Are you in for a sweet treat? I’m so excited to introduce to you Judy Lai, the creative and inspiring owner of SilkCakes located in LES, Manhattan and Forest Hills, Queens. Judy is the baker behindthose elaborately detailed cakes with unique flavor combinations that you may haveseen at a friend’s wedding, through my Instagram, or through wedding magazines.Recently, Judy and I had a delightful conversation over the phone (she’s incrediblysweet!) about the inspiration behind her craft and how she comes up with the different flavors. I thought why not let the baker herself tell you all about it! Then afterwards, make sure you take a trip over to either of her shop sites to get a real taste yourself of those moist cupcakes and cakes (and snap tons of pictures, for all you foodies out there!)
Tell us a little about yourself, Judy! 🙂
Let’s see… well, getting into the food industry was something I hadn’t planned. I was studying economics and minored in studio arts! I knew I enjoyed baking since I was in high school, but it all started when my first niece was only 1 year old and I had made her first birthday cake. Now she is 15! From there I started making kids’ cakes. It wasn’t until I was employed at Sony Music when one of my colleagues was getting married that I had made my first wedding cake.
(Photo credit: Judy Lai)
Wow! When did you decide to become a pastry chef?
While I was working at Sony Music for about 7 years, I decided to attend the International Culinary Center (ICC; formerly known as the French Culinary Institute) in the Pastry Program in 1996. While I was studying at night, I worked at Sony Music during the day. After my studies & leaving Sony Music, I was then hired as a pastry chef at L’Ecole. While working at L’Ecole, I began my company in a cake studio on Ludlow Street, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After 5 years of working at L’Ecole, I was promoted to teach at ICC’s Cake Decorating Program. For almost 2 years of balancing teaching and my company, I decided to focus on one job as my health was affected. I made the decision to focus on my company. Now, I have expanded with 2 retail shops (one on Ludlow Street and 2nd one in Forest Hills, Queens).
I noticed recently that you started selling cupcakes at the store. What made you decide to start? Is there anything else that will be new?
I never planned on selling cupcakes but then decided to do so as clients can get a taste of what would be in a customized cake. The combinations sold at my retail shop are a mix of popular flavors my clients have chosen over the years and flavors I have always enjoyed. I’m constantly thinking of new items, not only with the product or design-wise, but taste. For example, I created a milk bread product – milk bread on the outside, and on the inside, there is a layer of a flavored chiffon cake and a filling. There are various desserts that can be made but I want to be known for cakes.
That sounds delicious! Where do you get the inspiration for your flavors and designs?
A lot of it has to do with my cultural background and my time at L’Ecole. Since I was the only pastry chef for the early dinner service at L’Ecole, I handled all the desserts. It was a challenge because I would make desserts for approximately 100 covers a day! But the most challenging, yet fun, was developing the seasonal desserts. I was given an array of amazing ingredients and assistance from many wonderful chefs at FCI. In addition, I collect a lot of cookbooks (here I can hear her chuckle sweetly on the phone!) and I love to find new combinations. When it comes to designs, it’s 50/50. Some clients come in with a design in mind; others I may find inspiration from their party invitations or any element that will be a part of their event. The cake is like a blank canvas. Design possibilities are endless.
(Photo credit: Judy Lai)
Who is your biggest influence and inspiration?
My parents. Definitely. Both of my parents are from China. My dad was a former chef in Chinese Restaurants while my mom would make home cooked meals. I was brought up celebrating Chinese festivities and so what I grew up with inspires the products I make.
Lastly, what advice do you have for anyone wishing to pursue something but may still be “soul searching” as you once did?
I always tell my staff – you really have to be passionate about this profession and you have to love what you do. It is not easy as the hours are long and it can be physically exhausting. However, you will create works of art and doing what you love to do most… and what you may do best!
Check out Silk Cakes at 53 Ludlow Street and their second location at 98-14Metropolitan Avenue, which just celebrated its 1-year anniversary on January 25th! A special thanks to Judy for sharing your inspiration with me and my readers and taking time out of your busy schedule for a lovely phone conversation!