As a self-proclaimed foodie and lover of reality cooking shows, I took advantage of the opportunity to sit down with my good friend, Sylva Senat, a contestant on season 14 of Bravo’s Top Chef.
When did you first discover your love for food?
When I was 17, my high school was offering a culinary class. I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to cook before going off to college, so I took the class to make sure I had all the basics. My teacher quickly noticed I was breezing through the recipes, and the following year she entered me in a culinary competition through the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP.) I ended up winning, and my junior year I did an externship at Sign of the Dove which opened my eyes to the culinary world. I immediately knew this was the career path I was meant to follow.
Tell me a little bit about that career path. What experience had the biggest influence on your style of cooking?
I started my career at the high-end restaurant Sign of the Dove and wanted to continue being around those types of chefs and in spaces like Mercer Kitchen, Jean-Georges, etc. I realized I was one of the few black chefs cooking for a career, not a job. I wanted to be taken seriously on a culinary level, so I positioned myself to be accepted in that world by choosing restaurants run by chefs I could learn from. This has continued throughout my career. In those kitchens, it’s strictly about the food, and nothing else matters.
What is your favorite food from your childhood? Do you still make it?
In Haiti, we have pâté – beef patties stuffed with meat or veggies and wrapped in puff pastry. I make them occasionally.
What are some dinner staples in your house?
My wife actually does the cooking at home, and she loves pork chops and asparagus. We also rotate lamb chops, salmon, and turkey tacos. She’s trying to get me to eat better.
Let’s talk business. You are currently the executive chef at Maison 208, which is quickly climbing the ranks as one of Philadelphia’s hottest new restaurants. Give me the scoop on what you’re doing.
Maison 208 is a labor of love. We had been planning it for 2 years. I had the opportunity to design the kitchen and put my stamp on it. From the very beginning, we wanted it to be neighborhood-friendly and fun, with artfully plated food.
We wanted it to be more approachable, so we went with a New American menu with French Caribbean influence, which allows me to cook from the heart. I tried to recreate some of my childhood favorites in an elevated way. The smoked pork belly has flavors of home, while the beet salad is something I hated as a kid but now love. Then you get to more of the technical style learned from experience, with dishes like the lamb with a crushed hazelnut, sesame seed, and peppercorn crust.
I am seeing lots of press around this new concept you are calling “Baby Buns.” What can you tell us about it?
It’s a brand new project that I’m in love with it, but I can’t take any of the credit! The brains behind this fast-casual restaurant is my 8 year-old daughter, and if you ask her, it’s her restaurant, not mine. It started with us making sliders at home, and she came out with “Baby Buns” when referring to them. It kind of stuck, and here we are creating an entire concept from that moment of genius.
I promised to design a restaurant for her one day, and now it’s actually happening. The idea is to create something fun and fresh that the whole family can enjoy. It encompasses multicultural flavors in small, sample-size sliders that can be mixed and matched to your liking. They range from fun American classics like a double cheeseburger and our “Kickin’ Chicken,” a Tennessee hot chicken bun on brioche, to more worldly flavors, including the “Ta-Korea” bun, a Korean BBQ beef on a bao bun, and the “Falafel Me Bro” bun, served with falafel, hummus and tzatziki on brioche. Our featured drink will be Frosé (not for the kids!).
Our premier shop is opening in the historic Bourse Building in Philadelphia in its newly renovated food hall. The food hall is set to open this summer, so come visit us!
What’s one of your biggest struggles as a chef?
The passion and love you feel for the food don’t relate to everyone around you. We fall in love easily as artists and tend to sacrifice family life in favor of long working hours. It’s hard to find a work-life balance, so we sometimes miss out on life’s big moments.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I have no idea. This job is a roller coaster, and I try not to think too far into the future. I’m an artist, and I create in the here and now. I see myself working more on designing restaurants in different market places within the culinary field to create new concepts.
If you had all the money in the world, what would your dream be as a chef?
I’d fall off the grid and take a long overdue vacation. When I finally decide to return, I’d build my dream restaurant that would only have eight seats and a menu that is forever changing with exotic flavors and practiced techniques. I’d be cooking from the heart on a daily basis with no constraints!
What’s your best advice for someone interested in becoming a chef?
Don’t do it! Haha. But seriously, when thinking about becoming a chef, think long term. Be ready to travel to learn from the best and experience different cuisines and techniques. What makes our job so unique is that the world is our limit. It can take us anywhere, but we have to be willing to go along for the ride.
Random fact—I wanted to be a linguist. I speak French, Creole, and Spanish fluently. My English is just OK.
I owe everything to my loving wife, Sandra, who puts up with me and all that comes with this job. She has supported me through it all and allows me to be the chef I am. Also to my beautiful daughter, Isabelle, who inspires me every day.
There you have it, folks. Now don’t be shy! Come visit Sylva in Philadelphia and taste it for yourself!