Black History Month is as much about celebrating today’s trailblazers as it is about honoring the leaders of the past. In few places can this be seen so radically as in the culinary world. Building on the rich traditions of the past, there are several African-American chefs right here in NJ; all of them are breaking new ground and forging exciting new pathways in fine cuisine.
Let’s meet a few of them.
“Make things happen,” is the mantra of Willingboro native, award-winning chef and entrepreneur Kevin Sbraga. The phrase can also be used to describe Sbraga’s stellar career.
Sbraga was the season 7 winner of Bravo’s Top Chef, and received the award for “Best Meat Presentation” in the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA culinary competition (the Bocuse d’Or is the culinary world’s version of the Olympics, where chefs from across the country and around the world compete).
In the span of just a few years, Chef Kevin has garnered international fame with his unique expression of southern comfort food and global cooking, and opened not one, but three critically acclaimed restaurants: Sbraga, The Fat Ham, and Sbraga & Company. Sbraga, which was hailed by Esquire magazine as a “Best New Restaurant” shortly after it opened in Philadelphia, focuses on modern American cuisine, while The Fat Ham, also in Philadelphia, offers a “pork-centric” take on southern country cooking. Sbraga & Company, which opened in late 2015, is located in Jacksonville, Florida. Its menu offers a twist on the food of northern Florida, focusing on grilled meats and seafood.
With a fondness for locally grown food, Chef Kevin embodies the spirit of the Garden State. “I’m usually inspired by an ingredient or place,” Chef Kevin told Best of NJ about where he finds his ideas. And let’s face it, truckloads of creative ideas are needed to run three restaurants with three very different identities. “[If] it’s a piece of lamb, what do I want to showcase, or enhance with a spice or with a cooking technique?”
It all makes perfect sense, when you think about it. After all, Chef Kevin was basically born to cook. “Both of my parents were bakers,” he said. “So I was around all kinds of food from a young age, ever since I was about 5 or so.” As he grew older, Chef Kevin came to realize that while he loved his parents’ bakery, there was something about the savory side of the kitchen that kept drawing him in. He studied culinary arts in high school, and in 2003, he graduated from North Miami’s Johnson and Wales University, and went to right into the professional kitchen to hone his craft.
It didn’t take him long, however, to notice that he was among very few African-Americans in the professional kitchen. “Most kitchens I’ve worked in had very, very few African-Americans. [There were] more Latinos and Asians usually, but I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if they’re not attracted to it, or don’t like the style, or maybe no one told them they could. But I was around food from a young age.”
“I think of myself as a chef, you know?” Chef Kevin went on, commenting on race and his experience in the professional kitchen. “Like chefs period, at the end of the day, my goal, my job is to create an exceptional dining experience for the customer.” His advice to those considering a career in the kitchen? “The most important thing is to get that experience,” Chef Kevin said. “Whatever it is, if it’s dishwashing and prep — I think that’s important.”
Chef LaTasha McCutcheon wasn’t born in New Jersey, but she’s made the Garden State her home. Born in South Carolina, Chef LaTasha was the season 14 winner of Fox network’s food competition show Hell’s Kitchen, and is now working as the chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill at Caesars Atlantic City.
In contrast to Sbraga’s born-with-a-spatula background, Chef LaTasha found her way into the kitchen by accident. “I’ve always been somewhat of a foodie growing up,” she told Best of NJ. “I wasn’t the kid who was cooking with my grandmother, or my mother, or my dad, but I was always the first to the table. I was always ready to eat. And I was never afraid to try new stuff. But initially, I didn’t realize that it would become a career for me.”
Here’s how it all went down: The Orangeburg, South Carolina, native had recently graduated from high school and was preparing to study math and computer science at South Carolina State University. “I love restaurants,” she says. She adds that, “I love going to restaurants, I love eating, so I started waiting tables in college, and…I really got to see how a great dish, or a nicely presented plate [would make] people light up. You see it in the guest when they enjoy their experience. And I kind of just fell in love with it in the dining room.”
Chef LaTasha realized that she wanted to learn how to make those wow moments herself in the back of the house, and she enrolled in Horry Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina, where she earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Johnson & Wales University in Florida, where she continued to work in large operations like country clubs and hotels.
For Chef LaTasha, one of the biggest challenges she faced in professional cooking was not related to race, but gender. “Most of the challenges I feel like I have seen in my career, in my opinion, were more about the female entering a male-dominated industry, and excelling…I always got stuck in pantry when I first entered the kitchen, and I had to prove that I can work the hot line each and every time…a new chef came in, but each and every time I worked my way back to the hot line, which was where most of my passion and drive were.”
“But when you finally do get that respect,” she went on, “Like, I walk into a room and I try to prove it to myself every day what I’m capable of, and it shows on everyone else around me. It feels good to know that most people do look at me because I’m a woman of color, and may not expect that drive and that integrity that they get, because you know, for years and years, as women of color, we’ve been degraded, talked down to, and not really believed in. I feel like there’s a whole generation of African-Americans that are really proving to the world that we’re not what you think we might be.”
The Biker Chef, David “Big Swole” Rose
Born in Englewood, raised in Teaneck, and attending high school in Tenafly, Chef David “Big Swole” Rose is a true son of Bergen County. And true to his native county, Chef David believes in working hard and with heart.
Chef David’s resume is jam-packed. He’s an avid biker, celebrity chef, caterer, cigar expert, philanthropist, and columnist for Southern Journal magazine and Full Throttle magazine. He also has a clothing line and is developing a line of spices for the home cook. Not to mention, he’s in production for a motorcycle-centric TV cooking show; which is a “two-wheeled culinary journey across the country,” as he describes.
Meanwhile, he’s a culinary partner for Big Green Egg. (The world’s largest producer and international distributor of custom ceramic cooking systems.) Finally, Chef David is the face of Harley-Davidson’s “Iron Elite” campaign; this celebrates the history and cultural impact of African-American bikers. Chef David is also active in giving back to the Georgia community he now calls home; some of his active causes include anti-bullying and fighting hunger. Does this guy sleep?
“I’m always moving, always getting into something,” Chef David told Best of NJ with a laugh. Chef David attributes his foundational love of food to his upbringing in New Jersey. He was born into a large Jamaican family – one of eight children – in a home led by two food professionals. His mother worked as a nursing home chef, and his father was the chef at a villa for Catholic nuns.
“Growing up, — and I don’t know if you’ve been to Jamaican parties — but Jamaican parties are events,” Chef David said. “It’s not just food, [like] the curries [and] the sauces. It’s music, and dancing…and as long as I can remember, I’ve been a very adventurous eater. I was like Mikey [from the Life cereal commercials]: I’d eat anything, but it had to be good.”
Chef David didn’t realize food was going to be his career until going to Atlanta at the age of 21. He’d earned a degree in exercise science and was working as a personal trainer until a TV commercial changed his life. “I still remember it,” Chef David said. “It said, ‘Le Cordon Bleu, realize your culinary dream.'” It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.” In no time at all, he’d enrolled and went to work studying, all the time having a ball. “Going to school didn’t feel like [work] for me,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Chef David’s approach to food starts with the heart. “The one element that needs to be there is love,” he said. “People can tell quick, fast, and in a hurry if you’ve paid attention in that area, [and] if you haven’t.” Beyond that, he enjoys the creative opportunities offered by a life in food. “Experimentation, that’s why I love food. With food, there are countless ways, and countless variations.”
His advice to the culinary curious: “Get ready for long hours,” he said. “It’s not an easy job, it’s not an easy industry. I like to quote The Rock. He says ‘Blood, sweat, and success, the first two you give, the latter you earn.’ You can learn the ABCs of cooking, the technique from school, but nothing compares to the experience of being in a kitchen and learning what to do when the fryer breaks down, or an employee walks out. At the hardest moments, remember why you’re in it. Remember that love, and if you’re passionate, you’ll find a way, you’ll make a way, you’ll make it happen.”
Top (Hero) Feature Image: Courtesy Bigswole.org
Additional Images (in Order) Courtesy:
Kevin Sbraga: Sbraga Dining
LaTasha McCutcheon: Tom Briglia/PhotoGraphics, Courtesy of Caesars Entertainment.
David “Big Swole” Rose: Bigswole.org