From starting out in sandwich shops to studying in London and making it to the MasterChef quarter finals, Sean Gravina has had a trendsetting career on the local culinary scene. Here, he looks back on some of the highlights and challenges, and opens up about what could lie ahead.
A former professional waterpolo player, Sean
Gravina says he took to the kitchen relatively
late, working in sandwich shops at the age
of 18. After a few years, Sean decided to
get into culinary school at the Institute of
Tourism Studies (ITS) – ‘to get his basics sorted’, as he says.
While studying part-time, he also worked at the Hilton,
where renowned head chef Joe Vella broadened Sean’s
experience in butchery, fishmongery and à la carte, among
others. A couple of years later, he moved on to some other
restaurants for a few months before settling down at Gzira
French restaurant, Chez Philippe.
“I found a lot of freedom there,” shares Sean, “And the
chef allowed me to experiment and express myself in the
kitchen, which gave me confidence. People seemed to like
my food, and my passion kept on growing.”
After a few years of successfully juggling work, study and
waterpolo, Sean felt it was time to make a bold move. “I
was very into my research at the time, and was constantly
looking up international chefs and restaurants online, so I
noticed that there was a gap between the standards locally
and abroad in cities like London, Milan and Paris. This isn’t
the case anymore, as standards have risen since then.”
Although studying and working in London was what he
wanted to do, this wasn’t an easy decision for Sean. “It
was a very difficult move, as I also had a deep passion for
waterpolo. But I knew that, for me to achieve the goals I
had set myself and reach the level I wanted to, I needed to
go abroad to get what I couldn’t get here in Malta.”
And get it he did. In a year and a half away, Sean
accomplished a lot. “The time I spent in London probably
boosted my career by around five or six years,” he says.
He studied at the prestigious culinary school, Le Cordon
Bleu London, where he obtained his diploma in French
cuisine. Once again, he plunged himself into a strict regime
of study, work and training – this time at the gym, as he
quickly abandoned a short stint with a waterpolo club that
had lower standards than he was used to in Malta, and
wasn’t really adding value to his life.
Highlights from his time in London include working at
several reputable restaurants such as steakhouse CUT at 45
Park Lane and Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden. “It did me a
lot of good to work in a highly disciplined environment, but
it was also very hard.”
Sean even worked with world-famous chef and restaurateur
Gordon Ramsay, but the culmination of his time in London
came in his participation in MasterChef: The Professionals,
where Sean successfully made it to the quarter finals of the
Looking back on this eventful period of his life, he is very
grateful for the valuable experience he gained and the
newfound name this earned him on his return to Malta. “It
was intense but I’m so glad I did it. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I
would be where I am today.”
Back home, Sean rewarded himself with a much-needed summer of rest and parties. Then, ready to re-enter the local scene with a fresh perspective, he set out to look for new investment opportunities, while rising to further prominence through local TV show Gourmet Today.
Then, after a few initial hiccoughs that Sean chooses to see as learning curves, it looked as though something good was finally on the horizon. “I did have some letdowns where plans just fell through after long discussions with investors,” he says. “But my passion and perseverance kept me going and looking for the right path and people.”
Things took off after his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Ira Losco, introduced him to leading local businessman Winston Zahra, who connected him with the partners who would eventually help Sean set up Crust Bistro & Bar.
Born and bred in St Julian’s, Sean was very excited to land a prime property in the location, but quickly realised that his original plan of opening a sandwich shop for breakfast, brunch and lunch was not feasible, given the large size of the property and the work that went into demolishing and converting it.
Starting out as a deli bakery, Sean soon had to reinvent the concept, menu and space once again to turn it into a bakery, bar and bistro that would work. “I had a lot of pressure to create something that both made sense and kept me interested,” he admits. Luckily, the new concept was well received, and Crust’s reputation grew. Just as things were finally picking up and Sean was feeling more settled with staff, the pandemic hit.
“COVID was such a big blow. My brain went into overdrive and it was a real rollercoaster ride, not least because of the financial burden. Like many other restaurants, we had to take another loan to make sure we could pay our suppliers and avoid losing anyone through redundancy, and thankfully, we didn’t.”
Yet, in the difficult time that characterised the lockdown period, Sean learnt to take the good with the bad, and used the time to set up deliveries and takeaways, create new concepts for events, and utilise space that was being wasted. All the changes made then have since stuck, improving Crust for the better to the point that Sean is almost grateful for the pandemic, in spite of the hardship it brought about.
Reflecting on what lies ahead, Sean notes that things are not looking very good for the food and hospitality sector, what with the continuous increase in product prices and the volatile situation in Ukraine – a major wheat supplier.
Nevertheless, Sean carries on and busies himself with optimistic plans for the future, ranging from a new breakfast menu to possible ideas for Restaurant ‘number two’. No matter the uncertainty that is waging on around us, there is probably as much comfort in looking ahead with hope as there is in good food itself. In Sean’s own words, “Hope is the very last thing to go.”