Update: Chef Erika Weisflog is now with Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. You can find her delectable desserts there and at their sister restaurant, Town Hall.
The buzz surrounding 220 Riverside’s Sbraga & Company‘s opening has sustained itself throughout the months as Sbraga proves they are here to stay with their shared plate stylings, Southern menu, and upscale ambiance. A large part of the compliments surrounding the restaurant are based around the pastry stylings of Chef Erika Weisflog. Chef Erika was recently featured in the All Star Chef Takeover alongside Tom Gray, Scotty Schwartz, Kenny Gilbert, Howard Kirk, and Kevin Sbraga himself. Erika’s decadent Southern influenced desserts blend right along with the theme of Kevin Sbraga’s restaurant. As Erika’s name begins to come up more and more in the Jacksonville culinary scene, we wanted to introduce you to the chef behind the sweet treats.
Even at just a few days old, Erika’s path to being a chef was being built. She was adopted at birth. Her parents believed strongly in the values of family dinner tables, and she grew up with the process of cooking dinner, setting the table, eating together, and clearing the table every night. In addition to that, her family was deeply entwined with the entire process of food – from hunting or harvesting it themselves, then preparing it at home from scratch. Erika told us, “At a very young age I started getting a $100 check and an index card with a recipe on it from my Grandma or aunt for holidays. From my other side of the family, they’d give us an index card with a recipe and something out of their jewelry box. We’d always have block parties with covered dishes. Because of that, I was always drawn to people cooking food. My grandfather was a butcher, and we also hunted deer in Georgia growing up. I grew up fishing too. We cooked food every night, we weren’t going out to eat. We went out as a celebration. Anytime we’d have spare time we’d go to Charleston to see my aunt and uncle. We’d cook and go crabbing. We’d boat out to the island with Grandma on Thanksgiving and go crabbing with turkey necks with string off the dock. My uncle had a couple of catering businesses, he’s also retired Fish and Game. He writes and cooks still, and every time we’re up there he’s cooking with a bowtie on, he’s a gentleman like that.” Her uncle is also the mastermind behind the classic low country dish Frogmore Stew. Due to her uncle’s deep connections with Fish and Game, they hunted for their food and Erika remembers eating out of her freezer throughout the year during her childhood. “I had venison in my lunch box with italian dressing in elementary school,” she laughed, and then explained she loved it. Her aunt was a homemaker, and established a chocolate cake recipe that is still used among their family. Erika described it, “The frosting was crunchy on the outside and then soft in the middle. I have my own version of the chocolate cake now because probably 6 or 7 years ago my cousin had a few beers and added a half pound of butter. So for my version, I removed the milk and added another half pound of butter. Our family all has this tie to the cake. It’s nice to to share these things about cooking with your family.”
As far as her first memory of the moment she knew she wanted to cook, Erika remembers it in vivid detail. The men in her family predominantly went to The Citadel for college, and when she was 13 they went to the alumni weekend. She remembers going to Steinmart to pick out a new dress and that she was so excited to wear it and attend the reception party afterwards. When they arrived, they found out the catering staff didn’t show up. Erika recounted, “They had frozen scallops and bacon and I walked in and started helping. This light came on and I realized how fun it was. There were people helping serve but there wasn’t anyone to cook. I knew then this was fun, and people got so excited when I came by with a tray! Cooking was something that I’ve always been around, and since then I’ve always wanted to do this. I haven’t separated from it.” Her parents are from South Carolina, and then they moved to Jacksonville when her father began contracting houses in Ponte Vedra, so Erika spent most of her childhood in Jacksonville. For college, Erika returned to Charleston to attend Johnson and Wales. Erika found that as she has gained experience in the restaurant industry, that she has switched from the younger mentality of ‘wanting more’ to the wiser mentality of ‘making more from what you have’. She explained, “When you’re young you think ‘Oh I’m not learning anymore, I’m not going to get more out of this place.’ You have to teach yourself that you can keep learning where you are and build up and improve where you’re working. This is something you learn as a chef – that there’s more to learn all the time. You have to think, ‘I’m going to make this what I want it to be. I don’t have to go somewhere else to do that.’ After living for a few years in North Carolina and Virginia, she moved back here and began searching for the perfect place for her to grow with. She talked with Ice Plant, Mezza, and worked at Ocean 60 for a short period before finding her way to Sbraga. During her search, she kept hearing from restaurant owners that pastry was a dying breed. One restaurant in particular was adamant that they didn’t need a pastry chef, and they unfortunately are no longer in business. Erika reflected on that conversation with, “How many people did you turn off because you didn’t think your restaurant needed more than what it had? You can’t limit things like that. A restaurant with high turnover can’t have the functionality of making everything in house. That’s why you have outsourcing from Cinotti’s and French Pantry and such, because they find themselves without stability.”
Now the full time pastry chef at Sbraga & Company, Erika finds that it’s the perfect fit for maintaining her family and work balance. “My degree is in applied science,” Erika explained, “I was running a restaurant in North Carolina and ran one in Virginia. My kids started getting older and noticing that I wasn’t there. I wanted to have kids and a husband and work and do it all. As a pastry chef, I can get in earlier and still have dinner with my family. I grew up baking and I liked it, and all in all I want to just cook. You have to open your skillset box and realize that everything is all connected. I think you can grow as a person and as a chef if you can cross apply your knowledge. The more you can work with different products, the more you develop as a chef.” Erika brings her passion for southern cuisine and her wealth of experience into the Sbraga & Company pastry program with her panna cotta, buttermilk pie, chocolate cake, and sensational brunch bread boards. The buttermilk pie is something that Erika brings to Sbraga & Company that is uniquely hers, and defines her evolution as a chef. Erika told us, “I grew up making everything from scratch, I didn’t grow up buying Betty Crocker mixes. We didn’t even use Karo syrup. We used sugar and vinegar. Everything I make I use vinegar in. I like sherry vinegar and champagne vinegar, so I use it from cakes to pies to pickling something. I think it’s important to put yourself out there and build your own recipes so they’re yours, and the vinegar is my signature. I think that you should have everything balanced in your life, and so I balance my recipes the same way. If it doesn’t have vinegar it’s too sweet. This pie represents me even more because my first memory I have of baking was making sugar cookies. It was on a recipe card I got from a holiday, and I added a half a cup of vanilla to the cookies. It was some huge bottle of vanilla that my mom had, and it was pure vanilla. I wasn’t paying attention and I added so much moisture to the cookies from that. This pie is similar because if you don’t follow the exact steps from the recipe it’ll ruin it. It won’t have the crust on the top, it won’t crack in the oven, and if you don’t have vinegar it won’t be balanced. If you use watered buttermilk it’ll ruin it. I just believe in simple food that is really good. It’s the southern secret.”
Erika recently discovered that not only was her path to being a chef determined by her Southern upbringing with her adoptive family, but also through her biological family as well. “I think being adopted makes you very cautious, and it makes you want to be stronger than anyone in the world,” Erika reflected. “It makes you lost for awhile and then you grow stronger than you ever would have been. I met my biological parent and she has two other children and their father is Italian. When I met her, I talked to her daughter on the phone and she was thinking about going to cooking school because the family owns pizza restaurants in Pennsylvania. People go to cooking school now because these TV shows make it all look so great. There’s work involved! About 2 years ago I saw her on Instagram, and she went to cooking school for applied science like I did and she opened up a bakery.” The links through her family continue further, her mom even wrote a cookbook called Southern Secrets in the 70s with her friends that taught their methods of their gorgeous teas, brunches, and other Southern traditions. In the kitchen of Sbraga & Company, Erika truly is where she was meant to be.
You can find Erika on quiet mornings in the kitchen merging her Southern techniques with Sbraga & Company’s thematic menu of shared plates. This is her favorite time, when it’s just her in the kitchen working relentlessly to follow her perfected recipes. She also loves watching first time diners in the evenings as they experience Sbraga & Company for the first time, and she thrives on the bustle of the brunch crowd on Sunday mornings. “I’m a people watcher, so I get to see them all and enjoy the experience,” she said laughing. As for her future with Sbraga, Erika said that she just wants people to connect with the restaurant and Kevin Sbraga’s vision of family style, shared dining. “I think that he grew up around food just like how I did, and how other Southern families grew up around food. You ate at the table with your family. He wants people to share, like you share with your family. People are so fast paced now, Sbraga brings it back to what needs to be.” Next time you take a bite of Erika’s buttermilk pie or rich chocolate cake, remember the love and passion that goes into each recipe as she treats you as she’d treat her family – just simple, Southern cooking made with her heart.