Chef Sylvain Delpique has been cooking for a long time. He started culinary school at age 15 when most Americans are still in high school. Since he emigrated from France, Sylvain has held jobs in New Haven and Greenwich, Connecticut as well as all over New York City, working closely with David Burke before he landed at the 21 Club where he has been the executive chef since 2014. He is friendly and warm, and would love to cook for anyone who appreciates what he does. Here’s what The Chef’s Connection found out when we sat down for an interview with Chef Sylvain Delpique.
The Chef’s Connection: Did you go to culinary school and where?
Chef Sylvain Delpique: I did, I went to Challes-les-Eaux Culinary School, I did four years, it’s equivalent to a Bac Pro. So you have two years and then you have a degree and then I decided to go two more years, when I was 15 until 19 years old.
TCC: So you don’t have to do four years? You chose to do more?
SD: You don’t have to do four years. You have different degrees, so the first is two years, the basic, and then you have two more years for Bac Pro and then you can do a BTS, it’s another two years. And then you learn business development and, you know, things like that.
TCC: Has that been helpful?
SD: I didn’t do the last two. I did four, but it would have been, yes.
TCC: Besides here, where else have you worked?
SD: My culinary teacher back at school found me a job in New Haven at Union League Cafe in 2000, so I spent a little bit of time there and then I worked my way up to the city. I worked for Jean Louis in Greenwich, and then I opened a restaurant on the Upper East Side. I worked at Artisanal for Terrance Brennan, who also has Picholine, then I became the sous-chef and chef-de-cuisine for David Burke & Donatella. I became a little bit of the right hand man, and we opened a lot of his restaurants. After that I decided to go back to Greenwich to take a little break from New York City for a year and a half at L’Escale, and now here I am. I came back almost four years ago to the 21 Club.
TCC: But you’ve always lived in Queens?
SD: No, I was living in the Bronx when I first came. Then I lived in Greenwich for a little bit. I lived in Stamford and then I lived in Queens, yes.
TCC: What was your first job in food? Did you do anything before school?
SD: Yes, I left my house when I was 15 so I had summer jobs. My first job was around Lac D’Annecy, it’s a beautiful lake, it’s the cleanest lake in Europe. They have a boat there that does a two hour cruise, and I took a summer job when I was 15 on the cruise ship. So basically you have a two or three hour window where you go around, and then people enjoy the meal and come back to the starting point.
TCC: Were you cooking or helping?
SD: I was cooking, yes. I was a prep cook back then. I started from the bottom! I was still at culinary school.
TCC: Did you always know that you wanted to cook? When you were little what did you want to be?
SD: No, not really. For me it was more like finding a way to make money. I wanted to leave home a little bit and, you know, do my thing. In France cooking is a quick way to make money, it’s the way you learn and that’s it. The passion came afterwards, but it certainly helped. I did four years being from France, four years at school really gives you a good head start on a lot of chefs.
TCC: You finished culinary school when people would be starting it here!
SD: Right. I started young and I was in the right place.
TCC: Were you the youngest when you started? Is 15 young to start?
SD: For my generation, I was one of the youngest. For the generation before mine, 12, 13 years old, all those big chefs that you’ve heard of, all those big names, they never went to school, they all started cooking when they were 12, 13 years old.
TCC: But they didn’t go to culinary school at 12.
SD: They did not. Some of them did, some of them did not. We have like an internship program there where you spend two weeks at school, one week at school three weeks at work, so a lot of those chefs did that as well.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing now about being a chef?
SD: My favorite is not to be on the line every day. No, I’m joking. I like to be on the line, I spend a little bit of time on the line almost every day. My favorite thing is now on a different level, it’s to be a part of different culture, work with different chefs and see what others do out there because being in New York gets you out of this bubble a little bit, the French bubble, I would say. And you realize that there’s a lot of beautiful things coming from a lot of other beautiful places out there.
TCC: Do you feel like you’re in a New York bubble though?
SD: Yeah, definitely yes. After 18 years in New York, I spent half my life in France, half in New York so yes.
TCC: When you started to like cooking as more than just a way to make money, was there a moment when you thought “Okay, I want to do this for the rest of my life, it’s not just to make money fast anymore”?
SD: You have to be in the right place. Being here at the 21 Club now, there’s still a lot of work but you can manage to have a little bit more of a life I would say, and start making plans and start making things consistent for yourself, for work and outside of work. Look, for the past 17, 18 years I would say this is the first time that I find the balance. It’s not easy.
TCC: In finding your career, was your mentor someone who helped you realize this was what you wanted to do? If you had different opportunities do you think it would have turned out differently?
SD: I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I really had a mentor.
TCC: You had people who helped you get these spots though?
SD: Yeah, I did a lot on my own. I learned a lot from everyone I worked for, but I think I did a lot on my own. I came here by myself with not much and everything I learned, I learned on my own and of course with the chefs I work with.
TCC: So what was the best advice they’ve given you?
SD: It’s not really advice, when you look up to the chefs that you work for and you see how hard the business is and then you can see the differences in between chefs that make mistakes, chefs that are successful, how did they become successful and what are the right things to do and what are not the right things to do because in the culinary world there’s a lot of good and bad, it’s a little bit split.
TCC: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Or the strangest thing you’ve ever served?
SD: I’m not into strange things so much. I’ll tell you what, when I was younger back home we were raised in a little bit lower than middle class family, and meat was only there once a week. It was every Saturday and it was horse liver steak. I wasn’t the one cooking it, my dad was but I was the one eating it and I’ll never eat it again. So that would be a little bit of the strangest thing, especially here. You tell people you eat horse liver they’re like oh my god.
TCC: I don’t think you could get that here! What’s your favorite ingredient, or a couple if you don’t have one?
SD: That would be cheese, bread, charcuterie, eggs. All the good stuff.
TCC: All you need in your fridge.
TCC: What ingredient turns you off the most, what would you never cook with, if there is something?
SD: Soy sauce. Where I come from there is not too much Asian cuisine, and I did a lot and ate a lot of it for a couple of years being in New York because here there’s a lot, it’s very good. And then I kind of got sick of it so I try not to use it so much anymore.
TCC: What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen?
SD: My favorite tool…my chef’s knife. You can do anything with a chef’s knife, you don’t need so many knives, you need one good knife.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking?
SD: I like to spend time with my son.
TCC: How old is he?
SD: Ten years old.
TCC: Does he like to cook or like food yet?
SD: I don’t think so, no.
TCC: Is he a picky eater?
SD: He is, yes, very much. Not in a good way, he likes everything that they give you at school, junk food, and doesn’t eat any vegetables. Anything that’s fried is good, that’s it.
TCC: What would you like to do before you get too old to do it?
SD: Get to enjoy some free time, it’s what most chefs don’t have, and take advantage of the benefits from the company a little bit here.
TCC: Are there good benefits here?
SD: Benefits in a way that we own like 46 hotels around the world and I haven’t been to too many of them because I didn’t take the time yet. We had many things to put in place at the 21 Club, and I think that we achieved most of what we were looking for so now it’s going to be time for me to take advantage of those benefits a little bit.
TCC: Is there somewhere in particular that you really want to visit?
SD: Every single place is very particular. That’s one thing with this company, Belmond, there’s beautiful places in the islands, in Mexico, in France, Spain, Italy so I’m a little bit overwhelmed. If I had to choose I wouldn’t know where to go. I’ll probably go to the closest first, Mexico, and then we’ll see.
TCC: Tell us a secret about Chef Sylvain Delpique!
SD: A secret…my temper really changed throughout the years. I used to be a more hot-headed type of chef and I became a lot more professional, softer now, which is not a bad thing.
TCC: So how did that happen? How’d you learn to deal with that kind of stress?
SD: As you progress and as you work your way up, we have a staff of 175 employees and we have the union behind it and everything is structured I would say and there are some things that you cannot do and some things you cannot say and sometimes you realize that the chef is not always right.
TCC: Who would you like to meet?
SD: A lot of people! Lately we have had visits from many chefs, Thomas Keller, he’s a gentleman, we had Dr. Oz yesterday, he’s a gentleman as well, Daniel Boulud came, some very good chefs, good people who appreciate what you do, that are more into the fine dining world but really like to share what other chefs do as well. I’m still young, I’m only 36 and I work at a beautiful place so you get to meet some great people and sometimes they are nice and sometimes a little bit less nice but the people that are nice it is very pleasant to meet them.
TCC: So who do you still want to cook for?
SD: Everyone else. The famous, the celebrities, the players, the commissioners, I like to cook for people who appreciate what I do for them. It doesn’t matter who they are, it could be anybody through somebody famous, I get the same pleasure cooking for them.
TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn? Are you still working on trying to get something in particular right?
SD: The cooking skills are always a challenge because the style of cooking changes every couple of years
TCC: Do you do big holiday things for Christmas and New Years here?
SD: Yes, big time! Thanksgiving is huge. We have 200 people on the first floor, and this year we started to do a buffet, and it was very successful. We did about 500–600 people downstairs, that’s like 800 people there. Three days of prep, turkeys, great food, great vibe. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, by the way. 120 turkeys. And then Christmas: Christmas eve, Christmas day we close. Christmas eve is great, and then New Years Eve. New Years Eve we have a first and then we have a great second seating. Upstairs and downstairs, very festive, I think we put up like 2,000 balloons everywhere, it’s really cool. It’s my favorite time of the year. It’s the busiest but I’m happy to be here.
TCC: Is there something you do with your family to make up for times when you can’t be there?
SD: Yeah, of course I do. I got divorced two years ago, unfortunately, but now I’m trying to do things a little bit differently. It’s never too late, and this job helps a lot. If I cannot make it to a school meeting I make sure to make it to the next school meeting. If I have to be here on a Saturday or Sunday I make sure to double the time the following week. I really try to do the right things.
TCC: Did you have a direction before you became a chef?
SD: The direction changes depending on whom you work for. Some chefs like to party and like to stay late and like to do all those things, and some chefs are very professional, they like to come early, they work out, they have a different style of cooking. You’re on your own there, you have to know what is right and what is wrong. Take the best from both sides.
TCC: Have you had a career highlight so far?
SD: Yeah I did a few pieces. I did the Nick Stellino show, I had a great time, that was in Seattle. He flew me out there for a couple days, he is a very nice man. That was kind of the beginning of me being a chef, and I will always remember that time. I was mentioned in the French paper, Le Dauphiné, in the city that I grew up in so that makes anybody very proud.
TCC: Do you want to own your own restaurant eventually? Do you have a goal?
SD: I’m not sure. Right now where I am, it’s a good place to be. There’s not too many like this in New York. There are only so many options now, you take a corporate job and you start travelling, I want to go the opposite direction. I want to spend more time with my family now. Or you can open your own restaurant, and you work seven days a week for the first six months at least, which is also very difficult.
TCC: You’ve been at restaurants when they’ve opened?
SD: Yes, many of them. It’s very difficult, especially in New York. It’s a very difficult business. If you’re going to open something on your own then you’ve got to put a lot of work into it, and even that might not be enough in New York so for now I’m good here. I’m still young I’ve got a few more years to think about it.
TCC: Do you have a favorite secret tip that you think home cooks should know?
SD: Now social media is out there, you have to follow the right people. There’s a lot of people who do not always put the right recipes out there, and then some chefs always give you the right recipes and the right directions.
TCC: Are you on social media?
SD: Not enough, I cannot keep up with it. I don’t have anybody to help me out with it. We have the 21 Club social media with the marketing director Avery Fletcher, she is great with it. But my personal social media I’m having a hard time with it. I would love to do more, but for me the technology now is not my cup of tea. I still have time to learn! I think that will come later on.
TCC: Do you have women in your kitchen?
SD: Yes, I have a few in the pastry department all women. Otherwise, no. I’ve always had a woman in my kitchen. I like that because it kind of makes everyone else behave so it’s important, but sometimes it’s difficult for the women, I think.
TCC: Tell me a funny story!
SD: There are many funny things that happen in the kitchen, but some things you cannot say. Some of my cooks are Spanish so sometimes the interaction between me and the guys is pretty funny, you can imagine.