by Len Lear
Walter Pater, a brilliant analyst of the arts in Victorian England, wrote that the soul of an artist should “burn with a hard gem-like flame.” Pater might just as well have been writing about Sylva Senat, 39, one of Philadelphia’s finest haute cuisine chefs. Sylva previously helped run the kitchens at several very upscale restaurants such as New York bellwethers The Sign of The Dove with chef Andrew D’Amico, Aquavit with chef Marcus Samuelsson, Buddakan and Jean-Georges and in Philly at Tashan.
“The Jean-Georges kitchen gave me an understanding of ‘simple luxury’ and how high quality ingredients, key flavor combinations and careful technique can result in perfect execution,” Sylva told us.
Sylva is as reliable as a rooster at sunrise. If fine dining is as much theater as it is memorable food served in splendid surroundings, then the restaurants where Sylva has cheffed are the Forrest Theater, or even the Academy of Music. His dishes unfailingly show the high quality of the ingredients, and his work ethic does not wax and wane like a radio signal in stormy weather.
Sylva, who will be opening the upscale Maison 208 this spring on 13th Street between Walnut and Locust, is currently a contestant on the 14th season of “Top Chef,” the highly rated show on the Bravo network (Thursdays at 9 p.m.), must-viewing for foodies, where highly regarded professional chefs from all over the country compete for top honors.
One remarkable fact about Sylva is that he was born in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where nutritious food of any kind is scarce and highly skilled professional chefs are as rare as truthful statements from our current president.
After Sylva’s mother died when he was just 8 years old, he left Haiti and relocated to New York City with his father. “As a child, I never saw myself becoming a chef,” he told us last week. “At one point I thought I wanted to be a photographer and years later, a lawyer. After my very first day at The Sign Of The Dove in New York, however, I knew I was supposed to be a chef.”
Sylva became involved in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP).
It was while working with Marcus Samuelsson, a native of Ethiopia who grew up in Sweden, that Sylva exposed his palate to exotic flavors and ingredients.
“I think Marcus (Samuelsson) influences a lot of young chefs of this generation,” said Sylva. “I worked with Marcus at Aquavit around the same time that he was starting to become the superstar he is now. I admire his ability to always remain humble and genuinely care for both the kitchen and the staff beyond the cameras. These are qualities that I have adopted while pursuing my own career path.”
A year at the trendy Stephen Starr restaurant, Buddakan, in New York, taught Sylva new Asian techniques and flavors. That same year, Sylva entered the Daniel Boulud/ C-CAP scholarship competition and won an all-expenses-paid trip to France and the opportunity to study with legendary French chef Paul Bocuse at the famed Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon.
Despite his fine dining background, Sylva was involved last year with Dos Tacos, 120 S. 15th St., a downscale Mexican place. Why? “I became involved with Dos Tacos,” he said, “because I wanted to test out a chef-driven, fast casual concept for the first time. I played a role in creating the concept and designed the menu for that space. Since then, I am no longer part of that group, and I’ve decided to move on in a different direction.”
Sylva, who still mentors young students from C-CAP, where he sits on the alumni board, is making a great impression on Top Chef, which was taped several months ago, but he could obviously not be asked if he was the winner. (Fans of the show will find out soon enough.) We could only ask him what influence he thinks Top Chef will have on his career. “I suppose only time will tell!” he said. (Two previous Philly chefs, Kevin Sbraga — Fat Ham and Sbraga — and Nicholas Elmi —Laurel and In The Valley — have both been in the Philadelphia culinary stratosphere since their victories.)
What was the hardest thing Sylva has ever done? “The continuous journey of educating myself on how to be a true chef. You can never stop improving and learning new techniques.”
What was the best advice Sylva has ever received? “Just before I left Aquavit for Jean-Georges, I had lunch with Marcus Samuelsson, and he left me with a few words that have stuck with me: ‘From now on, you have to be the best in that kitchen and every kitchen you step into.’”
If he could meet and spend time with anyone in history, who would it be? “I would cook for my old chefs, Andrew D’Amico, Nils Noren and Marcus Samuelsson, so they could see how their guidance, mentorship and ‘tough love’ at times has allowed me to grow and develop my own unique love for food.”
Sylva lives in Old City with his wife, Sandra, who works for a pharmaceutical company near King of Prussia, and their daughter, Yuki.
For more information, visit www.sylvasenat.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org