Kevin Sbraga

Kevin Sbraga could barely speak. “Are you sure?” he managed. Confirmation came — Sbraga’s life had officially changed. He’d won the seventh season of popular reality-TV show “Top Chef.”

To millions of viewers, the 31-year-old “cheftestant” came out of nowhere to win. For Sbraga, success came over years, not overnight. “It’s taken me half my life to get the big one,” he says.

The Willingboro, N.J., native’s passion for cuisine began simmering early, as he watched his parents, both professional bakers, hone their craft. By the time he was a high-school sophomore, that passion was boiling, prompting his enrollment in the Burlington County Institute of Technology’s (BCIT) culinary program in Westampton. There, Sbraga joined SkillsUSA, happy to focus his competitive personality on something besides sports.

But for Sbraga, every success meant overcoming an initial loss. “I lost my in-house competition the first year,” he remembers. “The next year, I won, made it to states and lost there. The next year, I won states, made it to nationals, and that didn’t work out as planned. It wasn’t until I was attending Johnson and Wales University [in Miami] that I medaled at nationals. I won the silver.”

Sbraga worked in a variety of high-end restaurants after graduation, but his competitive hunger was still growling. An avid viewer of the Bravo channel’s “Top Chef,” Sbraga wondered how he’d fare as a contestant. He failed the first grueling audition but, true to form, tried again the next year and made the cut.

Each week, he and 16 competitors faced stressful cooking challenges that required more than technical know-how. Sbraga also relied on soft skills like teamwork, time management and more.

It seems pretty obvious, then, that someone with SkillsUSA experience would have an edge. Sbraga agrees. “[SkillsUSA] has been a great organization for me to be a part of,” he says. “It’s helped me in many different ways.”

Sbraga is using his $125,000 winnings from “Top Chef” to open his own restaurant, a personal dream. He also gives back to SkillsUSA by judging competitions and performing cooking demonstrations at BCIT, where his wife (whom he met while both were students there) is now a culinary instructor and SkillsUSA advisor.

Sbraga knows, however, he’d never be savoring the sweet taste of success without two basic ingredients. “One, never give up on your dream,” he says, “and two, surround yourself with the best people. You have to work for the best and be around the best. That’s the only way you’re ever going to make it happen.”