By Betty Hallock
Los Angeles Times
September 29, 2011
Duff Goldman is sitting in a corner of the semi-secret Melrose Avenue location of his Charm City Cakes West bakery, checking the calendar on his iPhone. On the September schedule are meetings with his agent, magazine publisher Condé Nast and craft store Michaels; appearances and demos in Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y., Napa, Calif., and Beverly Hills; then it's back to New York to present a scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America. In between he's touring with his band to the National Buffalo Wing Festival, traveling to Le Mars, Iowa, to taste flavors for his namesake line of Blue Bunny Ice Cream and working on a giant cake in the shape of a sandwich for the opening of a Chick-fil-A.
"I can't believe I'm one of those people," Goldman says, "someone who flies in and then turns around the same day and flies out." He's like the James Brown of bakers — the hardest-working man in the cake business.
He's also in the middle of figuring out life after "Ace of Cakes." After 10 seasons of the Food Network show that catapulted Goldman to chef-lebrity status but ended in February (to the chagrin of devoted fans), he moved to Los Angeles to open the West Coast version of his famed Baltimore cake shop and shot six episodes of his latest TV foray as host of the dessert program "Sugar High."
Shooting was two months of riding around on his Harley in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans, eating desserts and talking to pastry chefs. For Goldman, it's a departure from the "docu-soap" that featured his bakery, its quirky staff and the sculptural, oddball-themed cakes that captured America — a pinball machine, a Blackhawk helicopter, a '57 Chevy, a scene from "The Exorcist," the cast of "Kung Fu Panda," a bust of Marie Antoinette, the Millennium Falcon, rendered with butter cream, fondant and strategically placed Rice Krispies treats.
"Cake shows were getting saturated," says Goldman, 36. (There are now "Ultimate Cake Off," "Wedding Cake Wars," "Cake Boss" and "Amazing Wedding Cakes," to name a few.) But in August 2006, when "Ace of Cakes" — born of a theatrical series featuring Goldman called " … You! Let's Bake!" — first aired, it was a breakout show that helped Food Network gain cachet and millions of viewers.
More than a hundred episodes later, Food Network in November announced it would cancel "Ace of Cakes" and develop a new project with Goldman, who — in a predictability of marketing that has seized on his facial hair, earrings and tattoos — is occasionally referred to as "the bad boy of baking." After all, the same chef-rocker-jock persona has worked for Guy Fieri, who has become the face of Food Network.
"The concept is not genius," Goldman admits. "I ride around the country, show up on a motorcycle and eat dessert. What's new is how you present it.... I'm a dude on a bike who likes chocolate and custard."
Meanwhile, Charm City Cakes West, a temporary bakery in a former restaurant until it moves to its permanent space down the street near the Ed Hardy store on Melrose, is just up and running — but not open to the public — and taking orders through its website. A satellite of the Baltimore bakery, it already is churning out wedding cakes and cakes for parties. (They start at $7 a serving with a 50-serving minimum for tiered cakes, and the minimum is $1,000 for a sculptural custom cake.)
It's not all sugar flowers, marzipan and dragées. Along with tubs of fondant, metro shelves are stacked with mallets, metal cutters, latex gloves, boba straws (used as supports that displace less cake than dowels), Gorilla Glue, power drills, protective eyewear, painters tape and drywall screws. In the kitchen is a single working oven and a custom metallic purple Hobart mixer sent by a fan that can mix 15 pounds of butter cream.
A staff of seven — all but one from the Baltimore bakery and recognizable from "Ace of Cakes" — works in the makeshift bakery, with Anna Ellison, a former graphic design student who started working with Goldman when he was still baking cakes out of his house, as executive chef.
"Moving knocked us out of our comfort zone," Goldman says. "L.A.'s a small town, smaller than Baltimore [because] everyone talks. I want them to say, 'Hey, these kids are on the ball.'"
While Ellison and cake decorator Katherine Hill work on a fondant-covered Styrofoam mock-up of a 5-foot-tall cake (the preliminary step in their cake-making process), Tim Martin is detailing the gum paste teeth and claws of a rancor monster from "Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi." "You know, when Luke got shoved into that pit by Jabba the Hut…." Goldman explains. "What? You don't know how many teeth a rancor has?"
Martin, the new hire and a special-effects artist who has worked on "X-Men Origins" and "Spider-Man," paints each individual claw and tooth with a wash of food coloring and vodka. Like most of the rest of the staff, he had little or nothing to do with cakes before working for Charm City. "I've worked with dinosaurs for over a decade," Martin says. "It's a mix of two worlds." Martin also has created a true-to-life octopus cake and a giant, Baroque winged angel doing a backbend while holding up a cupcake in one hand.
"There's a process to the experience of a cake," Goldman says. "You walk in, you see that cake [pointing to a wedding cake], you know it's a classy wedding and you're going to get a good cut of meat with that. This cake [pointing to the rancor]: 'Whoa, big crazy monster.' And then somebody tells you, 'Oh, by the way, that's a cake,' and then you look at it closely and really examine it. Then it's cut up, and my favorite part — you're thinking, 'There's no way it can possibly taste good.' But that's what we do. You can't just make a pretty sculpture. It's visual, but that doesn't mean you spend any less time on making it taste good."
His favorite? "Our carrot cake is ridonculous…. Curry banana. Nobody's ordered it yet. I hope they do. But I get it. You're gonna tell your mom you're getting curry banana for your wedding cake?"
And in his post-"Ace of Cakes" bakery, Goldman is pushing the wedding cakes and smaller cakes in an effort to remind potential customers that they don't have to order a $9,000 cake with a working engine. He also says he has a surprise plan for the permanent L.A. bakery: "If you have kids, you're going to love it."
In the meantime, Goldman's still awaiting word on whether Food Network will pick up another season of "Sugar High." His manager-producer and brother, Willie Goldman, is banking on "Duff just being Duff," complete with the raunchy jokes and occasional belching and enthusiasm for learning how to make fortune cookies (as he did in one episode).
"I would love to see an L.A.-based version of 'Ace of Cakes,'" Willie Goldman says. "Speaking as a television producer, it consistently kills me that [some of the cakes here] aren't on TV.... We had one client order a life-size baby elephant. It really would have been the perfect segment for a TV show about cake."
For ordering information or a price quote for a cake, see the Charm City Cakes West website at http://www.charmcitycakeswest.com.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times