While most 14-year-olds were gaining practical eye-hand coordination through Mortal Kombat, pastry chef Thiago Silva was developing a different kind of handiwork: cake design. The cake decorating class he took with his mom at that age served as early exposure to what would be an extensive pastry chef career, beginning at Todd English’s Olives and ultimately landing him at EMM Group, a collection of some of New York’s most scene-shaking restaurants (Catch, The General, La Cenita). When he’s not at the restaurants creating playful takes on classic desserts, Silva tends to his cake calling, churning out elaborate designs and stopping at nothing — including a light-beaming Harley-Davidson — to meet clients’ requests. Here, Silva explains his yay-sayer attitude toward cake requests, why Home Depot inspires him, and the reasoning behind that strobe light in his tool kit.
How would you define your culinary style?
For me, there’s nothing better than simple desserts done right. I like taking a classic dessert as a base then trying to make it different and interesting, interactive, and fun. I always love [incorporating] texture, ice cream, and warm-cold combinations — things that get your palate going and get your mind going, “What’s that? What’s this?”
What’s one of your favorite desserts on the menu?
The sticky coconut cake at The General. There are a lot of textures, there’s heat, and there’s cold. The sorbet is shaped like a half coconut, and it’s dipped in chocolate, so there’s a little crunch from [that]. You have the cold from the sorbet, then you have the warm sticky coconut cake, then there are crunchy pistachios. There are so many elements going on; that’s one of my favorites, for sure.
When did your interest in cakes begin?
I started making very simple cakes when I was 14 — simple roses, simple piping. I didn’t have any training in working with the modern techniques I do now; that was all self-taught. But I didn’t realize how much I really liked it until about four years ago when I was first asked to do [a cake] at EMM Group. It was very different and something I had never done before. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and pushed me to look deeper into the cake world and to see what everyone was doing. I fell in love with it.
What’s the most over-the-top cake request you’ve received?
There has been a good amount. One that always comes to mind is a Harley-Davidson cake I did — because of the timeframe and because it was the first motorcycle cake I’d ever done. I had two days notice. They were like, “Can you do this?” And I was like, “Two days notice, I don’t think so.” But then I said to myself, “But I want to do this because it’s a Harley-Davidson, and it’s a cake.” I added a light element to it even though I didn’t have much time. I loved how the cake turned out. I also got a request once for a spinning, exploding circus cake with five machines of light. It was insane, but I made it happen.
Have you ever had to turn down a cake request because it was too outrageous?
Every time I get those requests, I say to myself, “Who do they think I am, Houdini or something? This is not going to happen.” I always tell myself all these things. But then I tell myself, “OK, I want to try to do this.” And then I go for it. And I haven’t said no, really. Maybe I’ll give them [suggestions], but I always try to just go for it.
What first steps do you take when building a cake?
You need a structure to hold it up and support it. There’s carpentry, electricity, and lighting that’s involved. I go to the hardware store, and I look around. I try to see what I can get to hold the cake upright; I start with the structure and take it from there. I take that part very seriously because obviously I don’t want anybody’s cake to collapse.
How do you balance the emphasis on appearance versus flavor — a component that’s equally or more important?
That’s a huge factor, especially because I get a lot of comments from people saying, “I see a lot of cakes that look beautiful but [don’t taste good].” You want to be able to eat [a cake], so taste is just as important to me as looks. I’ve been told several times, “I thought it looked amazing — and then I tasted it, and it just blew me away.” I’ve developed some recipes now that work with that style of cake. And when people have requests for different flavors, I try to incorporate them as much as possible. You don’t want to jeopardize the cake’s structure, but you still want it to taste good.
What might we find in your station that we wouldn’t find in that of another pastry chef?
Pastry chefs are always looking. We go to hardware stores, dishware stores, Home Depot for inspiration — to see how we can use something outside of what it’s supposed to be used for. I have a saw and paint guns. My airbrush machine is something I could not live without, for sure. I have drill bits, electrical lights — and you might find a strobe light in there.
What do you like more about pastry: working a restaurant’s service or creating a cake?
I definitely love every part of it. The reason I like cakes is because you never know what you’re going to get as a request. You’re working directly with someone to make their day special. But when it comes to desserts, I get to be me. I get to be creative and do what our team wants. I love being in the kitchen; producing in the morning and making sure my staff is aware I’m around and tasting everything. Every time we open a new restaurant, I’m there from open to close. There’s a fun element, too, because you get to see people’s reaction to your desserts and how happy it makes them. But I love all aspects, and I always try to be a well-rounded pastry chef. I still have so much to learn in every aspect of my career. So I just want to be a well-rounded chef who knows baking, breads, chocolates, cakes, and sugar. That’s my goal.