Philadelphia native and chef Kevin Sbraga, who runs the successful restaurants Sbraga and The Fat Ham in his hometown, was amazed when two Southern developers journeyed to the City of Brotherly Love looking for inspiration. But then again, Sbraga, a Top Chef winner, loves Southern food, has a passion for the region, and even spent three and a half years in Florida during his time at Johnson & Wales University Miami. The opportunity to open Sbraga & Company in Jacksonville, despite the distance from his hometown, was a challenge he welcomed.
“We took that opportunity to continue to expand our brand and really expand our knowledge—to understand Southern ingredients better, understand Southern culture better—and I think that’s why Jacksonville is such a great fit for us,” says Chef Sbraga, whose grandmother was also born in the River City. Sbraga & Company offers a contemporary twist on Northeast Florida cuisine, which, as the chef explains, is “not your typical Southern comfort food, so we really don’t refer to it as Southern. We refer to it as Southern ingredients or Southern crops. But you’re not going to find traditional fishes or recipes that you’d find in an old cookbook. You may find a couple of dishes like that, but not all of them.” Around 50 percent of the menu is dedicated to Southern crops and grains, he adds.
Sbraga & Company plans to promote local ties as well, and is developing relationships every chance they get. Chef Sbraga explained that a farmer just happened in one day and started telling them about his hydroponic lettuces. “We started discussing it; discussing his process and how it’s grown," Chef Sbraga says. "I don’t know if we’ll use his product—we may; he’s going to bring us samples—but my chefs can tell you that there is not a day that goes by that a farmer is not coming by to show us something. It’s pretty cool.”
The new location represents a serious undertaking. At the time of the venue’s November 14 opening, Chef Sbraga was spending 90 percent of his time in Florida. He credits a passionate, hard-working staff at all his restaurants for helping him put in the time needed in Jacksonville. “Six months from now, it may be 50/50, it may be 20/80, I really don’t know,” he says. “Right now a lot of my time is focused on Jacksonville. This restaurant is very important to me and to us as a restaurant group. We want it to do well.”