F&W Star Chef
Kevin Sbraga, Top Chef Season 7 winner and proprietor of Sbraga in Philadelphia shares the story behind his famous foie gras soup, his favorite cookbooks and the benefits of charcoal grilling.
What’s your most requested recipe?
Hands down my foie gras soup. I came up with it by accident, when I wanted to impress somebody—a few years ago, right after I came off of Top Chef, a friend brought a football player into my restaurant, a former Philadelphia Eagle named Winston Justice. He now plays for the Indianapolis Colts, but I knew he was into food so I wanted to make him something new and different. I had some small foie gras pieces that weren’t big enough to sear, so I thought I’d try to make a soup with them, and garnish the soup with rose petals. Now I can’t take it off the menu. First we make a ground paste out of lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic and Thai chiles, and fry all that to give it a little color. Then we deglaze the pan with brandy, and add honey and let that caramelize. Then we add chicken stock, a touch of cream and a couple of kaffir lime leaves and let that simmer about half an hour. Then we throw in whole lobes of foie, blend it, strain it, hit it with some salt and lime juice, and that’s it. That’s the soup, but the special part I think is the relish of pickled red onions, raw white onions, rose petals, mint and cumin, moistened with a little grapeseed oil. Put it all together and it’s ridiculous.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Le Guide Culinaire, by Auguste Escoffier/The Escoffier Cookbook. That’s the book I go back to the most. It sets the fundamentals for everything we do today. Take that foie gras soup: Even though the flavors are mostly Southeast Asian, the technique of deglazing with brandy, using honey to make a caramel, adding chicken stock and a touch of cream, plus the foie gras itself, that’s all French! And Escoffier explains how to make them all.
To get inspired, I also like to look at a mix of old and new books. Like I’ll look up meatloaf or Salisbury steak in Joy of Cooking, and then look at The French Laundry Cookbook or Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook to get ideas for a new way to plate something; the two together help get me new ideas.
Are you saying you run your kitchen like a series of Quickfire challenges?
Sometimes that’s the only way to get things done! But I did it before I went on Top Chef. I learned it from a chef I worked for down in Naples, Florida, who made us all work that way. At first it was a pain in the ass, but it’s a great way to organize your day.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Hardwood charcoal grilling. it produces such an incredible flavor. I’m personally not a fan of gas. You get the same caramelization of the meat, but you miss out on that light smokiness, that nice char that you can only get from hardwood charcoal.
The main trick is to learn to control your fire, and to know what to cook where. When you have a stove, you can turn it up or down. With a fire you just have to know where your high and low spots are. To make it easy, I use a Weber and dump all of the coals on one side; that’s my hot spot. If I’m making something thin that cooks quickly, like a fillet of fish, that goes on the hot spot. But if it’s thick and needs to cook more slowly, like a 30-ounce rib eye, then I’ve got to move that outside, to a low spot. And you have to constantly feed the fire, you can’t let the fire die out, yet you can’t start cooking when charcoal’s not hot yet enough. It just requires a little more attention, but the results are well worth it.