PARISIAN world of gastronomy came under shock when it was announced that, after months of confinement because of coronavirus epidemic, one of the French capital’s most chic restaurants, situated in the elegant seventh arrondissement by the Seine, was being closed down.
Sylvestre Restaurant is not the only one to suffer this sad destiny as l’Abeille (Paris 16), la Grande Maison (Bordeaux) and Le Sombardier (Paris 16) had already been out of business for the same reason.
However, as far as our readers are concerned, the news is more than an haute cuisine debacle, and this for the simple reason that Sylvestre Restaurant, situated in the high-class Hotel Thoumieux building, was run by a Pakistani chef in his mid-40s.
When Shahzad Wahid, born in Kohat, came to France with his younger brother Jawad he was only nine years old. Their father had already been serving for many years in the fabled Foreign Légion as a soldier. When granted French citizenship and allowed to bring in the family, he decided to change the first names of his sons to Sylvestre and Jonathan before settling down in the southern city of Nimes where he was posted in an army training centre.
Two Pakistan-born brothers take French gastronomy by storm
Six years later, with the help of their father the two teenagers were employed in the kitchen of the military base as helpers; but this proved to be more than just routine jobs for the enthusiastic beginners. While Sylvestre was fascinated by the delicate art of haute cuisine, Jonathan invested all his energy and talents into preparing cakes and pastries.
Sylvestre’s big break would come in 1990 when, while visiting the military restaurant for professional reasons, the legendary French chef Thierry Marx would accidentally encounter him. Marx was so impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm and inventive ideas for cooking meat, including seafood, and vegetables that he immediately offered him a well-paid job at his famous Cheval Blanc restaurant in Nimes.
Then on, Sylvestre Wahid’s triumphs would prove to be spectacular. After moving from restaurant to restaurant in different cities, including New York once for a brief period, he would be appointed chef at the l’Oustau de Baumanière restaurant in Beaux de Provence in the southern Alps where he would also bring in his brother Jonathan as in charge of patisserie section.
(Today, Jonathan runs his own restaurant in the same city with his French wife Fanny as the chef while he takes care of cakes & pastries section).
At the same time Sylvestre’s reputation as an original cooking master kept on spreading and, following a number of interesting offers, he would finally end up opening his own restaurant in Paris and quickly winning two Michelin stars, the highest French distinction in the world of haute cuisine.
Answering a journalist’s questions, he once described his passion for cooking as an ambition to accomplish the dreams of his customers by creating savory, but also easily digestible dishes.
According to him, “They are meant to be tasty without being heavy, rich without being greasy. Take for example my chicken eggs/celery/white truffles menu. I always use vegetables and meats with minimum sugar and fat contents and prepare them by steaming or hot-stone grilling, instead of frying them in butter or oil.”
Though the two Wahid brothers never forgot their country of birth, it was not until recently that they returned home following an invitation from the French ambassador to prepare dishes for an official dinner in Islamabad.
“It was a very short trip, just four days, but very moving,” says Jonathan. “We managed to see our relatives but also notice how Pakistan is fast developing into a modern society.”
While in Paris, Sylvestre has offered his talents to a wide variety of clientele including movie stars, politicians and business tycoons, for Jonathan the celebrity of his customers is unimportant. “We have quite a number of fans …international, European or local,” he says, “but to me it makes no difference whether they are well-known or not. We just want them to feel happy when they leave our restaurant, whoever they are.”
As for Sylvestre, despite being professionally hampered at the moment on account of severe health restrictions in Paris, he is working on a number of projects to open a restaurant, or maybe a number of them, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, New York or Los Angeles. “This crisis is a tragedy which can even turn into a blessing,” he says. “It’ll make many chefs reflect profoundly over finding new ways to serve their clients. I think the whole thing will be over by early next year.”
The writer is our correspondent based in Paris. ZafMasud@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2020