Sweet Talk: Ace of Cakes Duff Goldman dishes on fun with fondant and power tools
By Kathleen Cei
Published in Hartford Advocate
Food For Thought
Connecticut Forum panel discussion with Anthony Bourdain, Duff Goldman, Alice Waters and moderator Colin McEnroe. May 14 at The Bushnell Theater, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Sold out. Live simulcast at The Wallace Stevens Theater at The Hartford, 690 Asylum Ave., Hartford, with emcees Dennis House and Kara Sundlun of WFSB. Doors 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $25, available by calling (860) 509-0909. Ctforum.org.
How does Duff Goldman — the 34-year-old star of the hit Food Network TV show "Ace of Cakes," which follows him and his staff of 15 talented hipster artists-turned-cake-decorators at Charm City Cakes — feel about being on a foodie discussion panel with locavore legend/goddess of Green/founder of Chez Panisse (Gourmet Magazine's "best restaurant in America") Alice Waters and celebrated chef/world traveler/bestselling author/ outspoken host of the Travel Channel's "No Reservations" Anthony Bourdain?
"Kind of nervous," Goldman confesses in a phone interview last week, from his custom cake shop in Baltimore. "But excited. Anybody who thinks about what they eat and where it comes from owes it to Alice Waters. Alice is right up there with Julia [Child]. Anthony Bourdain is a bad ass! These are my heroes — and now they're my peers? This is a huge honor for me. I'm kind of a punk-ass compared to those guys."
But Goldman can hold his own. Armed with gum paste, modeling chocolate and an arc welder (his bakery boasts a full machine shop of power tools), a degree in East Asian history from University of Maryland, kitchen cred from working at the acclaimed French Laundry in California (and elsewhere), plus fine-tuned pastry-chef skills from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, this modest, self-described "burly dude" knows his craft. As a teenager, Goldman was a graffiti artist, "which proved to be dangerous and illegal," he laughs, prompting his mom (an accomplished stained-glass artist herself) to encourage him to go into metal sculpture instead.
Coming from a family of artists (who "just have to make things." he says), it was Goldman's great grandmother (a milliner, haberdasher, weaver and baker) that first turned him on to the art of cooking. "I have all her recipes in a shoe box," says Goldman, adding that the only "secret" recipe he owns is one for her strudel. If he were to give it away, she'd come back from the grave and kick his ass, he says.
To pay for art supplies, Goldman always cooked in restaurants after school. "Baking is an art," says Goldman, describing his personal decorating style as untamed, wild, cartoony, and over-the-top. "I'm not a disciplined artist, I decorate from the hip." Though Goldman's the only one at his shop with culinary training, he proudly credits the eclectic Charm City Cakes staff — remarkably, all friends — with teaching him a lot, and making him a better artist. "You're never too old to learn. What we do here is fine art. We really go for it, we push boundaries." The vibe in the kitchen is fun, laid-back and chill — something you don't see much of in the world of food TV, with Gordon Ramsay hot-heads and "Top Chef" back-stabbers. On "Ace of Cakes," there's team work. "No one here will ever work harder than me," promises Goldman. "Even though we all laugh, we're serious about what we do, about doing it right. They're an amazing, crazy team of people. They blow me away." So much so that Goldman closes shop in February to take his staff on vacation to "some place warm" every year.
Their creative confections are seriously sought-after. Goldman drove cross-country to deliver a cake replica of Hogwarts Castle (and the lake surrounding it) for the red carpet Hollywood premiere of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Other cakes run the gamut from keg partyin' penguins (motorized to break dance) to army tanks (that shoot fireworks) to an edible version of Wrigley Field and a three-dimensional German shepherd. For Goldman, it's all about "doing what you're passionate about. My job is to make people smile. Giving people joy, that's an awesome job." Though he makes it all look easy, Goldman admits to being a perfectionist. "If I see the tiniest crack in a cake, I'll pick up a piping bag and caulk it" he says, a standard he credits to his days with French Laundry's Thomas Keller, who instilled in him a "sense of excellence and quest for making things perfect. [Keller] never once raised his voice, but you respect him because he's fucking awesome. He's a bad motherfucker. You want to impress him."
Toughness should come in handy if Goldman gets seated between Bourdain and Waters on the Food Forum panel Thursday night, should a food fight break out. In a Jan. 19, 2009, interview with DCist (dcist.com), bad-ass Bourdain was quoted as saying "Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market." Though Bourdain later backtracked, stating "I respect Alice Waters' enormous contribution to changing the way we eat and cook today. No one can take that away from her. No one should try." Bourdain's disdain doesn't extend to Goldman, however; on MSN TV, Bourdain praised "Ace of Cakes," saying, "I like this show. It's kind of cool. I like Duff and the people he works with. That's the real world of cooking." Goldman will also have a local ally in the audience, chef Carol Murdock of West Hartford's Classic Cakes (classiccakescm.com). "She's a wonderful lady. If I had a cake mom, she's it," says Goldman, who's indebted to Murdock for helping him through his first decorating competition for "Bon Appetit."
On the side, Goldman rocks as a bassist in Baltimore's instrumental indie band "soihadto." While designing cakes, Goldman grooves on Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Juno, Clutch, Dismemberment Plan, Aesop Rock, Squaaks (featuring Charm City Cakes' own Elena Fox) and more. Among the staff, work tunes range from death metal to country, and the Beatles always works for everyone. What about, err, Cake? Yup, Goldman digs 'em. "Their style of writing is really cool and so unique, with horns, great beats and chord progressions." Too bad Goldman won't be sticking around town for their show at the end of May at the Webster. "I would love to."