Haitian-born, Brooklyn, New York-raised Sylva Senat has been a lifelong learner since, as a high school culinary student, he walked into the beloved New York restaurant The Sign of the Dove. The teenager rode the train from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Manhattan to experience the “art and symmetry” of the iconic kitchen that inspired him to become a chef.
Today, the executive chef of the Pyramid Club in Philadelphia recalls his internship in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C•CAP) that catapulted him to the kitchens of some of the world’s most famous chefs, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Marcus Samuelsson.
From the former, he learned “simplicity and the artistry of the plate.” From the latter, he learned “creativity and flavor of food.”
When Chef Senat arrived at the Pyramid Club in late 2018, he applied his life’s lessons to create separate dining areas so Members could choose high cuisine, casual dining or bar bites. He remembers only one occasion when he could not meet a Member’s request for a special event menu.
“Sometimes,” he says with a laugh, “the Member wants ‘Grandma’s recipe.’ For that, I need Grandma’s recipe.”
He challenges Members to shop international markets and to learn about spices. After all, even when they are not traveling, there is no excuse not to “taste” a destination.
The following are excerpts from a conversation we had with Chef Senat.
Q: Your experience includes French, Indian and other international cuisines. How has that influenced your menus for the Pyramid Club?
A: All my life and culinary experience is funneled into whatever menu I am currently working on. I pull from every dish I have ever created and incorporate fresh ingredients into that art.
Q: Is there a Member favorite?
A: The Members love the lamb shank with curry and the Southern fried chicken sandwich with pink peppercorn honey mustard.
Q: You’ve become quite a media personality. What is it like to be on shows like Top Chef and Beat Bobby Flay?
A: As a chef, being on televised cooking competitions, knowing what you are going into, there is always that nervous energy. And especially, when it is someone like Bobby Flay or a show like Top Chef, where you meet so many chef superstars, you can become star struck. Like, “Is this real?”
Q: In a Top Chef interview, you mentioned James Beard-honored chef Edna Lewis, who you say is an inspiration to you as a black chef. Have you adopted any of her Southern culinary styles?
A: With Edna Lewis, it was more an inspiration to cook food that was familiar to me. Southern food is very similar to Creole, a mélange of African, French and Caribbean cuisines.
Q: You have a knack, on TV and in your videos, for making a recipe or skill easy — accessible — for a Member. Has this come naturally to you, or did you have to learn to translate haute cuisine? For example, you made the technique to supreme a lemon very understandable in your recent online knife-skills class for Club Members.
A: I think it comes naturally to me, and, as a chef, I personally train the C•CAP students who work in my kitchen. I have a natural patience and understanding for the work they are doing, as I was once in their shoes.
Q: Speaking of C•CAP, you mentor students through the program. Briefly talk about your philosophy of giving back.
A: I sit on the board of alumni of C•CAP Philadelphia. We hold an annual fundraising gala at which many of the students are honored and receive grants and scholarships. We also mentor students in our kitchens to prepare them for prestigious competition.
Q: What’s your favorite comfort food at home?
A: I like to keep it simple at home. I am a breakfast/brunch guy. I like eggs, roasted potatoes, simple green salad.
LAMB SHANK BRAISED WITH GREEN CURRY AND VEGETABLES
- 4–6 lamb shanks
For the Marinade
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 1 cup cilantro stems
- 3 garlic cloves
- 4 Thai green chiles
- 4 shallots, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon green curry paste
- 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seed
- 2 tablespoons galangal, chopped
- 4 long green chiles
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 3 lime leaves, finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons sugar
Blend ingredients into a fine paste. Rub well into lamb shanks. Marinate shanks overnight. If galangal (a Thai ginger) is not available, replace with ginger. For a shortcut, Thai curry paste can be used for the marinade.
For the Curry Sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 onions, sliced
- 2 cups marinade
- 42 ounces coconut milk
- 64 ounces chicken stock
- 1 bouquet garni (lemongrass, galangal, cilantro, chili, lime leaves)
Sweat (gently heat) onions in olive oil. Add marinade and sweat. Add shanks, coconut milk, chicken stock and bouquet garni. Bring to boil. Simmer until meat is tender. Remove shanks, bouquet garni. Blend sauce. Pass through a strainer. Cover the meat with the sauce. Set aside to cool.
For the Vegetable Garnish
- 4 pieces baby carrot, peeled and sliced
- 4 pieces scallion stick, sliced
- 10-12 pieces string beans
- 4 pieces baby turnip, peeled
- 2 ounces fresh peas
- 1 Thai eggplant, cut into quarters
Blanch vegetables and shock in ice. Set aside.
- Cilantro sprig
Heat shanks with eggplant in sauce. Reheat other vegetables with a little butter, salt and water. Place shank in bowl. Surround with vegetables. Garnish with cilantro sprig.
WHITE BEAN HUMMUS
- 1/2 pound dried cannellini beans
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 cup tahini paste
- Salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Pita bread
Soak dried beans overnight in water. Drain. Put in a pot. Cover beans by 2 inches with fresh water. Bring to boil. Lower heat. Simmer about 35 to 45 minutes or until beans are tender.
Put beans into bowl of food processor. Add lemon juice, cumin, garlic, tahini paste, and salt and pepper to taste. Turn processor on. Slowly pour in olive oil. Process until smooth and thick.
After plating, garnish with Za’atar spice. Serve with pita bread.
BONUS RECIPE: ZUCCHINI NOODLES POMODORO
Click here for Chef Senat’s recipe and video demonstration for cooking Zucchini Noodles Pomodoro. This easy recipe is vegetarian and vegan friendly and is a staple of the Pyramid Club’s takeout menu.
Servings: 1 to 2
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves
- 2 zucchinis, sliced thin (julienned)
- Salt and pepper
- Breadcrumbs or croutons, crushed
Mix tomato paste, butter, 1 tablespoon olive oil. Put aside in a small bowl.
In a medium to large pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and garlic. Place over low heat. When the oil begins to warm and you can smell the garlic, quickly add the tomatoes. Continue to sauté on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes or until garlic is toasted.
Add the zucchini noodles and tomato paste mixture. Stir. Season with salt and pepper. Stir 3 to 5 minutes over low to medium heat until veggies are al dente and coated with sauce.
Serve with small garnish of breadcrumbs or crushed croutons.
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