The timing couldn’t have been better: Kevin Sbraga, the executive chef at Rat’s restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture, won the Bravo Network’s “Top Chef, D.C” a mere 11 days before the Epicurean Palette, GFS’s annual fundraiser. A special reception was held prior to the event on the upstairs level of Rat’s where VIP ticketholders ($350 a pop) could meet Kevin — and get a private tour of J. Seward Johnson’s studio and famed “Van Gogh” bedroom.

All I wanted to do was ask Kevin how he kept the secret of his winning (taped approximately two months before it aired) from his wife. “Couldn’t she just look in your eyes and see that you had won?” I asked the friendly, down-to-earth Sbraga, who looks more like a high school quarterback than a chef. “I have to give you the Bravo Network answer,” he said, referring to the voluminous contracts and media training given to Top Chef finalists. “I could not tell her. But I think she might have caught on a little bit with all the changes in my schedule. It’s not too difficult (to keep the secret) when you’re under contract and there’s that much money at stake,” he said, referring to the $125,000 grand prize. Was his five-year-old daughter impressed at daddy’s good fortune? “She said, ‘gradulations, Daddy!’”

J. Seward Johnson was an equally ebullient and gracious host to the small group of 25 VIP guests. He gave a wonderful object lesson in following directions as he explained how he hired the architect to build the Rat’s complex. He said he gave $10,000 to eight architectural firms along with direction to build a multi-faceted property that would include a restaurant, a studio for him, a shop, and offices. “I told them it needed to look like an early Italian or French village and be built next to water. Not one firm did anything we asked so we threw away all the plans and invited them all to come back and try again. Only two did.” When Johnson asked the winning architect, Brian Carey of ACBC Associates in New York, “How’d you do it?” Carey responded, “Well, I read the directions.”

The drizzling rain was no deterrent (and slacked off an hour into the event) for the 800 guests (a sellout) who roamed the grounds, tasting extraordinary creations from more than 20 of the region’s most talented chefs as well as an impressive selection of beer, wine, and spirits. Some of the crowd’s favorites were the butternut squash ravioli from Cafe Mulino (a best-kept secret in Ewing that’s no longer a secret); the carrot cake from Catherine’s Vegan Sweets in Trenton; the ginger sparkler (equal parts Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and Esserve sparkling lemonade) by R&R Marketing in West Caldwell; the almond crunch and wine-infused chocolates from J. Emanual Chocolatier in Chester; and the lemon mascarpone, basil (not as weird as you might think!), and mango ice cream from Piece of Cake in Rahway.

The event raised $87,000, earmarked for Grounds For Sculpture exhibitions, education, and events programming.

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