Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking with Sylvia Weinstock, the Picasso of wedding cake designers. We spoke for about 45 minutes and she was as lovely, or lovelier than her cakes are magnificent! In the 1980’s, with no culinary school in her background, Sylvia Weinstock rose to the pinnacle of the wedding industry to become the Queen of Cakes . Weinstock is a former kindergarten teacher with a degree in psychology. She did not start the business until she was in her 50’s and survived breast cancer. Sylvia pioneered the beautiful cake…that was also delicious. Until then wedding cake, unfortunately, was one or the other. From the mid-1980’s until she closed her shop in 2016, she made cakes for Oprah, Robert De Niro, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, Michael Douglas, and Jennifer Lopez, as well as prominent families such as the Kennedys, Rockefellers, and the Clintons. With successful partners in Japan and Kuwait, and additional licensees, her cakes are still available around the world. How she did it was a matter of brilliance, hard work, hiring the right people, and the partnership with Ben, her husband of nearly sixty-nine years. Read our interview below:
YENW: Since interviewing you was on my bucket list, I must ask you what’s at the top of your bucket list?
SW: I want to live long enough to see my grandkids get married! But, I’m not sure if I’ll bake the cake . . .
YENW: Please tell us the genesis of your career as the Queen of Cakes:
SW: I started out selling cakes on the weekends to a local restaurant up at Hunter Mountain in New York. My husband is a skier, he became friendly with some of the chefs that skied up there and they were willing to let me apprentice and critique me. I think mostly they thought it was a real joke because here is this middle-aged woman who has no background and is selling little cakes to the local restaurants on weekends. At the time, I was pretty much self-taught and it was a lot of trial and error. And then, luckily, a couple of people wanted something out of the ordinary, something prettier, something different. And so whatever skills I had, I would put them to work. Soon, I realized I didn’t have all the skills I needed, so I hired people. I couldn’t make all the flowers because the demand for the sugar flowers got to be too much. My first employee was a young woman who stayed with me for 32 years. But I still felt that I should do a figure properly or to do some design. I didn’t have the skills. Somebody recommended that I find an artist, someone who had that kind of skill. That was the beginning. I had a succession of four crafted artists that came out of Pratt Institute. They had skills in drawing and sculpting and I didn’t — I mean I could draw a flower or a cake, but I couldn’t really get into the dimensions of a person’s face and sculpt a figure. But they could. That was the beginning of the expansion. So the combination of you and the artist was what made the cakes? Absolutely. And the quality. Of course quality, and I think personality had something to do with it, too. I mean, I loved my clientele. I loved meeting them, finding out what the marriage was to be about, what they did for a living, what their background was. That really was the part of the business I really, truly loved the best.
YENW: How did you transport your cakes? What was the most challenging venue where you’ve delivered a cake?
SW: I’ve shipped cakes all over the world: South Africa, Mexico, Morocco, Istanbul, all over Europe. The cakes are shipped sparsely decorated, unassembled in corrugated boxes. One of my staff goes with the cake, brings extra layers, creams, flowers, and supplies to finish it, repair any damage and assembles it on location. Most challenging venue: delivering in a blizzard or hurricane. Once we did a cake that never made it because the airline never made it. We don’t want to talk about that.
YENW: Would you like to discuss your most high-maintenance clients?
SW: I suppose a lot of clients are high-maintenance at that moment because they’ve put a lot of effort into this event. It is one of the highlights of their life. And they’ve invited friends, family and acquaintances, or bosses that they work for. And it’s an opportunity not only to have the wonderful, joyous things, but they want it to be absolutely perfect. And as we all know, there’s nothing perfect. But you aim for the best you can.
YENW: What are 3 things you cannot live without?
SW: Number one is vodka. Number two is my husband. Number three – I would imagine the joy of life. I’m a breast cancer survivor– So I appreciate what life is all about.
YENW: If you have no time to bake, where do you buy your baked goods?
SW: I don’t really buy baked goods, and if I have time, I’ll make some cookies, a savarin or a yeast coffee cake.
YENW: What would your last meal be and who would cook it? Do you have a sweet tooth? Would you have dessert afterward?
SW: A big dish of spaghetti and I would cook it! No, I don’t have a sweet tooth. My husband does. I would drink the vodka.
YENW: A career high?
SW: I made a cake for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg!
YENW: A career low?
SW: I would say there were two career lows. Number one: everybody who copies – they can’t be original and do their own thing. When I look at a magazine, and I see a cake, it’s somebody else’s name on it, but “Oh, I did that cake 10 years ago.” And the other low is that it’s a seasonal business. If you want to keep the quality up, you have to be prepared to maintain and pay the staff because you’ll lose them otherwise, even when there’s very little business to sustain it.
YENW: Fun fact about Sylvia Weinstock:
SW: When my husband and I got married, we did not have a wedding cake. We were two college students. We got married during break and had two, three days off. It was a quick wedding in Washington, DC and there wasn’t any time.
What an honor to interview you, Sylvia! Thank you so much for your time!