By Sara Perez Webber
Duff Goldman, star of Food Network’s Cake Masters, explains why he loves the career he never planned for
Duff Goldman didn’t set out to be a Food Network star. He set out to be a rock star. In 2002, Goldman left his job as a family’s personal chef and launched his cake business, Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, so he would have the flexibility to tour as a bass guitarist with his band at the time, Two-Day Romance. “I needed to be able to make money and then have long periods of time where I wasn’t working,” says Goldman, who had attended culinary school and worked in several restaurants—including French Laundry and Todd English’s Olives—before making the move. “So I figured, I’m good at cakes, I can do those out of my apartment.
And then when we had tours I just wouldn’t take any cake orders. So I started a bakery so I could be in a band.”uff Goldman didn’t set out to be a Food Network star. He set out to be a rock star.
His friend Geof Manthorne, who was building architectural models at the time and also wanted to focus more on music, joined Goldman, as did more friends. “So it was a bunch of friends all working together, and we all have the goal of working on our music careers,” says Goldman. “There’s no, ‘Oh, man, can I get some time off?’ There’s no resentment, because we all know why we’re doing this. None of us are doing this because we want to be cake decorators; we’re doing this because we want to be rock stars.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to rock-star glory; Charm City Cakes—which created elaborately constructed, one-of-a-kind cakes—became really successful. “It just kept growing,” says Goldman, who continued to hire Baltimore artists who craved the flexibility the job offered. “The only rule that we had was that you had to be incredibly creative and just be awesome. I encouraged everybody to have a balanced life and to do what it is that they really want to be doing. So it became this place that was very cool, very hip.”
Eventually Goldman and his team caught the eye of the Food Network and achieved stardom in another way—as the focus of Ace of Cakes, a 10-season show that profiled the company and its cake creations, including such show-stoppers as a model of Hogwarts for a Harry Potter movie premiere, and a DeLorean cake for the cast and crew of the Back to the Future trilogy.
Now Goldman is starring in another Food Network show, Cake Masters, which premiered in April and chronicles the extravagant creations of Charm City Cakes West in Los Angeles—including an Optimus Prime cake for the 30th anniversary of Transformers that actually transforms. He spoke recently to Catering Magazine about his background, working in front of the TV cameras and his favorite cake of all time.
CM: What led you into the culinary world after graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with degrees in history and philosophy?
Goldman: I’d wanted to be a chef since I was in high school, and I wanted to go to culinary school, and my parents said, “You should go get a degree first, just in case.” Which was great advice. Going to college, getting a regular undergrad degree is really important for people, because it teaches you how to be an adult and how to think. You’ve got to study and work hard; you’ve got to be self-motivated. Besides getting an education, that’s definitely helped me throughout my career. I’ve written two books now, and I don’t think I could have written a book if I hadn’t written all those papers.
CM: When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
Goldman: I grew up in a town called Sandwich in Massachusetts, and in high school I was working the grill at a place called Sandwich Pizza. My brother was in the restaurant, and he wanted a steak and cheese sandwich. So I put the shaved steak on the grill and started chopping it up with the spatula, and I was talking to him as I was making the sandwich, and I realized my hands were working independently of my brain. And I was like, “Wow, this is something I’m really good at.” It was a motion I was really comfortable with. So I thought maybe I should become a chef.
CM: Where did you gain the most experience in baking and cake designing?
Goldman: I had never decorated a cake before I got to culinary school [at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.]. I went to culinary school for pastry, and it wasn’t because I wanted to be a pastry chef. It was because I wanted to be well-rounded, and I figured savory I could learn by doing, pastry I would learn in the classroom. And it worked out well. It’s funny, because I used to be a graffiti artist—and it’s not a career I would really recommend to anyone; I got arrested a lot. Then I started doing metal sculpture—welding, bronzing, things like that. So in culinary school, when I took the color theory I learned from graffiti and the 3D design I learned from metal sculpture and combined them with baking, and made cakes, it kind of made sense. I was just sort of good at it right off the bat. And my teacher was like, “Man, you’ve got talent, you should do this for a living,” and I was like, “Hell, no, I don’t want to bake.” But everywhere I worked after that, I was the cake guy whenever they needed a cake.
CM: Once you started appearing on the Food Network on Ace of Cakes, did business at Charm City Cakes really pick up?
Goldman: It did, but at the same time, we were like a small bespoke cake shop, making all custom cakes. So the recognition got really big and everyone knew who we were and we got a lot more requests for cakes, but we only have a certain capacity; there’s only a certain amount of cakes we can make every week. I didn’t want to sacrifice any quality for just more quantity. So it’s still, to this day, first-come, first-served.
CM: Do you plan on expanding Charm City Cakes beyond Baltimore and Los Angeles?
Goldman: No, I think two is enough. Your local specialty cake shop is a special place, and you can’t really “Starbuck” what we do. And I think that there are so many amazing cake artists out there. The Food Network has been fantastic for the industry, because Food Network is showing a microscopic sort of view of what we do. And it’s amazing through the years—with Ace of Cakes and now with Cake Masters—the people that watch it and are so inspired that they quit their jobs, and they open up a cake shop, and they’re successful. I love that; that makes me so happy.
CM: Is there a difference in the clientele between the two shops?
Goldman: No, because the way we break it down is Baltimore does cakes for the East Coast to the Rockies and Europe, and then the LA shop covers the West Coast to the Rockies and Asia. So we’ll do local birthday parties for 50 kids, and we’ll do a video game launch in London, and we’ll do a restaurant opening in Hong Kong. It’s whatever’s going on that week.
CM: On the series premiere of Cake Masters, did you really have less than a week to create the Skylanders Portal cake?
Goldman: Yeah, that was true. It’s not TV nonsense. Here’s the thing—I don’t play the produced drama. There’s enough drama in my life that we don’t need to make any of it up. My staff really rises to the challenge when it comes to something like that, making a cake that big and that crazy with that many moving parts—literally [the Eruptor cake, for example, spewed pudding via remote control]—and doing it in a week. They might get mad when we’re there until 2 or 3 in the morning, but I buy them ramen and coffee, and usually after 10, I start buying them beer to kind of keep them going.
CM: Do you feel any added pressure when you’re making a cake for the show or in front of the cameras?
Goldman: You’d think we would, but we don’t. The thing is, you’re making a cake for people, and for those people, in their minds, we are the best in the world at what we do. And in my mind we are the best in the world at what we do. That’s easy to say, but the pressure that we put on ourselves to keep that title in our own minds is tremendous. There’s that pressure of walking into a place with this thing that you’ve built for this person, and just the fear of them looking at this cake and going, “Oh, really, OK…I thought you guys were really good at this.” There’s that fear that never goes away of letting people down. It drives us. So I don’t think anyone is really worried about the TV cameras. We’re all funny, we’re all goofy, so we know we’re going to be hilarious, but as far as the work that we do, we’re doing it for specific people. It’s almost as if you’re a singer onstage, you’re singing to one person, and everybody else that’s in that arena is going to feel the emotion that’s there because it’s directed and focused. I feel like we can’t try to make TV happy, because there are so many people. We just have to make a couple people happy, and everybody else gets to share in it.
CM: What’s your favorite cake that you’ve created?
Goldman: We made a life-size working R2-D2 for George Lucas, and we got to do it at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. And the thing is, George Lucas, he’s the guy who back in the ’70s gave everybody permission to be a dork, that made it OK to fantasize about space magic and laser swords. He created this thing that meant so much to so many people on so many levels…. For me, he’s an absolute hero, so getting to make a cake for him—and we really showed up, we pulled out all the stops—it was such a special thing for me. On a deeply personal level to be able to do my best work and give it to one of my heroes, and to be able to say, “You’re one of my heroes; this is for you,” is just the most incredible feeling in the world.
CM: How did George Lucas like it?
Goldman: He was stoked; he liked it. It was funny because they told me he wasn’t going to be at the party, that it was just going to be all the staff and all the creators of Clone Wars. So we brought the cake out and I started going on and on about how amazing he is, and the whole time he was standing right behind me.
CM: Since you have that degree in philosophy, what’s your philosophy on cake designing?
Goldman: Never, never, never lose sight of the fact that it’s a cake. You can’t sacrifice flavor, you can’t sacrifice quality, you can’t sacrifice freshness, no matter what these things look like. No matter how much work and time and blood, sweat and tears you put into these things, they’re meant to be eaten, and they’re meant to be destroyed. The life of a cake is very short; from the time that you’re finished to the time that it’s destroyed is usually just a couple of hours. You can spend upwards of a month working on a project, and you’ll see it demolished right before your eyes, and you just have to be OK with that. It’s just part of the job, and for me, I think that’s a beautiful part of it. Nothing is permanent, no matter how amazing and beautiful it is.