As viewers of Food Networks’ Ace of Cakes know, producing the confections of Charm City Cakes is likely to involve power tools and a blow torch. Detroit native Jeffrey Adam “Duff” Goldman, 35, who graduated from University of Maryland Baltimore County and the Culinary Institute of America, leads a creative group making cakes that strain the imagination. He also plays bass guitar in the instrumental indie rock band …soihadto…. Goldman was interviewed by Bruce Goldfarb.
WTBH: How did you get to Baltimore and UMBC from Detroit? Did you go to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] before Baltimore or afterward?
Goldman: After. The past goes, I was born in Detroit and we moved to Kansas shortly afterward. Then Virginia and then to Cape Cod, and then I came down to UMBC. I graduated high school on the Cape.
I wanted to get out of the Cape. At any college in Massachusetts, I would have had friends from high school there. I wanted to do something different, where I knew absolutely nobody. So I came down to UMBC.
I did the same thing with culinary school, afterwards. I went to the other side of the country to California, where I knew absolutely noone.
WTBH: You graduated from UMBC and then went to culinary school?
Goldman: Yeah. I graduated from UMBC in ’97 with a major in history and a minor in philosophy.
I’d told my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school, and they said I had to get my undergraduate degree first. So okay, I went to undergraduate school, and I think my parents thought, “He’ll grow out of it. He doesn’t really want to go to culinary school.”
My parents were afraid that I’d be a dishwasher for the rest of my life. They actually told me that.
So I went through school, and I was working for Cindy Wolf down at Savannah [restaurant in Fell’s Point]. I graduated and wanted to go to culinary school, and my parents went “Oh no.…” They were hoping I might find something in the world of academia that would spark my interest.
There was a lot of stuff I did consider for a long time, going into law or studying physics, going to grad school for something that caught my fancy. Everything I learned at UMBC was awesome and fascinating, but not anything I’d want to make a career out of. I didn’t want to be a professional historian. I like history for the stories and the understanding.
WTBH: So from this basis of history and philosophy, you were led to cake. How did that come about?
Goldman: College was a sidetrack from being an artist. I’d been a graffiti artist.
WTBH: You were a tagger?
Goldman: I never tagged, I did murals. I never tried to get my name up on every surface. I only did big, giant murals. Colorful, beautiful murals. They just happened to be located in a place somebody else owned.
I didn’t just go out and write scribbles on street signs and mailboxes. I’d go to a train yard, find a train and paint a full car mural. I wouldn’t do anything less than that, because it isn’t worth it. You can paint a loading dock or the underside of a bridge. Make it beautiful. What’s the point of making concrete uglier?
I listened to a lot of hip-hop when I was growing up. I remember walking by this culvert when I was younger. There was a stream going under a bridge, and a footbridge next to the road bridge. From the footbridge, you could see underneath the bridge. All sorts of curse words were written on the wall. I thought, “That’s no good,” so I decided to get some paint and see if I can do graffiti.
There is a book called Graffiti Art and another called Spraycan Art, both by Henry Chalfant. So I started drawing pictures and drawing pictures, then I went down there and started painting. I was really bad at first. What I’d do is paint something, then paint it white to cover it up and start over. I’d do that over and over. I practiced until I got good at it and had something good enough to be seen in public.
I got chased a lot. Had a few brushes with the law. I had a teacher in school who said, “Look, you really should not do graffiti. You have talent, you’ve got spirit, you really want to make art. But painting trains is not where it’s at. There’s no future in that.” So he started teaching me how to do metal sculpture, welding and brazing and all kinds of fun stuff.
I was of immersed in art. I took art classes in high school, but not in college. I never took a formal art class, because I was worried it would ruin art for me. So I was making art, even in college. I had my own shop, because I was a maintenance guy at UMBC. I had plenty of space to work in and pretty much free materials – don’t tell [UMBC president] Freeman Hrabowski that.
When I got to UMBC, I got a job as a maintenance guy for one of the dorm buildings. I was changing light bulbs and sink stems, minor plumbing and minor electrical work. It was a breeze, and I was getting free room and board for that. If you can twiddle a wrench, it pays for half of school. It was pretty sweet.
I graduated and went to culinary school. I was out there in Napa Valley, right? I had no money. Obviously, there was nowhere to graffiti out there. I didn’t have enough money for welding equipment or metal, or even studio space. So I was like, okay, I’ll pour all my creative energies into my cooking.
It didn’t even come out that I was good in cakes until we started decorating cakes [in culinary school]. I’d never decorated a cake in my life. So we started decorating cakes in class, and I was sort of good at it right off the bat. Honestly, I’d been painting and thinking in 3-D for so long that to put a cake together used some of the same creative muscle. Basically, you’re trying to put something together. You’re trying to make colors go together that you want to see together.
WTBH: Many of your cakes have a high degree of engineering to them. They’re quite sophisticated, structure-wise.
Goldman: Yeah. A lot of what I’d been doing translated into cakes. I didn’t know much about cakes, and what could and couldn’t be done. I didn’t know that you wouldn’t put a motor in a cake, or put a lightbulb in a cake. Somebody asked for a working lighthouse, for example. Pretty much everybody in the business would say no, we don’t do that.
Now lots of people are doing stuff like that, and it’s great. I’m not saying this is all because of me, but I like to think we’re opening people’s eyes to what is possible. People are really starting to stretch their imaginations. They’re making some really cool stuff. You can find some amazing cake decorators out there.
WTBH: You opened Charm City Cakes in 2000?
Goldman: Sorta, kinda. The official opening of Charm City Cakes was March 3rd of 2002, which was the day I quit my full-time job.
It started in 2000, but it wasn’t my full-time money-maker, what paid my bills, until 2002. Before then I was doing maybe a cake or two a month, here and there, just to get the word out that there was somebody in Baltimore making these kinds of cakes.
In the Mid-Atlantic, there was really nobody besides Ann Amernick down in DC within 200 miles of Baltimore and Washington making the kinds of cakes you see in bridal magazines. All the brides see the cakes in the magazines, and they can’t get them. They call New York and have to ship them down, and it costs ten or twenty grand to do that.
People say my cakes cost $20,000. You kidding me? If my cakes cost $20,000 I’d be retired by now.
WTBH: What do your cakes typically cost?
Goldman: On average, anywhere between $1,200 to $1,500.
WTBH: That’s not bad for a wedding cake, for a special occasion.
Goldman: Really. People say we’re so expensive. Every once in a while we do something really crazy that is a lot of money, but I had to take no other cake orders the entire week and had my whole staff of 17 people working on this one project. If you look just at the payroll, it’s got to cost something. I can’t be losing money on these crazy orders.
We’re a small shop. We do an average of 15 cakes a week. It’s a reality show on basic cable, so we’re not all living in mansions.
WTBH: The people you work with are not cake people. For the most they are artists and designers?
Goldman: Everybody went to art school, pretty much. Either to MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] or FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology in New York]. We have one girl from the Corcoran. They’re either pretty much MICA grads or worked in some kind of design field.
Geof [Manthorne], for example, used to build architectural models. When he came to the bakery he applied his skills to the crazy detail in his cakes. It’s incredible to watch that guy put something together. He’ll blueprint his whole cake.
There are some days I’m watching what people are doing, and it’s insane. People are working on all kinds of stuff. I think the secret of the place is that I’ve got this incredible group of people. Just let ‘em go. Every once in a while I have to reel them back. But if you have to reel them back, that’s good. If your employees are just on the edge of out of control, that’s when you get some amazing stuff. It’s when they’re not motivated, they’re just watching the clock and want to get out of there, that’s just not right. When people are excited about work, excited about thinking and challenging themselves, solving their own problems – I really push for that.
Sometimes I might come off as a hands-off business owner. That’s very much not the case. I’m very aware of everything that’s going on in the bakery, checking in with people.
These guys are brilliant. They’re the finest bunch of people. They’re the best at what they do. And I think the reason why we have such a wide range of stuff that we can kick out is that we’re so non-traditional. Nobody knows what a cake decorator is supposed to do. From me on down. Nobody is a cake decorator. We’re constantly experimenting, and not everything works.
WTBH: Not all of your cakes are big productions, are they?
Goldman: That’s a common misconception, that we only make cakes for the rich and famous, which is silly. We do cakes for weddings all around Baltimore, DC and Philly. We’re a real cake shop that’s making very beautiful wedding cakes. Just nice, beautiful wedding cakes that don’t have motors and lights and blood.
Most of our business is straight-up weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs. The ones you see on TV are the crazy ones, the ones that are really out there.
WTBH: How long is your waiting list? I hear it takes a couple of years to get a cake from you.
Goldman: No, that’s silly. We’ve got space in November. When you go to the web site, you see dates that are closed through 2011. The only reason we do that is because we schedule our vacation two years in advance. We don’t take any cake orders so we can all take a break. We have two months of vacation at the bakery. We deserve it. As hard as we work, we absolutely need it or we’d burn out.
WTBH: Have you ever been confronted with an impossible request? Was there a cake that could not be done?
Goldman: Sometimes we’re given really impossible deadlines. Somebody will call and want a cake for tomorrow. I feel real bad, because sometimes it’s something that could be really cool.
One time, [the] David Letterman [show] called and wanted a cake for the next day. I’m like, “Dude, you call me at 4:00 on a Wednesday, and you want it on Thursday night? C’mon, that’s just not fair. If you’d called me last week, I would have moved heaven and earth to make that happen. If you want me on next week, I’d be glad to help you.” He’s like, “Sorry, this is all we got.” So [I said], “Sorry somebody bailed on you and you wanted to fill the slot with the cake guy.”
They call the day before and say, “Hey, can you make us a cake that blows up?” No, I’m not Gallagher.
WTBH: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever received?
Goldman: Oh, there are so many.
We’re doing a ceramic-looking bust of Lionel Richie’s head. It’s from one of those videos, I forget if it’s Say You, Say Me or Hello. There’s one where a woman is working on a ceramic bust of Lionel Ritchie and it comes to life. So we’re doing the ceramic version of Lionel Ritchie. It’s pretty funny.
Regan from The Exorcist, with her head spinning around and pea soup all over. That was pretty out there. Pick a week and there will be something crazy. There’s always something.
WTBH: Considering all of the materials used in your cakes, such as Rice Krispie treat, which technically isn’t cake, is there a point at which it becomes something other than cake? When is it no longer a cake? Is that a philosophical question, or just a stupid one?
Goldman: That, I guess, is a philosophical question. We are a cake shop. We do make cakes. Everything we make does have cake in it.
Many times, when you see one of these things, there’s a lot of structures that goes into it. There’s copper, wood, styrofoam, all kinds of material. In order to make a sculpture out of cake, there has to be some form of skeleton.
Cake is a very porous, sponge-like, very fragile material. You need to support it wherever gravity is going to tug on that cake. If you do the Oriole Bird throwing a ball, there are going to be a whole series of structures inside. If somebody says it’s not really a cake, fine. That’s okay. Don’t order one. There’s only so much you can do with cake itself and still have it taste good.
WTBH: What about taste? Your cakes are beautiful, but people on the program don’t say much about the flavor.
Goldman: They’re delicious. You should come on down to the bakery and taste one.
WTBH: I should.
Goldman: We have a half-hour show, which is close to 22 minutes of actual air time. There’s only so much we can fit into a half-hour show. And the hook of the show is the amazing cakes that we make.
If people want to know about the flavor, try one. The proof is in the pudding. Very, very, very rarely do we have people say they didn’t like it. But sometimes they do.
WTBH: Are cupcakes evil?
Goldman: No, they’re not evil. I just don’t like them. I don’t like making them. I like eating them. It’s just not part of my business. It’s like going into the Audi dealership and saying, “Hey, I want to buy a lawnmower.”
WTBH: When it’s your birthday, are you a difficult person to make a cake for? Are friends intimidated to bake for you?
Goldman: I usually get, like, a meatloaf for my birthday. Some random meat product. I don’t usually get cakes. Somebody will go to the grocery store to get a cheesy sheet cake or something like that.
WTBH: Do Mary Alice [Fallon Yeskey] and Geof have their own fan clubs?
Goldman: Oh yeah, totally. Everybody at the bakery does. People who watch the show have their favorites.
WTBH: Isn’t that weird?
Goldman: Weird in what sense?
WTBH: Well, a few years ago you were just a guy who made cakes. Now you have this public life – the show, books, Internet discussion groups. It’s no longer a simple life, it’s a production.
Goldman: I don’t think it’s all hit me yet. Sometimes it’s bewildering. The power of television to reach people is amazing. People will come up to me and tell me stories, like how they’ve related to the show.
MARY ALICE FALLON YESKY
It’s a show the whole family can sit down and watch. There’s not a lot of yelling and screaming going on. It’s not one of those crap reality TV shows where everything is scripted. It’s a positive, fun show about friends trying to make something happen.
When people tell me that the show made them or their kid want to go to culinary school, that kind of stuff floors me. That’s the best part, knowing that we’re inspiring people and making them laugh.
There’s this whole culture that says, you’re a celebrity – you can’t say this, you can’t say that. I’m like, why? Who cares? People are surprised that I’m so candid about stuff. They say I should watch what I say, that people will blast you for it. And they do. People post nasty stuff on the Internet. We get emails all the time.
WTBH: What’s next in store for you? You’re working on a book?
Goldman: The first one’s coming out November 20. We have about five more planned, different books we want to do.
The first one we had to get out of the way. Not that it was a chore. It was a lot of fun to do. The first one is a really in-depth look at who we are, where we all come from, and why the bakery is what it is. It’s such a weird place.
The book is about cake, it’s about us, it’s about the whole process of how everything happened up to this point, all the silly adventures we’ve gotten into over the years.
Once we get this in print, we’re starting up with book number two, which I think is going to be a straight-up, very instructional how-to wedding cake book, with recipes. I want to do some beautiful classical wedding cakes.
It’s unfortunate that TV follows the really crazy ones. Every week there are maybe three crazy cakes, but you don’t see the ten other absolutely beautiful cakes. They don’t follow those. It isn’t what people are tuning in for. They want to see the bizarre, crazy stuff that we do.
And then I want to do a book that compiles all the knowledge I’ve gained empirically – not just from school. Not just from instruction, but what we’ve learned on the job. All your pitfalls; if your cake does this, turn on the dehumidifier, if your cake does this then you have too much frosting beneath the fondant, or not enough. I want to do a book more for professionals, with really beautiful photography.
And there is humor in everything we do. There will be funny stuff in there – our biggest cake disasters. They’re always fun to talk about, but also to talk about how we bounced back from those. We had a guy drop a three-foot castle in season two. We had it re-baked and rebuilt with about 40 minutes to spare before the party started. That was a huge feat, where everybody stopped what they were doing and jumped on it. We rebuilt that cake so fast it was incredible to see.
So to have stuff like that, where you can look back, laugh about it, and talk about when other cake decorators find themselves in this situation – and they will find themselves in this situation – they will see how Duff dealt with the time his fondant turned into mush. Every problem a cake can go through, I think, we’ve had happen to us.
WTBH: What about a line of bakeware? Anything like that in the works?
Goldman: There’s actually a bunch of stuff in the works. Anything that has my name on it is really more business-to-business. It’s industry products.
I designed a bunch of tools, a bunch of kits and colors, and a bunch of stuff on how to sit down with a client, for example. That’s one of the kits you can buy, with templates for a round cake, a square cake, and an asymmetric cake. It comes with a set of colored pencils and questions you’d ask a customer to really create an individual cake, instead of setting a book of photos on the table and saying, “Okay, which cake do you want?”
“I’ll pick the Everlasting Happiness cake in periwinkle blue.” Who wants to do that? It’s your wedding. Hopefully, it’s the only wedding cake you’ll ever have. It should be something special.
I was approached by a company that basically wanted to buy designs from me that they’d sell to other bakers. They’d sell it as a design by Duff. I was like, “No, no, no, no.” I don’t want anyone to have a little sticker that says Designed by Duff. I want it to be designed by them.
So what I’m doing is not a huge money-maker, but it’s the right thing to do. If I wanted to make a lot of money I could put my name on a bunch of pots and pans. But I don’t need stuff like that. Not my gig.
WTBH: Have you done Iron Chef?
Goldman: I’m about to. There’s a rumor that in October I’m going to be battling Michael Symon.
WTBH: Is the secret ingredient really a secret? You know what you’ll be doing, don’t you?
Goldman: Oh no. I wish. You kidding me? The guy is Michael Symon. He’s amazing. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s probably going to be pork. That’s his go-to.
It should be fun. Mike and I are friends. He’s a nice guy. It should be a lighter, funnier Iron Chef. It’s going to be a straight-up battle, but I’ll be laughing the whole time. But it’s going to be serious. Mike will take it easy on me. It won’t be a bloodbath. He’s probably going to kick my ass anyway.
I can cook. I can do some pretty cool stuff. The guys on my team are all guys I’ve worked with in the past, so it will be like an old-school reunion for us. Now they’re all incredible chefs and have gone on to do stuff. Nobody is famous, so it isn’t like I’m bringing in heavy hitters. Mike was like, “If you bring in some big names, I’ll be pulling all kinds of stuff.” Okay, alright. Nobody you know, just guys I used to work with. That’s the deal we made with each other.
I told someone I’d never, ever compete on a Food Network competition ever again. The Food Network Challenge was kind of a joke. It’s not at all serious. The judges are so antiquated. They don’t know what they’re talking about anymore. The business has changed so much since these guys were actual, viable decorators that they don’t understand how things work.
Those shows are really all about drama. I think Iron Chef is really, truly about the food. The judges are sitting right there. If [chef Masaharu] Morimoto does something over their heads, they’re going to tell him, “What were you thinking? This is crazy!” That doesn’t happen often because Morimoto is a genius.
Iron Chef is a real-time kind of thing, where Food Network Challenge shows are more like American Idol, making people feel bad about themselves.
WTBH: That will be a competition to watch out for.
Goldman: It will be a blast. Mike knows I can cook. I’ve been to his restaurant several times. Every time we see each other we have a total blast. We love each other. So it will be a battle of the bald guys, pretty much.
We’re going to be messing with each other the whole time. But I’m going to try to win. I’m not just showing up to be on the show. I’m there to beat Mike. We’ll see what happens.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILLIAM GOLDMAN