all words and photos: FRANK TURNER
Duff Goldman is one of the many popular anti-hero chefs on the Food Network, his signature bad boy accessory a backwards baseball cap and his tool of trade a blowtorch to mold fantasy cakes. For the last five years he starred in the reality show, Ace of Cakes, that showed him and his crew at Charm City Cakes in Baltimore wield torches and electric saws to sculpt massive cakes to look like tanks, hamburgers, Yoda and other oooh-inspiring creations. See this gallery for an idea.
Duff is now starring in a new Food Network show, Sugar High where he samples mega desserts around the country. In addition to the show, he’s opened a 2nd cake Charm City Cakes in L.A., plays bass in two bands and, like any celebrity chef today, has a cook book out, an international product line (of fondant and cake decoration accessories) and sleeps about as little as the President.
We spoke to him about his music, exercise, and people that request genitalia-shaped cakes.
BYT: When did you bake your first cake? How old were you?
Duff: My first cake…I was probably in 2nd Grade. I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts, I was in the Indian Guides and it was kind of the hippie Native American version of the Boy Scouts, basically for Jews. You know, cause we’re Jewish.
BYT: Was it done out of a synagogue or a temple?
Duff: No, it wasn’t really for Jews, it was something different, an alternative to the Boy Scouts, and my Indian Guide name was Snowy Owl, so the first cake I made was a carved sheet cake of a snowy owl. Pretty awesome.
BYT: Did you know then that you wanted to do more cakes?
DUFF: No. It’d be cool if I could say, yes, and that’s when the heavens opened…
BYT: Did you have an Ah Ha moment of some kind when you realized that you could make cakes that would sort of defy gravity?
DUFF: When we first started decorating cakes when I was in culinary school…I didn’t know anything about cake decorating, it wasn’t something I was into but I was a metal sculptor at the time and I was also a graffiti artist. So I was making street art, I was making metal sculpture.
BYT: On the side? Or were you in art school?
DUFF: I thought about going to art school but I went to undergrad instead. I did studio art and I did subway trains. And when I started decorating cakes those two things came together so my eye for things 3-D and my eye for color came together in cakes and I was…not instantly good at it but I was better than anyone else that was also brand new at it. So all my teachers were like, why are you good at this? Because I was the bread-baking red neck of my class — I was the guy that would carry around a 100-pound sack of flour and make a bunch of baguettes for everybody. [Cake decorating] is usually very fine, delicate work, but the art came together and that’s when they were like, you should think about a career as a cake decorator, and I was like, I don’t think so, I’d rather work in restaurants or hotels.
BYT: So how did you get into cakes?
DUFF: I got sick of working in restaurants and hotels and I got a job as a personal chef. Working as a personal chef it made me realize I just didn’t want to cook anymore. I didn’t want to make food for people.
BYT: Because it’s so grinding?
DUFF: Yeah. It’s too much. I wanted to be in a band. I’m still in a band. The band I was in at the time was actually getting a lot of play.
BYT: What was the band?
DUFF: The band was Two Day Romance. It was an Emo band.
BYT: What’s your band now?
DUFF: My band now is called Sand Ox and I’m also in an Elvis cover band called Danger Ace, which is cool. So I quit my job and started making cakes out of my apartment and I’d go on tour for two months. And then all of my friends that were also musicians would also want to make cakes.
BYT: That surprised me – that you had all these artists and musician friends that were also into making cakes…
DUFF: Yeah, well they weren’t into making cakes. They were into whatever else it was they were into but they were artistic. So the bakery in Baltimore got this reputation as this place where creative people could go and work there…
BYT: …and support whatever their passion was.
DUFF: Exactly. And to this day every person in my bakery has 2 months paid vacation. Not two weeks but two months.
BYT: That’s amazing.
DUFF: It keeps people sane, happy and balanced.
BYT: You seem like you’re extremely busy. Do you ever get to take significant time off?
DUFF: Tomorrow I’m going to Belize to go fishing for one week.
BYT: Where’s your band based?
DUFF: The band is based in Baltimore.
BYT: I know you have a store now in L.A. Do you see the band much?
DUFF: Not as much. We just recorded a 12-inch, just a three song EP with Jay Robbins; he was the singer/guitar player in Jawbox.
BYT: Was that hardcore?
DUFF: It was indie-rock in the mid-90’s.
BYT: And what is Sand Ox?
DUFF: Sand Ox is post-rock instrumental, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tortoise sort of.
BYT: Do you play many gigs?
DUFF: Yeah, two days ago we just played at 1st Ave where they filmed Purple Rain (Minneapolis).
BYT: How do make your fondant tasty?
DUFF: Yeah, most fondants taste like chemicals. We just try to keep out a lot of the stabilizers that give it that chemical taste. If you mix the fondant right you don’t need all that crap in there to keep it together. You can make it easier and just add a bunch of stuff to it, but all that adding of stuff makes it taste like nickels. The price point of ours is still the same, it just tastes better, it kind of tastes like Laffy Taffy which is weird.
BYT: Are you going to be selling it in retail stores?
DUFF: Yeah, it’s sold in Michael’s, Sam’s Club, Party City, and then specialty cake shops, candy stores, online, and we just got into the UK and Australia, I think.
And I’m getting into cake pops.
BYT: And you’re a huge Harry Potter fan?
BYT: So was that a coincidence that you got to make that mega castle cake?
DUFF: Oh no, we’ve made almost every US premiere. Sometimes they didn’t have a party. But yeah we make all the Harry Potter cakes and this was our last big one and it was hard. It was so cool.
BYT: So, you’re here in Washington and Michelle Obama has this huge initiative about people eating healthier and exercising. Do you have any thoughts?
DUFF: I think she’s absolutely right, 100% right. It doesn’t mean that people can’t have cake, but eat it in moderation. For every slice of cake you eat, get on the treadmill. You need to be conscientious but also need to be realistic. And, realistically, people like cake. And I think it’s great that Michelle Obama wants to get this country in shape. I could use it (laughs).
BYT: Do you ever have time to work out?
DUFF: It’s so hard. I was a power lifter in the gym, I was a hockey player, I played lacrosse, I played football at college levels and now I’m eating sugar for a living, which is basically my new show and so it’s a little rough.
BYT: Have you gotten any bizarre cake requests?
DUFF: Anything you can possibly think of.
BYT: Sexual ones, penises?
DUFF: Yup, a lot of those. But we don’t do it.
BYT: How come?
DUFF: Because the guys that work for me are so talented, they’re really, really amazing at what they do and I think it would be…and I’m not a prude, by any stretch of the imagination, I’m a dirt bag, but I think it would be insulting to them and their talent to use their talent to make something like that because they’re so good at so much other stuff. So why have them make…
BYT: …something adolescent.
DUFF: Yeah, when they can make cars and castles and dragons and hamburgers and beautiful cakes. They don’t have to make boobs.
BYT: Are there any cakes you fantasize about making?
DUFF: YES. I still have not been able to make or no one has asked me to make a cake of the eviscerated Ton Ton from the Empire Strikes Back.
BYT: I can’t visualize that.
DUFF: Did you see the Empire Strikes Back?
BYT: Yeah, ages ago, when I was a little kid. I haven’t gone back and watched it since.
Duff looks slightly offended and baffled.
From the crowd: End of interview.
DUFF: There’s a scene where Han Solo cuts open the belly of a Ton Ton to keep Luke Skywalker alive. When he cuts open the belly all the guts spill out. So I want to make a cake of the Ton Ton lying on its side and when you cut it open the guts spill out. I need a fruit roll up bag full of sausage or something.
BYT: Cool. Thanks for your time.