We Chat with Pastry Chef Thiago Silva of The General and Catch

"For me the guest relation is important. Obviously it's great when you hear something through a server, but when you give someone a cake you've been working on for two weeks and see their reaction, it's priceless."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Thiago Silva does some pretty fun things with sugar. At EMM Group's The General, he's got a hot doughnut station out in the front of the restaurant and molds coconut sorbet into a shell alongside sticky coconut cake. At Catch he's plating up buckets of warm cookies. And on the side, he makes celebration cakes that explode graffiti or, recently, one with sugar bubbles and a giant rubber ducky for his wife, with whom he just had his first child.

Silva has a fun laugh, despite the stress of running gigantic kitchens and huge teams. Maybe it's the creative choice in kitchen music (see below). Or maybe it's because he was raised with an inclination for hard work and a strong drive to succeed. We caught up with Silva on how family brings things full circle and how his Brazilian roots seep their way into every plate he crafts.

Let's go back to the beginning for a minute. I want to talk about your mom... My mom!

Your mom. Because you're a little gushy sometimes about your mom. Yeah, I love my mom. Ha!

Your mom had been living here for two years before she brought you and your sister up from Brazil. You were young, right? The first time she came over I was six.

Do you remember a lot about that? I remember her leaving and us staying with my grandparents. It was two years but it seemed like it flew by. I do remember when she came back and how emotional that was. When she came back she said, "We're going to Disney!" In reality we were coming to Queens.

How did that shape you? My mom was a single parent and was always working. So it's not like we saw her all the time because she was always trying to improve our lives. And I was so in synch with my grandpa, who was like my dad, and my grandma, so that void was kind of taken care of. But after we saw her again after that time apart, it was really emotional. I cried like a baby.

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Your mom was obviously a really hard worker. Did that impress something on you? She was always trying to progress and always put us ahead of herself. Whenever there was another little stupid job she could do she took it for the extra money, not for herself but to buy us a shirt or something. And she didn't care what it was; she would always just try to do it the best she could do. That said a lot to me.

Do you feel like you take on too much now, with that background? Yes, yes, yes! I've been working on holding back a bit and delegating.

You're also a singer—do you sing in the kitchen? I do not... Okay, I do. But I always have to have a stereo on.

What kind of music's in your kitchen? Well, now I'm bouncing around restaurants and I let my sous chefs choose. And most of my sous chefs are women. And they love to listen to Disney! It drives me bonkers.

Moving onto your restaurants; what excites you about what you get to do? At Catch I do something that's common to the American palate but with a modern twist to it whereas as the General it's an Asian restaurant. So, yeah, it's like, "Who's this Brazilian guy doing Asian desserts?" But it's kind of pushing me to my limits. I play around with common things with a little difference in flavor, so more like Asian-inspired desserts.

Example? Like a cheesecake put in a spring roll with yuzu and Thai basil. It's just a bit different and Asian-ized.

Does your heritage play into your menu? I feel like I put a little of me in everything. I don't think it's necessarily noticeable but I always try to put a little Brazil into my desserts.

Sticky Coconut Cake at The General: coconut water sorbet
candy pineapple, mango sauce, candied pistachios

Like where? Like the sticky coconut cake at The General. Coconut's a big thing in Asia but it's also big in Brazil, and I use the same soak that I use in my Brazilian cakes. Sweetened condensed milk is in Brazilians' cabinets everywhere and I love to use it. You can't go wrong. Even the custards in the doughnut are Brazilian-style custard that I used to do when I was little.

You have two very big restaurants with a high volume of plated desserts, and you build massive celebration cakes on the side. Why both? They're so different. With plated desserts you need speed and finesse. When you do a cake you need to hold back—it's more detail-oriented.

What about celebration cakes do you like so much? I'm working with another person to do it. Somebody had this thought, like, "Hey, can I get a Harley Davidson cake?" It's not like it's my idea and it went on a menu—it's our idea. It's more personal.

Pastry chefs are often a bit removed from the guests in a restaurant. Does this bridge that gap for you? For me the guest relation is important. Obviously it's great when you hear something through a server, but when you give someone a cake you've been working on for two weeks and see their reaction, it's priceless. And I never found a company or restaurant that I could do that with until I came to EMM Group. They really invested in it. I was always trying to do that, to have that connection with people, with my guests.

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You also do the construction and mechanical things. I saw that crazy exploding confetti cake. Are you ever afraid that something's not gonna work? Always! I don't think there's anything I could tell you that would make you understand how much pressure is on me when I do these because every cake is a first timer. Every time.

So you didn't make a test "blow-up-confetti-cake" before to try it out? No, I had never tested that confetti cake. It was crazy. A tremendous amount of pressure. Because that's it. If you mess that huge project you can't go back and fix it.

How much do you take into consideration how the cake is going to taste? Because after being manhandled so much—brushed, sprayed, molded, moved—I usually wonder if the cake inside has been given the same amount of love. Yeah, one thing that pisses me off is when I make this massive cake, and they don't eat it. I do take a lot of pride in making a cake that your guests are going to eat and enjoy. It's really important to me.

So, you've been baking since you were little. Since I was thirteen.

Do you recall a moment of paying your mom back or making her proud, that you felt like you've made it to some degree? I don't think there's anything I could do to make her not proud of me, knowing my mom. But I always want to do more, and eventually I want her to stop working. I want to be able to help out. That's what I'm trying to do.

You just had your first child, baby James! What do you want food to mean to him most prevalently? Well, I don't want him to be like his mother; I want him to eat everything.

Your wife is a picky eater? She's the worst. You can put that in, I tell her all the time. I definitely want my son to try everything once—"don't say you don't like it if you haven't tried it". And I want my kids to know how to cook.

What, to you, is the most important thing about knowing how to cook? It's just so gratifying. Not only when you've had a rough day and you make yourself something but also when you do that for your family or a friend—they come home and are miserable and you see how much better it makes them feel. No matter what happens, or how bad life is, people always want to go out and eat. It's just something that you have to be able to know how to do—to cook for people and see how they feel, how gratifying it is. I think if you're a chef, that's why you do it—it's a lot of hard work, but it all pays off. I just want my son to eat everything.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks things now and then for her bread and butter. Read her rambles, grab her recipes and chat her up at www.thedustybaker.com or tweet excessively with her at @dustybakergal.

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