At 40, Sylva Senat has a Who's Who of power restaurants on his resumé, including the Sign of the Dove, Aquavit, Jean Georges, and Mercer Kitchen. The French-speaking native of Haiti, who grew up in Brooklyn, was part of the opening team at the Manhattan branch of Buddakan in 2006. After stops in France and Puerto Rico, he returned to the Starr Restaurant fold and landed in Philadelphia at Buddakan on Chestnut Street. From there, he opened the flashy, Indian-inspired Tashan on South Broad Street, which he left two years before its 2015 closing. Senat also mentors students via the Career Through Culinary Arts Program.
This week, Senat and business partner Herb Reid of the Maze Development Group open Maison 208, a stylish, two-story restaurant on 13th Street whose opening was delayed considerably by arson in September 2015 during construction.
In this new building on the site of the former Letto Deli (and a long-ago Dewey's luncheonette), they have installed a retractable roof over the second-floor bar, believed to be the first of its kind in Philadelphia for a restaurant, and a bright mural that starts at the roofline and moves down indoors through the restaurant.
Tell me about Maison 208.
Maison 208 is basically your fun, inviting neighborhood restaurant. We wanted to be approachable, but we also wanted to have fun with it. We wanted it to be a little outgoing, very open-air, and we wanted it to be that hint of casual elegance that we think Philadelphia needs a little bit more of.
We're calling upstairs the Social. It's a more kind of adult hangout when it comes to cocktails. We have organic wines by the glass, also by the bottle, and it's more of a sipping room, if anything. There are actually two bars upstairs — a large bar and a smaller one in what we're calling the sunroom, next to the retractable roof. There is a separate menu of international bites — things like sliders, a small cheese plate, a smaller salad. It's more about having a little amuse-bouche and less about full fine dining. We see up there as cocktails and dessert. Downstairs will be more traditional full-service dining. We have limited seating downstairs, so upstairs is really part of our waiting area for downstairs. We want to keep it fun, and we want to keep it elegant with a menu that will be more new American. I am French, so it kind of sneaks itself into the menu a little bit, but we are shooting for definitely more new American and approachable.
Some background, please. You were born in Haiti …
I came to America when I was about 8, 9 years old. What brought us to America was both good and sad at the same time. My mom passed away when I was really young, and the only other family member was my father, who has always lived in New York and always lived in America. So when the time came, we just all moved to America with him — three sisters and two brothers.
What were your first impressions of America and New York?
You know — wow. I know it was probably snowing. It was definitely snowing, because I remember seeing that for the first time. We had very cheesy pizza, which was, I think, Pizza Hut, was like the first few memories, and very disappointed when Spider-Man did not speak French on TV. Those were the little things.
How did you get into cooking?
I started cooking when I was very young. But I realized I didn't know how to cook anything. I wanted to go away to college. In high school, I took a culinary class, which was called home ec back then. I think this was my sophomore year, and by my junior year I realized I enjoyed it, and it really took me less time to put recipes together than the rest of the class. So my teacher, Reesa Levy, really pushed me to enter culinary competitions and see what was out there. Through that, I met Richard Grausman, who is the founder of C-CAP, and that just opened so many doors. And, at 18, my very first job through C-CAP was at the Sign of the Dove in New York.
Tell me about your family.
I have the greatest industry-chef family, I think. I have the best wife, Sandar Tsuda-Senat. She's very understanding. She calls these "passion projects," "passion hobbies." Usually, we're moving to another state every time I work at a new restaurant. So it was nice to actually stay in Philadelphia this time. And, you know, she's really, really supportive. I have a beautiful daughter, Isabelle Yuki Senat, who just turned 7. She has to learn four languages — mom is actually Japanese, so she's going to Japanese school, and she just won second place in a haiku contest. So she's really into languages right now. She speaks Creole and French. And, randomly, at school, they're teaching her Spanish. That's five, if you count English.
How much of a setback was the fire?
We literally had to start over. We had to start over. This is why this project is taking so long. And not only that we had to start over — we had to rebuild the building. The foundation was shot, so we had to redo that. We had metal frames that were bent because of the heat from the fire. We had drinks and bites at El Vez, debating whether we should continue this project or not. And from a chef's point of view, I looked at him and said, "I completely understand if you don't want to continue this project." And there was a lot of money that was already spent for him to start … get there and then having to start over. I think for a while, we were just like emotional men standing in the corner just staring at this building every day for months and months until we decided to continue with the project.