Q&A: Sylvia Weinstock
If you’ve ever been in the market for lavish cakes you’ve likely heard the name Sylvia Weinstock. Heralded as the “Leonardo da Vinci of cakes”, Weinstock has created edible masterpieces for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the Kennedy family and is known for her elaborate towers of realistic handcrafted sugar flowers and luscious buttercream frosting.
At 82, Weinstock isn’t slowing down. Having built relationships with some of New York’s most lauded hotels, she and her eponymous company have now partnered with the St. Regis Resort Bal Harbour Resort in Florida. Weinstock talked to NUVO about her continued inspiration and offered some sprinklings of wisdom for aspiring bakers.
NUVO: You’ve been baking professionally since the 1980s, how do you continue to feel invigorated to create?
Weinstock: People inspire me. You set the bar high, I meet young brides and grooms who bring to me the latest looks and the newest fashions and they keep that motor going so that it’s not stuck in time.
NUVO: Does a venue factor into your cake designs?
Weinstock: Oh absolutely, because we work with the design of the room. We’ll work with the menu that they’re having. For instance, the summer lunch at the St. Regis would have a certain type of cake, certain flavours, and even maybe a special look depending on the room and decor the bride chooses. So we take inspiration from everything and the St. Regis is a leader in working with us in terms of the look.
NUVO: You moved to Tribeca before it was the neighbourhood we know today. Does New York ever inspire your work?
Weinstock: I think it’s a great city to live in. I know it’s crowded. I know it’s not the cleanest. You know there are trade-offs but the city has its own pulse and it’s a wonderful city. Some of the architecture and some of the trim of these buildings is absolutely, unbelievably, beautiful. Next door to me was a bank and the doors are solid brass. There’s a pattern, they have an art deco look to them, and that pattern has worked on the side of a cake. You see design elements all around if you have your eyes open.
You have the same thing down in Florida as well. You have old buildings that have, in their own way, a spectacular look to them. The rooms inside, some of the old mouldings, also lend themselves to a design. I remember we emulated columns of a ballroom. But it’s really the client that leads you. You get a woman with a scarf with a gorgeous pattern on it and she likes colour and that gives you inspiration, or someone comes in monochromatic, very tailored, very simple and you know that that’s her taste level. You learn by exposure and experience to be able to read the client and interpret what they want.
NUVO: What is it about cakes that make them so universal?
Weinstock: At a wedding or a birthday, [a cake] is a focal point. It is a point of gathering, for everyone to share in the ceremony of either blowing out the candles or cutting the first slice.
NUVO: You’re notorious for using buttercream versus fondant. What is it about buttercream that you like?
Weinstock: Buttercream is a natural thing. You cut into it easily, you eat it easily. Fondant is something you peel off a cake, for one. Number two, the quality inside a cake cannot really be fresh fruit and cream because fondant does not like refrigeration, it tends to melt. So you put it on a cake with a lot of corn starch or gelatin, all kinds of stabilizers inside so nothing happens to it. I want to give you the freshest, cleanest, most organic—I hate to use that word—but a healthier cake. We’re using fresh eggs, fresh butter, fresh fruit, and fresh cream.
NUVO: What is your favourite flavour pairing?
Weinstock: I love fresh lemon curd and raspberries. I love lemon but I’ve got a husband who dies for chocolate. That’s why when we have a large enough wedding I suggest splitting the layers differently, give half the audience one kind and half the audience another kind and they can enjoy the flavours of both cakes.
NUVO: If you were to create a cake just for yourself, what would that look like?
Weinstock: Well, as I said, I really do love lemon. I would probably do something that’s very garden looking, with ferns and some beautiful flowers on it, viney looking. Not a French structured look and not a gilded look but something very botanical. That’s pretty much how I started decorating cakes, because I do love flowers.
NUVO: What is one piece of advice you’d give young bakers?
Weinstock: Learn your product, master the skills, use the best, and commit yourself to it. When I say commit, I mean that I can wake up at 2:00 in the morning with a pencil and paper near the bed and make a note because it’s on my mind. It’s a totally consuming business.
If it works, don’t fool around with it, keep it. If it doesn’t work, you learn very quickly that it’s not going to happen again. You know certain things. You want a whipped cream cake with fresh strawberries, six tiers? We can’t do that, it doesn’t hold up properly. You want a one tier cake? Yes, but whipped cream is soft unless you start putting all kinds of stabilizers and gelatins in it and then it’s not the whipped cream you know of. So you realize there are certain things that work and certain things that don’t.
NUVO: Tell us a bit about working with the St. Regis Bal Harbour.
Weinstock: I consider it a premier hotel. The level of excellence is extolled to everybody. Everyone knows that the St. Regis is a special hotel with wonderful staffing. So we feel that what we do is a great match for the hotel, and hope that this is an engagement that goes into a marriage.