Sylvia Weinstock's artisan wedding and birthday cakes have traveled from her New York City boutique to locales as far-flung as Bahrain and Johannesburg. She tells The Splendid Table contributor Melanie Dunea about what inspires her creations, what keeps her going, and how she learned to make one of her signature flourishes.
[You can also explore The Splendid Table's cake collection here.]
Melanie Dunea: Being the cake guru of America, do you actually still like making cakes?
Sylvia Weinstock (Photo: Melanie Dunea)
Sylvia Weinstock: I like the product. It's not the making so much, but it is meeting the client, getting to know them, poking into their lives, which I love, and then designing with them and trying to figure out where their level of taste goes. I also like the event, what it should look like, how it should blend, and not overpower while still being a memorable item. Probably the best part is a day or two later, you get a thank you, and maybe in about 18 to 20 years, the daughter gets engaged and you do the next generation.
MD: That's fabulous.
SW: That's the best part of the business.
MD: When you meet a couple, they come and have a tasting. Do you know right away, because you have a degree in psychology?
SW: Do you figure out, "Is this a good one?" Many of them are good ones as they come in, but later on down the line, who knows? Do they still have the same values? Are they still good friends? Do they make a life together? I do get to do the second and third weddings of the original bride, and I'm always asking what happened.
MD: Didn't you just do a cake for a woman who's 87 or 90?
SW: Almost 92, and getting married for the third time to a younger man. "Younger" means about 78 years old in this case. She says he's the dream of her life. She was married for 30 years to one man who died, and then she was married to another man who unfortunately died. Now she has the opportunity to keep a 78 year-old alive.
MD: Did you do her other cakes too?
Photo: Collin Murphy
SW: This is the first one. She is a working woman. She is still the head of an architectural firm at the age of 91. That's an inspiration to all of us who say, "I'm so tired." She's not.
MD: You've done so many birthday and wedding cakes for so many famous people. What is your biggest triumph? What was your biggest success?
SW: My biggest triumph is to survive, which is not always easy. When you own a small, boutique business, you have overhead, you have very skilled workers, and you have to be able to pay the rent and charge for a cake. Boutique people don't make money; they make money on accessories. If you look at Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent, you realize that's the case. We have not come up with accessories yet.
MD: Has it become more difficult these days?
SW: It has become more difficult in terms of logistics, because we do travel with cakes. We go all over the world, so you have to arrange transportation. You get one shot and cannot have an error or mistake. The pressure is exhausting.
MD: What's the farthest a cake has traveled?
SW: We've gone to Abu Dhabi, we've gone to Bahrain, we've gone through Europe, and we've gone to South Africa. We went to Johannesburg with a cake, and now we have a license to do business in Japan.
MD: One of your signatures, besides not using fondant and having this delicious buttercream frosting, is sugar flowers. Tell me about those.
Photo: Collin Murphy
SW: When I first started, you could get a beautiful cake that you could hardly eat because it took two weeks to decorate it, and it was dry and tasteless, or you got a delicious cake that didn't look pretty. The object was to develop a way to make the decorations in advance, so you could store them on the shelf and produce a fresh cake within 24 or 48 hours.
You just affix the flowers. I was a gardener, and I loved flowers, and I would look at them and say, "Why can't I duplicate this in sugar?" I made the sugar very thin within my hand, like when I used to be a kindergarten teacher and use Play-Doh. I rolled it very fine and tried to duplicate a flower. The first one I remember was a rose. I got a rose, took it apart petal by petal, laid it out neatly in a row, and then duplicated the petals. I tried to put them together the way I had taken the rose apart and, lo and behold, I found that I could make a beautiful rose.
Then I was off and running. We made flowers every day, and each of the ladies has a specialty that she likes to make. Nora likes to make tulips, I have someone who makes roses, and someone who makes lily of the valley, sweet peas, poppies, or whatever is seasonal.
MD: You said you're going to Japan. What's next?
SW: Anything. Wherever they want me. Would I like to go to China? Yes. Would people in India like to have our cakes? Yes, as a matter of fact we did send one to India a while ago. I think anybody who would appreciate the quality of what we do and understands the beauty and the uniqueness, we will entertain them.
MD: Let them eat cake.
SW: Let them eat cake, have a wonderful party, and have a long and happy life.