Thiago Silva, Cake Magician

August 13, 2015 1:53 pm Last Updated: March 8, 2018 5:30 pm

 

Silva hasn't attended pastry school, but that doesn't stop him from making awesome desserts. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Silva hasn’t attended pastry school, but that doesn’t stop him from making awesome desserts. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Name: Thiago Silva
Occupations: Executive Pastry Chef for the EMM Group (CATCH, Lexington Brass), one of Dessert Professional Magazine’s 2015 Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America, maker of fabulous cakes
Lives in: Jackson Heights, Queens

Pastry chef Thiago Silva’s cakes have wowed celebrities. He’s baked, for example, a piano cake for John Legend, and a champagne bottle cake, complete with bucket and ice cubes (all edible!) for Sofia Vergara. “She loved it,” Silva recalled. “She told everybody at the party that she spent all night making it so they better like it.”

They’re not ordinary cakes, either. Sometimes, they’re rigged up with spinning motors, spotlights, or projectors. And surprise! They’re delicious, too.

For his son's first birthday, Silva made a plane cake, complete with spinning propellers. (Courtesy of EMM Group)
For his son’s first birthday, Silva made a plane cake, complete with spinning propellers. (Courtesy of EMM Group)

Epoch Times: Some of your cakes have electrical elements. How did it start?
Thiago Silva: There are a lot of cake artists now. Cakes are a big deal, like designer cakes, and a lot of people are doing it. I always wanted to try to do it in a way that’s different and that not many people can do it.

So I started to see, what can I add to this? How can I make it different? How can I make it more unique? Most of the time people get cakes it’s an experience. There’s something going on. They’re not getting the cake for just anything, so I wanted to make it even more memorable.

How many times do you see a projector on a cake or a confetti cannon blowing [confetti out of] a cake?

Epoch Times: Tell us about that one, with the confetti cannon.
Mr. Silva: I remember “tripsy, neon, crazy circus cake”—that’s what they asked me for. It was a circus-themed Sweet 16 in the Hamptons. It was a massive cake. There was a spinning element to it. There were lights and there was a fog machine and then a confetti cannon … All that you have to do is turn it on and you press the button from 100 feet away and it goes off.

So as soon they sang “Happy Birthday,” I pressed the button: confetti everywhere. [People] went nuts. I actually scared the birthday girl because it was a surprise. It was a pretty loud bang, and then there was a shower of confetti. She got a little scared but she loved it.

That was the first time trying those elements—that was too much. I do all the electrical, all the carving, all the woodwork on my own, so it’s a lot to take in.

Epoch Times: Where did you learn all the carpentry and electrical work?
Mr. Silva: Still learning! The carpentry, I wouldn’t call it carpentry, I’d call it wood hacking if anything. But you get better as you go along. You mess up a few times. It’s like the cakes. I made plenty of ugly cakes before they got nice.

Epoch Times: Did any of the cakes ever bomb?
Mr. Silva: Like blow up?

Epoch Times: Blow up or collapse.
Mr. Silva: Collapse—yes, unfortunately. My sister’s wedding cake collapsed. She didn’t even see it, it was during her ceremony. I was probably 18. This is way before I started doing anything, and I was helping with so much of the wedding that I forgot about some things for the structure and I thought it’d be ok, and it wasn’t.

It was big. It was five tiers, and four fell and one stayed behind, so we just grabbed the big one, and we just put a lot of flowers on top of it. I felt horrible. But she’s my sister. She still loves me.

Epoch Times: What cake are you proudest of making?
Mr. Silva: The John Legend one just because of the time frame I had—less than a day. They called me the night before. I had just gotten home. The cake store was closed. I had no cake made, I had nothing. I just said, no, there’s no way I can do this.

A piano cake for musician John Legend. (Courtesy of EMM Group)
A piano cake for musician John Legend. (Courtesy of EMM Group)

I’ve made a piano cake before, it took me two weeks. And then they’re like, “Send us the pictures so we can see.” I’m like, “I’m not sending you a picture because I’m not making it. There’s no way.” Then I’m sitting at home. It’s John Legend, I have to at least try. I’m a fan. Actually this one came out better than the one that took me two weeks.

Epoch Times: Do you get to see people’s reactions?
Mr. Silva: Usually I like to. I wanted to stay and meet him. But that day my son was sick so I ran home.

Epoch Times: How much do the cakes go for?
Mr. Silvia: It varies usually. They start at $1,200. They can go up to $4,500.

Epoch Times: Cakes that look beautiful can have a reputation for being …
Mr. Silva: … disgusting.

Epoch Times: So, how do you balance taste and looks?
Mr. Silva: For me it’s a positive thing because everyone looks at my cakes and they’ll be like, “There’s no way that tastes good because I’ve had this from—I’m not going to name names—from here, from there. I see it, it’s amazing.”

Then they eat it and they’re like, “It’s really good!” People always post it [online]—”It looks amazing, but you won’t believe it, it was delicious.”

For me, it was just about finding good recipes that work with the structure. The reason other cakes are bad is because there are some crazy structures and you don’t want them to collapse. But still, you don’t want to jeopardize the experience of eating cake.

For me it has to taste good. I keep it simple, like chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream. When somebody wants to add too many things I don’t want to do it because you’re jeopardizing the structure, and then I have to mess with the flavor. It’s not going to be right. Most recipes I keep very basic but good.

Epoch Times: How is making cakes for individuals different from creating desserts for the EMM Group restaurants?
Mr. Silva: It is very different than what you do in the restaurant. On the menu I get to create what I want, and obviously it’s something that fits the restaurant—the owners are happy, my staff is happy, the guests are happy.

But with individual cakes, you might deal with somebody who has a crazy idea, you might have to collaborate. Sometimes they say something and I’m like, no, but I want to do it just because it sounds crazy.

Epoch Times: You’re from Brazil. How much do you incorporate Brazilian ingredients into your desserts?
Mr. Silva: I use a fair amount. I like to use mango, passion fruit, coconut. There’s something we use in every single Brazilian dessert recipe, which is sweet condensed milk. I have not found one without it. So I use a lot of that in a lot of recipes—be it ice creams, be it custards. It does add a certain type of richness to the flavor profile, not just using sugar. You’re using a different form of sugar. I used to keep a can in the freezer. It gets fudgy. [It doesn’t freeze] because there’s so much sugar.

Sticky Coconut Cake at Catch restaurant. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Sticky Coconut Cake at Catch restaurant. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Epoch Times: What has been the hardest thing in your career?
Mr. Silva: The hardest thing was not going to [culinary or pastry] school. I always wondered, “What if?” But I see a lot of people, students that come in, and they’re mentally blocked a little bit, because in school they tell you a lot of things you can’t do.

They tell you how to do a lot of things, but they also tell you, “This is how you do this, that is it.” There’s is no such thing. There’re different routes to get to the same results.

I’m very open-minded when it comes to trying new things and making something different, and if it doesn’t work, let me find out. Let me try, and then I’ll see.

I still wonder if I went to school, where would I be? But I think it helped me in the long run, because I always want to learn, to push myself to learn a little bit more. It’s been the hardest thing, but it’s also been a positive thing.

Epoch Times: You’re from Queens, which is a hot travel destination these days. What are your go-to places?
Mr. Silva: In Jackson Heights, right by my house, there’s Peruvian food at this place called Urubamba that I really enjoy. Then there’s Casa del Pollo, which has the best fried rice.

I went to a barbecue spot that was pretty good in Long Island City, John Brown [Smokehouse]. The cornbread is really good so I’ve been there a lot. The burnt ends of the cornbread are really good. My son loves it. Sometimes there’s little band there, and he dances.

Epoch Times: Family is big for you. What are some values they’ve imparted to you?
Mr. Silva: Everything my mom did was always for us. I always saw her work hard. Same thing with my dad.

That’s the one thing I’ve always noticed. They worked hard but still made time for us. Everything they did, you can tell they were doing it for us. My mom would work, work, work, and then I would go to the store, and say “I want the Jordans.” [She’d say] “I can’t afford this.” She would take another job, and then she would come home with the Jordans.

I don’t make any decisions without thinking if they will approve it or not. In our family, we’re always thinking about each other’s opinions. What’s my little brother going to think, what’s my big brother going to think? What’s my mom going to think? Are they going to approve? Am I going to disappoint them?

Hard work pretty much sums up my family, my mom, my dad. My dad works six days a week in a restaurant. He’s almost 60.

Epoch Times: What are your dreams for the future?
Mr. Silva: The dream’s always to start your own thing eventually. [For me,] it’s also to help my mom and dad get rid of that busy work lifestyle that they have. So hopefully sooner or later, I’ll figure something out.