think of KFC. It’s the same smell.” He is quick to point out the differences, however. “What we do at the Fat Ham is all at a very, very high level and everything is made from scratch. We make our own bread and we make our own biscuits. But there are things like the seasoned flour, that also go back to KFC.” Sbraga says that “11 herbs and spices,” aren’t completely necessary in his kitchen, though. “We have 6 or 7, which is all you really need.”
As much as Sbraga likes to joke about his experience at KFC, he adds that he finds nothing wrong with seeking experience in fast food for a good start in the business. Most important, he says, is to take time and learn every task. “There were some areas that I rushed through, even,” he says, “And I had to take a step back to move forward. I don’t think that is a bad thing. Luckily enough I was humble enough to be able to do that. But taking your time and really having a game plan, and working under someone’s leadership that can help develop a game plan, is really important.”