Second Acts: Sylvia Weinstock, the city’s premier wedding cake designer

Sylvia Weinstock’s mother was never much of a house keeper. But even as a young girl, Sylvia wanted to set the table, arrange the silverware, give some thought to the presentation. Fast forward several decades, when, on regular ski weekends at Hunter Mountain, her husband, Ben, would ski with the French chefs who worked at the mountain and she would stay behind and bake — testing her recipes on said chefs when they returned from the slopes. They approved — and she got busy.

She was 50, a survivor of breast cancer, and tired of suburban life.

She found a mentor in a retired chef and would spend every weekend baking with him, eventually leaving her substitute teaching job and selling her cakes to the restaurants up at Hunter. She thought baking would be a way to control her work life — keep it small and contained. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Sylvia Weinstock Cakes would soon become one of the world’s most in-demand wedding cake bakers and designers — creating the centerpieces for the most elaborate New York weddings as well as events all over the world, from Abu Dhabi to Turkey to Ireland.

“The Indians, the Russians, they wanted what we did — the grandeur of what we did,” Sylvia recalls. She’s 91 as of this year and still living on Leonard. “But also I contributed to my clients’ happiest times. I measured my success by the pleasure we gave others and the satisfaction I gave myself.”

Once she knew she had something going, she and her husband sold their home in Massapequa and bought a little building in Tribeca — 273 Church at Franklin — back when South’s had the first floor and as she noted, the neighbors were growing marijuana on the fire escapes and there were go-go girls on the corner. It was 1980. Her operation was on two and three; the family lived on four and five. “We lived over the store,” she said. “I thought this way I could control my life. Big mistake. Before long I was working eight days a week.”

Photo by Melanie Dunea

It seems 1980s New York City was primed for what Sylvia would soon be producing: elaborate, fanciful, towering cakes entirely buried in exquisite sugar flowers. She perfected her recipe — powdered sugar, Karo syrup, gelatin and gum arabic — and her technique, one where it is almost impossible to tell whether the flowers are real or sugar.

Ben designed the structural tools she needed to support the cakes, which took on epic proportions. (“Ben was a wonderful man,” she said, “and very handy.”) They delivered and assembled the cakes personally.

She would go on to make the wedding cakes for our own Drew Nieporent and Lee Hanson, for Kennedys, and yes, she says with some regret, for Trumps. For several years running she took an order for a cake that was shipped to DC. Turns out it was for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She only uses butter, for its high fat content, and never ever ever fondant. Never. “No one likes it and no one eats it.”

While one of her three daughters worked for her over the years — Tribecan Janet Isa — it was a hard business to pass on. So instead Sylvia closed the shop a few years ago so she could spend more time with Ben, who died at 93 in 2018. They were married 69 years. She has since licensed her name and her technique — most notably to the French bakery Ladurée, where she knew the quality would be preserved. “Your product is an extension of you — it really is.” This, of course, is Act 3.

Despite all the years of baking, what she really appreciates is good food. When she spends money, she says, she likes to spend it local: Nobu, Tamarind, Petrarca, Frenchette, the former City Hall. When she cooks for herself, it’s simple, grilled food with oils and lemon. Maybe the occasional yeast coffee cake. Nothing formal. Or maybe a yellow butter cake with lemon curd filling and strawberries.

“I’m not into sweets,” she says.

 

13 Comments

  1. She is so fabulous!!! What a great interview of a Tribeca legend, Pam. Love her bubbly but no-nonsense way and so admire her talent.

  2. This is such an inspiring story. Just wow. Thank you for writing this amazing piece! I love that RBG adored her stunning cakes.

  3. Wonderful article. Thanks for inspiring Sylvia!

  4. Wonderful article!!
    How special to have had a wedding cake designed by Sylvia Weinstock. A real work of art!
    I relate to her story about her mother who wasn’t a good cook. It took my mother-in-law to teach me how to prepare an excellent meal and being an artist food presentation was was almost as important.

    • What a wonderful article honoring a legend! Her wedding cakes are exquisite and she was quite ahead of her time all those decades ago! And I LOVE LOVE that RBG loved her cakes and she didn’t even know it!!

  5. No greater joy than having Ben and Sylvia as neighbors. To their delight, once long ago she had my twin girls up to “help her out” with the baking and gave them cookies and cake as reward.

    Her cakes maybe be museum worthy but the secret I want to know is how she always manages to glow brighter and become more youthful the older she gets.

    Thanks for the wonderful article.

  6. I absolutely love this. At one time I was involved in one of the early residential conversions on Church and Franklin Streets, what became the Franklin Tower. And sometimes the baking fragrances from Sylvia’s loft would waft over our building, the old Corn Exchange Bank, and put everyone in a delightful trance.

  7. Great inspiring story of a strong and talented women!
    We love her at A-Uno-tribeca where she buys some of her stylish outfits!

  8. what lovely article and fitting tribute.
    i was fortunate enough to collaborate on at least one cake with her-during the shut down of Superstorm Sandy, we had no electricity down town- which meant none of us could operate.
    i was using space in the kitchen of my friends from CxRA in queens to make and finish my own orders, when I got this request from the VP of CxRA: we need someone to complete a Sylvia Weinstock cake for an event at the Museum of Natural History. Sylvia’s studio was closed. i said, sure- send me the drawings.
    Sylvia was told that her design wuuld be executed by a professional. she asked: who? when told I would be doing the work, she apparently said “great, she knows what to do”
    i executed the design exactly as drawn.
    The Client was happy, CxRA was happy, Sylvia was happy and I was happy– a win/win/win/win

  9. i started baking and making decorative cakes, after i read one of her cookbooks about 21 years ago! the book had a similar biographical story in it. i really wanted to be her apprentice or intern. at the time i didn’t have the guts to knock on her door. i did manage to maneuver an invite to a meet & greet or some tribeca event where Sylvia was honored. i got to talk to her, ask for an apprenticeship, and show her photos of my cakes. she is lovely, and i wish i had the chance to learn from her back in the day!
    you are lucky to have interviewed her. she is a legend.

  10. She’s 91!!!

  11. I always followed Sylvia when I was making wedding cakes about 35 years ago. She was & is so amazing and her work was not to be compared. I learned the British method of making flowers and hand painted them. I had to stop when I developed Lupus and my arms failed me. I was very disappointed and sad. It’s so great to see this wonderful story about a baking icon!!

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