US cake designer Sylvia Weinstock, the 'da Vinci of wedding cakes', dies at 91

Sylvia Weinstock was best known for her elaborate wedding cakes. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - American cake designer Sylvia Weinstock, who took the art of baking to new heights with her three-metre-tall wedding cakes and their garlands of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of hand-painted sugar flowers, died on Nov 22 at her home in Manhattan. She was 91.

Her daughters Janet Weinstock Isa and Ellen Weldon said she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in the summer.

Weinstock was best known for her elaborate wedding cakes, with flowers crafted petal by petal and cascading down over multiple tiers of buttercream frosting.

Some creations towered so high that they dwarfed the petite baker herself; American food magazine Bon Appetit called her "the Leonardo da Vinci of wedding cakes".

But she also baked novelty cakes in the shape of cars or dogs or other beloved items for birthdays and other special occasions. After making a wedding cake for one couple, she made another four years later for their divorce.

Her clientele included late singer Whitney Houston, late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, basketball star LeBron James, actor Robert De Niro, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart and various Kennedys and Kardashians.

Even bitter political foes could agree that major events were best entrusted to Sylvia, as she was widely known; she was the choice of the Clintons and of the Trumps, who ordered a 1.8-metre tall, 13-layer confection for the wedding of former US president Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump in 2009.

Weinstock did not start baking desserts until she was in her 50s, in the early 1980s.

At the time, wedding cakes were generally straightforward affairs - a tier or two with white frosting, sometimes sculpted with fondant icing, sometimes adorned with fruit or flowers.

Weinstock introduced a new level of extravagance.

She took apart real flowers, examined each petal for its precise shade and contour, then produced floral-draped architectural stunners in the shape of rose-studded topiaries, baskets of speckled rubrum lilies or bouquets of pink, purple and crimson anemones. On occasion, they rose 4.5m high.

"We never count the flowers on a cake," she told InStyle magazine in 2014. "Rather, we add, and add, and add until it pleases the eye. That could be hundreds, or thousands."

The process was so painstaking, she said, one artist could spend a 40-hour workweek creating just 100 roses.

"Her floral decorations set a new standard in the business," Mr Ed Schoenfeld, the longtime Manhattan restaurateur and a close friend of Weinstock, said in an interview. "She changed the way people thought about cakes."

She also developed recipes so that her confections could travel anywhere and retain their freshness.

She and her husband would often escort the cakes, sometimes buying an airplane seat for the precious cargo and assembling it on arrival.

She once made a cake to feed 3,000 people for the Saudi royal family, who had it delivered on a royal jet.

Some creations towered so high that they dwarfed the petite baker herself. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Her creations did not come cheap.

Colombian-American actress Sofia Vergara commissioned a five-tier cake with thousands of intricate sugar flowers for her 2015 wedding to actor Joe Manganiello. Estimated cost: US$50,000.

In addition to her artistry, Mr Schoenfeld said, Weinstock "propelled" her business by sheer force of personality.

"She was a real New York broad who let you know what she thought," he said.

She never hid her aversion to fondant or her dislike of cupcakes. And once, Isa said in an interview, her mother refused to bake a cake for a bride who wanted it to taste like a Twinkie.

A student of psychology who was happily married, Weinstock unapologetically interrogated her clients for their personal stories. If they had been married before, she wanted to know what had gone wrong.

She also claimed an ability to predict the success of a marriage after talking with the bride and groom. Sometimes, she once said, "I really want to tell the boy to run."

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Sylvia Silver was born on Jan 28, 1930, in the Bronx and grew up in Brooklyn, where her father, Samuel Silver, and her mother, Anna (Benblatt) Silver, owned a bakery and later a liquor store.

The family lived above the bakery, an arrangement that suited Sylvia, who would later live above her own cake business.

When she was 17, she was with friends at Rockaway Beach on Independence Day when she walked up to a group of young men and asked if any of them would go swimming with her.

Mr Benjamin Weinstock, a student at Queens College, stepped forward.

They were married in 1949 and later moved to Massapequa, on Long Island, where she taught elementary school and he practised law while they raised three daughters.

Sylvia Weinstock earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at Hunter College in 1951 and a master's in education from Queens College in 1973.

The family built a country house near Hunter Mountain, north of Manhattan, in the early 1970s. While her husband and children skied all day, Weinstock started baking desserts.

Weinstock did not start baking desserts until she was in her 50s, in the early 1980s. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Famed Manhattan chefs had second homes in the area, and she got to know some of them, including George Keller, the former pastry chef of La Caravelle; he ran a guesthouse nearby and took her on as his apprentice.

Another friend, Mr William Greenberg, who owned several Manhattan bakeries bearing his name, suggested she learn to decorate wedding cakes with flowers.

She did, and he started referring customers who needed wedding cakes, which he did not make, to her.

During this period, in 1980, she developed breast cancer. She wanted to be near her doctors in Manhattan, and her husband was tired of practising law, so they moved into the city.

She recovered, and together they founded Sylvia Weinstock Cakes.

Weinstock took apart real flowers, examined each petal for its precise shade and contour, then produced floral-draped architectural stunners. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

They had a building razed in TriBeCa, which was not yet trendy, and built a four-story town house, complete with a commercial kitchen and office. They later added another floor. The entire basement was a walk-in refrigerator.

Mr Weinstock, at heart an engineer, devised numerous contraptions to facilitate his wife's work.

He converted a pottery wheel with a foot pedal so that she could apply icing in one smooth stroke, and he made plywood platforms for the cakes with dowels to separate the layers. He was the delivery man, too, wearing a T-shirt that said "cake schlepper".

Sylvia Weinstock's signature oversized round eyeglasses made of horn, which kept them light, became the company's logo, imprinted at the bottom of each dessert.

At one point, she had the chance to debut her work at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel. It was such a smash that word quickly spread to other luxury hotels and caterers, and she was booked from then on.

When her husband became ill in 2016, she retired to take care of him. He died in 2018 at 93.

In addition to Isa and Weldon, Weinstock is survived by another daughter, Amy Slavin, and six grandchildren.

Barely slowing down in retirement, she lectured, taught speciality classes and appeared as a guest judge on baking shows. She also licensed her name and taught her flower-making technique to luxury brands around the world, most notably Laduree US, the French bakery.

And she still donned her apron for special events, including the October wedding of Ms Jennifer Gates, daughter of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former wife Melinda French Gates, for whom she designed a six-tier cake with sprays of off-white and light pink sugar roses.

Weinstock's own, postwar wedding had been modest, with 20 people and a small honey cake.

She was often asked in her later years if she and her husband wanted to renew their vows and throw the kind of bash for themselves that they had staged for so many others, with one of her lavish cakes as the centrepiece.

No, she would say. She did not need an audience. She would be embarrassed by the fanfare. She did not even like sweets.

So what if she had not had an elaborate wedding? As she told The Miami Herald in 2013: "I got away with the best guy in the world."

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