An icon in the bridal industry and a true NYC legend, Sylvia Weinstock has been creating gorgeous (and delicious!) wedding cakes for over 30 years. Celebs such as Donald Trump, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey have all boasted a beautiful Sylvia Weinstock cake at their weddings. We spoke with the Queen of Cakes to talk about her career (including a stint as guest judge on Top Chef: Just Desserts), her decadent cakes, and why her marriage to her husband of 62 years, Ben Weinstock, is as sweet as ever.
Sylvia, most people know you as the Leonardo da Vinci of Cakes, but some might not know that you were an elementary school teacher. How did you make the segue to cakes?
Did you bake with your daughters growing up?
As a matter of fact, yes, I did. Recently, one of my daughters called me because she wanted to make a yeast coffee cake that I make. So we had a yeast coffee cake session. I have a granddaughter who is over in Jordan right now for six months as part of a program for school. She’s been learning to cook new recipes. She emailed me and wrote, “Grandma, wait until I come back and taste what I can make.” New dishes, new flavors and spices…I can’t wait.
You also use interesting spices in some of your cakes.
Yes, we’ve used cardamom and rosewater for Indian brides. We’ll use spices that are specific to their ethnic culture. I know certain people will choose certain types of cakes. For example, some Asians don’t like their cake too sweet, so they will go for an almond cake with an apricot or vanilla filling. Italians will go for something light, like coffee, hazelnut and chocolate; almost like a Nutella, which is common to their palate. I know that Southerners generally want the cake sweeter than we normally make it.
That is so interesting.
It is! That’s how we get to learn a lot about people.
And you like learning about your customers, as I just saw by witnessing a tasting session with a bride-to-be.
That is one of my favorite parts of the process. I just like people. In order to make my customer come to me, I talk to her and let her tell me something about herself. That’s how you develop a rapport, and that’s how you sell a product. They like you, they trust that and you will create something spectacular.
It’s almost like a marriage as well between you and the customer.
In a way, it is. I like to know who the client is, especially if the person has an unusual career. For me, it’s like opening a box and finding out who the person really is. It’s an exciting experience. The more you know, the more interesting they become to you, and in turn, they enrich me.
And you become even more invested in making them a cake.
I think in many ways, yes. What we do is an art form, and all art adds to the soul and spirit. So the cake does, too. And I have a fabulous staff of people who help me; I cannot accept full credit. We’re almost an extended family in many ways.
Let’s talk a bit about Top Chef: Just Desserts. You were a judge for two episodes. What was that experience like?
The contestants were very nice. I think that sometimes they get so hung up on the show and perfection. They don’t understand that nothing is perfect in life. There are challenges, defeats, but you grow from them. One girl [Malika] was devastated that her cake flopped; it just didn’t make it. She was so upset. As a judge, you’re supposed to be off-putting to something like that, but it breaks your heart. I told her, “Not to worry, it’s only a cake.” You move on from disasters.
It was nice to see that. You reached out to Malika and that strays from today’s reality TV formula of mean judges.
You should be human when you judge. You can give criticism, but you pick them up in a positive way. I said that to one of the chefs who said, “I don’t make wedding cakes.” I told him, “You should try!” The fact that you don’t try means to me that you’re a constricted spirit. Don’t be like that.
Your husband, Ben, also appeared on Top Chef: Just Desserts, when the cheftestants had to make you a 61st anniversary wedding cake. After so many years, what is the secret to a happy marriage?
The key to a happy marriage is that you give each other space. You encourage each other to be their own person. You respect and appreciate each other’s abilities and talents. We’ve never had down times for both of us together. Sure, there were down times in our lives; it might have been illness, careers, friendships, but between the two of us, there was never a down time. It’s a great marriage, and continues to be.
I thought it was darling that he just came in now and asked you what you’d like for lunch.
He’s just adorable!
It’s great that you still feel that way, 62 years later.
I look at him and I feel a warmth and a glow. In the morning, when we’re in bed together, there’s always a nice touch or hug. There’s great affection, respect and friendship for each other, and there always will be.