Kevin Sbraga became executive chef at Rat’s Restaurant in July 2009. He’s moving on to open his own restaurant after winning the title of “Top Chef” on Sept. 15. (File photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Bravo TV’s Top Chef show has come a long way, and so has the winner of its recently finished seventh season – Kevin Sbraga, executive chef of Rat’s Restaurant, the fine-dining French country bistro at Hamilton’s Grounds For Sculpture.

When it first aired in 2006, Top Chef was just another reality TV show. Its contestants were billed as future stars of the professional kitchen, but without a track record, the show’s producers struggled to attract the very best rising talent in the U.S.

Having just finished its seventh cycle, with an Emmy Award for top reality show to its name, Top Chef has become a force on the American dining scene, able to attract the likes of Sbraga, 31, who became the chef at Rat’s last July, after influential Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr took over operations.

The New Jersey native worked in his parents’ bakery, Harvey’s, in Willingboro, while growing up, and went on to hone his cooking skills in top kitchens from Belgium to Philly. He’s worked for Starr, Jose Garces and Georges Perrier, among others, in Philadelphia. He has also worked beside previous Top Chef contestant Michael Voltaggio at the Ritz-Carlton of Naples, Fla. under Arnaud Berthelier, who can now claim to have been a mentor to the show’s two most recent winners. Voltaggio was the winner of Season 6.

Over the course of Season 7, most of which took place in Washington, Sbraga was a steady if not spectacular competitor. Some viewers considered him a sleeper compared to contestants like Angelo Sosa and Ed Cotton, but he went on to defeat both of them in the show’s finale, which took place in Singapore.

While Sosa and Cotton had both won more challenges over the course of the season than Sbraga, a cooking performance head judge Tom Colicchio called “the best we’ve had in any finale” brought the title home to New Jersey.

“Top Chef was a real reality check. I am not as good as I thought or as bad as I think I am at times,” Sbraga told bravotv.com. “Top Chef evoked an emotion that I have not had since I left Arnaud’s kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton Naples. It brought me back to the roots of my cooking, and I promised myself after winning Top Chef that I would never stray from those roots again.”

Alas, while area diners should still be able to enjoy the cooking and vision of a local Top Chef champion, they will no longer be able to do so at Rat’s. Sbraga left the Grounds For Sculpture’s restaurant last month to focus his attention on opening his own restaurant in Philadelphia sometime in the next year.

“We are deeply grateful to Rat’s Restaurant Executive Chef Kevin Sbraga. He is a superb chef with the very highest of standards and the mark he leaves on the restaurant is one of distinction,” reads a prepared statement from Grounds For Sculpture. “We are proud of his accomplishments and pleased to have been a part of his well-deserved ascent in the cooking world.”

A replacement for Sbraga has not yet been named. According to the statement from Grounds For Sculpture, Stephen Starr is conducting tastings with candidates in the process of identifying the next Rat’s executive chef. Key staff at Grounds For Sculpture will also weigh in on the final decision.

Sbraga spoke with the Hamilton Post by phone Sept. 17.

Hamilton Post: Were you a regular watcher of the show before this season?

Kevin Sbraga: Absolutely. I watched every season regularly except Season 1 – that was the one I missed. But I got to see that on the marathons.

HP: What was it like seeing yourself on television?

Kevin Sbraga: Seeing yourself on TV is pretty crazy. You’re watching how good or how bad you really are. You look different, you sound different, you do things you don’t know you do. It’s a very humbling experience.

HP: You said at one point during the season that you felt you’d had a few really tough days during the competition. What was the lowest point for you during the taping of the show?

Kevin Sbraga: There was a period on back-to-back shows where I was on the bottom, and that was definitely the lowest. Out of that [the worst] was the baby food challenge – that was really tough. I was embarrassed and disappointed and angry.

HP: How much of Top Chef is being a great cook, and how much is being adaptable and playing the game?

Kevin Sbraga: I’m not sure how to answer that. I’ll say this – you could be a phenomenal chef, and you could be the best chef, and still not win. All it takes is one big mistake. Whoever makes the biggest mistake that day goes home. If you look at the [New England] Patriots, they had a perfect season and then lost in the Super Bowl. It’s the same with Top Chef.

HP: You were generally in the middle on a lot of challenges, especially early on. Was there a moment where you felt you had to change something if you were going to progress?

Kevin Sbraga: There was sort of an epiphany – I had a lot of time between [the Washington and Singapore portions of the show] to reflect. We all knew how good we all were, regardless of how it aired. We’re there, we see each other, we know the thought process.

Going to Singapore, it was about looking out of the box, going out of that comfort zone. Since I’ve been a chef, I’ve always been worried about fitting a certain mold. Going to Singapore it was, cook good food. That’s it. Get the ingredients, do the right things with them and put them on the plate. That was the epiphany. Got to stop with the mold, just worrying about making good food.

HP: If you hadn’t have won, and assuming Angelo had been in peak condition, of the other three finalists, who would you have liked to see named Top Chef?

Kevin Sbraga: Angelo did really really well throughout the season. He had a lot of really good moments and a few bad moments. His food is exceptional. I look at Ed, he’s a hammer in the kitchen, he’s a beast – he gets stuff done I didn’t know you could get done in that amount of time. Kelly’s style is light and fresh and sexy, it’s approachable, it’s things I want to eat. Of the four of us, any one could have won. But that said, I still wanted to win!

HP: Your “Singapore Sling” dessert for the finale was a knockout – did you know that you were going to make that if you got that far?

Kevin Sbraga: Yeah, I worked on that at Rat’s. Scott, the bartender there, he printed up a recipe for me, he made quite a few of them for me. We messed with the ratios, worked to get it to freeze right. But in Singapore, I had to do it completely different. At Rat’s, we made it with canned fruit juice. In Singapore, we didn’t have canned juices, so I had to use fresh fruit. Actually it tasted a lot better [in Singapore].

HP: You didn’t get to pick your proteins – red mullet, duck, cockles, slipper lobsters and cuttlefish – for the finale – but that didn’t seem to throw you off your game at all. I take it you were pretty comfortable with those ingredients.

Kevin Sbraga: I was comfortable with the ingredients, but I also think it makes for a level playing field when you make everyone cook with the same things.

HP: What was it like having to keep your victory a secret? How long a wait was it?

Kevin Sbraga: We finished taping end of July, so it’s been a while. At first it was tough, then you get used to it. Then you get on with your life.

HP: You’re moving on from Rat’s, and you’ve said you hope to start up a new restaurant in Philadelphia. How long are you anticipating it will be before you will be able to open your doors?

Kevin Sbraga: I’m hoping that it’ll be open by the spring. It’s a matter of putting a package together – if I can find the right investors and the right space, it’ll happen.

HP: What is your vision for this new venture?

Kevin Sbraga: A very small restaurant, 20 to 40 seats only. A menu that changes often, a menu has no boundaries – it’ll be whatever I feel like cooking that day. I want to create a personalized experience, an extension of me – I want to connect with people.

HP: It sounds a little like Vetri.

Kevin Sbraga: [The concept is] closer to Vetri than anything else, but still very different – Marc does Italian food. I don’t want it to be labeled Italian, I don’t want it to be labeled Spanish, I don’t want it to be labeled anything, I just want it to be about great food.