At first blush, Thiago Silva seems like just another Brazilian immigrant in New York: a kind, soft-spoken, self-professed momma's boy from Goiânia who moved to the U.S. at age 8 and grew up in Astoria. But in reality, Thiago is a rising star in the New York culinary scene, and at just 28 is executive pastry chef at Catch, one of New York's hottest restaurants. Along with creating delicious desserts for the rich and famous, he also makes amazing cakes. He's made the most incredible creations, from a guitar cake to a Harley cake to a plane cake to a spinning globe cake. He's made cakes for numerous celebrities, from Sofia Vergara to Brooke Shields to New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony.
Thiago also represents the bridge between cultures, of living between Brazil and the United States, an American football fan who loves churrasco. Growing up, he found people had a hard time pronouncing his name, calling him things like Thee-ah-go and Chicago. So he began writing his name T-ago, which he now uses for his website. He confessed he hasn't been back to Brazil since he left as a kid, since much of his family now lives stateside. But it's his dream to go back for the World Cup.
He's also fiercely proud of being Brazilian. I noticed that in many of his interviews with the press, Thiago made a point to identify himself as such. "You always take with you where you came from," he said. He also attributes his work ethic to his Brazilian background. "I grew up with very hard-working parents, who are both Brazilian," he says. "That's what I always got from them." He also attributes the extravagance in his work to being Brazilian. Clients are suprised by the huge size of the cakes he makes. Thiago also tries to incorporate Brazilian elements into his desserts, sometimes using sweetened condensed milk. Of all Brazilian dishes, he especially enjoys churrasco and sorvete de milho verde.
While he loves Brazil, Thiago notes that coming to the U.S. put him on the path to becoming a chef. In Brazil, his mom was a single mother and decided to move to the States in search of a better life. In Goiânia, she worked at a supermarket, doing a little bit of everything, from unloading trucks to stocking shelves to dressing up as Wonder Woman to promote the store. She left Thiago and his sister with their grandparents for two years before bringing them to New York. Once in the U.S., she worked at restaurants and then started her own cleaning business, which she has to this day. She also remarried a Brazilian chef. Thiago's mom is incredibly proud of his accomplishments, and called crying the first time he appeared in the media.
Thiago credits part of his success to his mother. She didn't know how to cook and it was her dream to learn. At one point, she ordered a cake for his younger sister's birthday, but was disappointed with how it came out. She thought she could do better, and signed up for a cake-decorating course. Thiago, then age 13, tagged along to help translate for his mom. He soon discovered that he was a natural, and his mom signed him up for the class. Ever since then, he's been making cakes.
Becoming a chef was his destiny, Thiago believes. "I think it's kind of how God planned it," he said. Along with making cakes at home, he studied culinary arts in high school. He also got into the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which teaches culinary arts to underserved high school students. This year, Thiago returned to serve as a judge at C-CAP's annual competition, which he himself participated in as a student, and to attend the annual scholarship ceremony.
In high school, Thiago's grades weren't the greatest, so he had some difficulty getting a full scholarship to college. But C-CAP helped him get his first job at Olives at age 19, as well as an apprenticeship with a cake decorator. Opting to work in the field instead of going back to school, Thiago spent three years at Olives and then got a job at EMM Group's Abe & Arthur. Less than ten years after starting his first professional chef job, he's now an executive pastry chef at Catch, which opened a year ago. He created all of the desserts on Catch's menu and works at two of EMM Group's restaurants. Thiago has 8 employees working for him but with more restaurants opening this year, he'll be working at 4 restaurants with around 20 employees. Thiago attributes his success to hard work, good timing, and taking risks. He explains to do his job, passion is a requirement, especially given some of the rough hours--sometimes up to 20 hours a day.
Thiago's cakes for the stars began at Abe & Arthur's. There, he offered to make a cake for the owner's father's birthday, creating a gift box cake. The owners then asked if they could start selling his cakes, deciding to invest in his talent. "Next thing I know they're asking me if I want to make Sofia Vergara cake. I said, 'Ok, sure.'" He's made cakes for rappers and rock stars, and NFL and NBA players. He admits he was a bit starstruck when he made a cake for the New York Giants after they won the Superbowl and got to meet some of the players. He told me he also made a cake for Scott Machado, a 22 year-old Brazilian-American who plays for the Houston Rockets. "He's my cousin!" he proudly explained. But regardless of the client, he puts hours and hours into each cake to "try to make the person's day."
Given the intricacy of the cakes he creates, Thiago's not afraid of a challenge. One of his hardest projects was a sweet 16 cake that had two spinning elements that were four feet tall, a fog machine and a confetti cannon inside the cake, and spotlights around the base. He did everything on his own, from baking to electrical work to woodwork, and then had to transport the cake to Long Island and finish putting it together. (You can see the final outcome here.)
While he's gone far in his career, he hasn't gone far from his roots. Thiago still lives in Queens, now in Jackson Heights, with his wife, who's a gaúcha who came to the States as an infant. They met at a Brazilian church and were high school sweethearts. They have a baby on the way, and Thiago hopes his first child will inspire him even more. In the future, Thiago imagines opening his own cake shop or bakery, having his own business to support his family. He also wants to make sure that his child will feel Brazilian, and plans to teach him or her Portuguese. "I'm Brazilian first, and I want my kid and his kid to be the same way," he told me.
Toward the end of our conversation, Thiago let me sample some his spectacular desserts, including a spin on the all-American apple pie with bourbon merengue and strawberry shortcake. This dessert, he explained, was inspired by his mother's três leites recipe and is one of his most Brazilian dishes. At the bottom of the delicious pastry is the três leites part, followed by a layer of strawberries and cream and crowned with an American shortbread biscuit. "So it's literally a Brazilian and American sandwich?" I asked. "Exactly," he said.