Sylva Senat is right on time.
Sous chef by 25, chef de cuisine or executive chef by 30, "and by the time I'm 40, I want to own a place," says Senat, 33, the chef de cuisine at Stephen Starr's stalwart, Buddakan, in Old City.
He is a study in contrasts, this ambitious but inherently humble sophisticate who presents a striking appearance with his chiseled jaw and long dreads.
A French-speaking Haitian native with Manhattan fine-dining sensibilities, Senat is a kitchen-trained, not culinary-school-educated chef who learned from some of the absolute best: Andrew D'Amico when he was at the Sign of the Dove; Marcus Samuelsson, who made Senat his sous chef at Aquavit; and Jean-George Vongerichten, who made Senat chef de cuisine at 66 Leonard Street and the Mercer Kitchen.
Senat knows that his success did not come without help, and he knows how rare it is to find people of color in topflight kitchens, so Senat is determined to help others who are on the path.
In particular, Senat feels great allegiance to C-Cap, a nonprofit that works with high schools nationwide to train urban teens in the culinary arts, a program that paved the way for him.
As a show of thanks, Senat served as a judge in this year's Philadelphia C-Cap culinary competition, and spoke at an April awards ceremony, where local students received scholarships.
"Everywhere I've gone I've been one if not two of the only African American chefs," Senat told the students. "Even in my kitchen now, I am the only one."
That, he said, should not be an excuse. Indeed, in every kitchen, Senat said, he started at the bottom and proved himself anew.
"This is a career you're working toward," Senat said. "And all careers require sacrifices."
C-Cap has been in the news of late thanks to Wilma Stephenson, the Frankford High culinary instructor whose success with disadvantaged teens was highlighted in the 2009 documentary Pressure Cooker and featured May 3 on the Rachael Ray Show.
At the April ceremony, C-Cap presented students from Dobbins, Edison, Frankford, and South Philadelphia high schools with $452,330 in scholarships to Johnson & Wales University, Monroe College, and the Culinary Institute of America. The scholarships are awarded by the colleges, eager to expand their diversity and trusting C-Cap to identify talented minority students. C-Cap delivered $3.9 million in scholarships and $247,000 in classroom supplies to Philadelphia school students between 1992 and 2009, while the school district paid C-Cap $15,000 annually.
But now the School District of Philadelphia says it will likely stop working with C-Cap in 2012, primarily because it can get more government funding by focusing its career training on hospitality services instead of culinary arts, says Fernando Gallard, district spokesman.
To obtain additional state and federal dollars, Gallard says, Philadelphia must show it is preparing students for more than minimum-wage jobs. And that is not the case in the kitchens of fine-dining establishments, where everybody starts at the bottom.
Senat dates his culinary awakening to the 10th grade when he took cooking as an elective at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn to avoid a sewing class. (He had moved from Port au Prince to Brooklyn at age 7 with his father and brothers and sister, after his mother died.)
His worldview was altered inexorably by Reesa Levy, the culinary arts teacher at Dewey who introduced him to the science of pickling, to the vast varieties of flour, to C-Cap, and to Richard Grausman.
A Cordon Bleu-trained teacher and cookbook author, Grausman, 72, founded C-Cap in 1990 in an effort to create opportunities for disadvantaged teens. And Senat says no one cleared the path for him more than Grausman.
Senat did not have the grades for a scholarship, but C-Cap is more than a scholarship program. It provides products and cooking supplies for high school teachers, and, because Grausman believes college is not for everybody, he continues to work with many students like Senat who go directly from high school to work.
Senat says Philadelphia may not realize C-Cap's larger, intangible, contribution.
"Richard speaks of us [C-Cap alumni] as if we are his own kids," Senat says. "He sees the potential where others don't."
"I was barely 18 when Richard got me into the Sign of the Dove. The variety of ingredients there was breathtaking - and I had never seen a parsnip." Chef Andrew D'Amico agreed to take Senat on as an unpaid underling.
Later, Grausman introduced him to Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit. There, Samuelsson told Senat that, because of his skin color: "You will have to do it twice as fast and better than everyone else."
After working with Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in the care of adoptive parents in Sweden, Senat was dubbed "Little Marcus."
"Marcus made me see I could be called chef one day. I could see a real future. He had a real feel for vegetarian cooking and Swedish mustard, and herring."
After that, at Vongerichten's Jean-George, Senat learned to cook on a Bonnet stove, "and the caliber of food was astonishing."
He was Michael Schulson's sous chef at Buddakan, N.Y., in 2006-07, so this is Senat's second stint with Starr.
"I love Sylva," says Schulson, whose Sampan restaurant has been packing them in on South 13th Street since it opened in December. "He's very even-keeled, and in this industry it's hard to find somebody who doesn't have the highs and lows.
"He's focused, and he understand flavors. I took a shot on him, and he blew me away with his talent."
"And his heavy involvement in C-Cap really impressed me," Schulson says. "It spoke volumes to me about where he started from."
Here in the Philadelphia Buddakan, Senat works under executive chef Scott Swiderski and has the freedom to develop specials and put his stamp on some of the permanent menu items.
Just before coming to Philadelphia, in 2007, Senat signed on as executive chef at a new restaurant, Koco at El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico, where he had a say in the decor as well as the menu. Taking advantage of the island's culinary richness, he served Guava Braised Shortribs; Dayboat Scallops with mushroom, amarillo and edamame ragout and dark rum-molasses sauce; and Pan Seared Halibut with curried coconut risotto (see recipe).
While there, he married a woman he met in New York, Japanese-born Sandra Tsuda, a fashion merchandiser who proved her mettle at the sublimely chic Flying A in SoHo. Their daughter, Isabelle Yuki Senat, is 7 months old now and on her first trip with Mom to Kobe to meet the grandparents.
In little more than a year, the island restaurant and hotel fell victim to the global economic downturn. But Senat says he now knows a restaurant bearing his full imprint would have a French-Modern menu, using classic French techniques and some Asian, mostly Japanese, ingredients, "as accents, not as the strong, dominant flavors on the plate."
And whether they come from New York or Philadelphia, Senat says, his restaurant will have C-Cap students in the kitchen.
Halibut With Risotto and Curry Coco Broth
Makes 4 servings
For the risotto:
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup coconut milk
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
For the fish:
Splash of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon butter
4 (7-ounce) halibut filets
For Curry Coco Broth:
3/4 onion chopped
1 carrot chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
1/2 clove garlic, halved
2 tablespoons green curry paste
6 springs of thyme
21 ounces canned Thai coconut milk
2 quarts chicken stock
Kosher salt to taste
For the salad:
1/2 green apple, sliced
2 purple basil leaves sliced
2 green basil leaves sliced
3 to 4 ounces fresh coconut (purchased whole; ask vendor to cut in half; then scoop out)
1/2 bunch micro green mix
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon Yuzu juice (lime juice may be substituted)
1. Prepare the risotto: In a large pot over high heat, combine chicken stock, coconut milk, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to low and keep warm.
2. Place olive oil in a deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add onions and stir until soft, about 3 minutes. Add rice and continue stirring 1 minute until coated with oil. Carefully pour in the wine and stir until almost absorbed.
3. Add the warm stock to the frying pan slowly, 1/2 ladle at a time; stir until almost absorbed before adding more. Continue until rice is tender and most of stock is used, about 35 minutes. Remove risotto from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese.
4. Make the fish: In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and butter. Add fish to the pan. Sear the fish until golden brown on each side, 5-8 minutes.
5. Make the Curry Coco Broth: In a medium pot, saute onions, celery, carrots and garlic for 3-5 minutes on moderate heat. Add curry paste and thyme, stirring for 30 seconds. Add coconut milk, chicken stock, and salt and bring to a boil. Let simmer until mixture is reduced by 1/3.
6. Make the salad: Combine apples, basil, coconut, and greens in one bowl and combine olive oil and yuzu in another, then mix together.
7. To plate: This dish will be plated with the risotto on the bottom, then the fish, topped with some broth and a sprinkling of salad greens.
Per serving: 1,297 calories, 59 grams protein, 79 grams carbohydrates, 84 grams fat, 97 milligrams cholesterol, 3,083 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
3/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 pound large shrimp (about 18 shrimp, 3 per person)
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons cream of coconut
1/2 teaspoon wasabi
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup brown sugar
large pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups walnut halves
12 julienne slices coconut
micro salad (optional, for garnish)
Splash of yuzu juice (lime juice may be substituted)
1. Whisk the cornstarch, baking soda, black pepper, and salt in a medium bowl. Add sesame oil; whisk just until combined but still lumpy.
2. Pour enough vegetable oil into heavy large saucepan or wok to come halfway up sides of pan. Attach deep-fry thermometer to pan; heat oil over medium heat to 350 degrees.
3. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Working with 1 shrimp at a time, dip into cornstarch mixture. Then, working in batches, deep-fry shrimp until cooked through, about 4 minutes. Transfer shrimp to paper towels to drain.
4. Next, prepare coconut mayonnaise to dip the shrimp in. Combine mayonnaise, salt, coconut milk, cream of coconut, wasabi and kosher salt in a mixer. Blend until mixed. Taste and adjust wasabi and salt to taste.
5. Make candied walnuts to plate with the shrimp: Combine water, brown sugar, and salt in a pot. Bring to boil, whisking. Boil 1 minute. Add walnuts; stir. Toss until the syrup forms a glaze on the nuts, about 3 minutes. Transfer nuts to sheet of foil or a sheet pan and quickly separate the nuts with a fork. Cool.
6. For a garnish, mix coconut slices and greens with a dash of yuzu juice in a small bowl.
7. To plate this dish: Put three shrimp on the plate with a dollop of mayonnaise. Add garnish and sprinkle with walnuts.
Per serving: 566 calories, 20 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 49 grams fat, 126 milligrams cholesterol, 716 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.