Tell me about your background. How did you get into cooking? “When I was 14, I was a graffiti artist and couldn’t really bum money off my parents for spray paint. I got a job at McDonald’s to make money for paint. Later, I got into metal sculpture, and that was even more expensive, so in high school I started working as a cook. I was just good at it, and I fell in love with it. In college, I started working in fine dining, and that’s where I started with baking. I got my foot in the door with this chef who taught me to bake cornbread biscuits, and I did that every day for like two years and got really good at it. There’s something about baking; you’ve really gotta have the right temperament for it. And I guess I do.”
What about baking and cake-making appeal to you over cooking? “It’s really thoughtful in that you’re a lot more sensitive to your environment—the temperature in the room, the humidity, your elevation. Generally speaking, it’s not harder to cook a steak at 8,000 feet than at sea level. But in baking, a recipe for sea level just is not gonna work at 8,000 feet. You have to be more mindful of what’s going on around you. The order you use ingredients and the techniques you use really make a big difference. I can take flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, and make a thousand different things out of them.”
I pulled this from your Wikipedia page, but I hope it’s true: Did you really graduate from Sandwich High School? “I did! Sandwich is a little town on Cape Cod that has like two stoplights. The police cars really do say Sandwich Police, and I actually worked at a place called Sandwich Pizza.”
You play bass in an all-chef band called Foie Grock. How did that get started? “I went to the opening of a new restaurant in Los Angeles, and Bruce Kalman [chef at Union and now Foie Grock’s singer/guitarist] was there. I’d never met him before and we started talking, and somebody looked at us and told us we should be in a rock band. I said I play bass and Bruce said he plays guitar and sings, so we started one! Our drummer is Bruce’s general manager; everybody in the band is in the industry. We’re all in our forties, and at our age, we can’t commit to writing songs and touring, but I missed playing music.”
What kind of music do you play? “We started a cover band. Everybody has different taste in music, and we try to get some deeper cuts—‘Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, a lot of ’90s stuff, a lot of Led Zeppelin, ‘Hold the Line’ by Toto. Fun songs. We try to get together twice a month and practice. We’ve played a few club gigs, but the ones that are the most fun are when we play charity events. I’ll do a cake, Bruce will do some food, and we’ll all bring our instruments and play something. I’m pretty well-known, and Bruce is pretty well-known, so people get excited about it and it’s a good selling point for the charity. We make the time to do it because it’s important to us. Music really becomes a part of you when you do it for a while. Music and food really go together well, and there’s an intangible relationship between how you think of food and how you think of music.”
Out of all the cakes you’ve made in your career, which one are you most proud of? “I’m a huge nerd. I love sci-fi. We got to make a life-size, working R2-D2 cake for [Star Wars creator] George Lucas and present it to him. For me, that was pretty special. To be able to say thank you to him with some of my best work, it really felt great. It was so cool, and he loved it.”
How can home bakers get better at decorating cakes? “When you’re decorating a cake, always plan it out. You can’t decorate a cake like you’re making a stew and just throw stuff in there at random. You have to have a plan of attack. Do a sketch, think about what you’re gonna do before you start getting your hands dirty. But the biggest thing—I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true—is that you’ve gotta have fun. Make sure you have the time to do it and you’re enjoying the process.”
What’s your home kitchen like? “I have a galley kitchen, narrow and long, that I find it’s easier to move around in for one person. My apartment’s sorta one big space and I built this kitchen area out into where my dining room table should be. There’s a 200-gallon saltwater fish tank in the kitchen island. There are three clownfish in there. They all have their own names, but together they’re the Insane Clown Posse.”
What’s your favorite non-cake dish to cook? “I’m a meat guy. I love meat. I practically had Kansas City barbecue sauce in my baby bottle. I love to make barbecue, and I think one of the reasons I love it is that it’s a process like baking. It’s not hard to sear a nice ribeye and have it be tasty, but taking a cut of meat like brisket that’s less desirable and tougher, and making something delicious out of it, that’s a much longer process. And I feel like the end result tastes much better.”
Tell us about your new show Dessert Games and how it came about. “I was up in Santa Rosa to be a judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, and we’ve got this beautiful supermarket set with literally every item possible you can imagine. It’s there all year but it sits empty when they’re not filming, and I thought we could use it for a dessert show.”
The show challenges pastry chefs to tasks like creating an extravagant treat on a minuscule budget or turning the ingredients for ravioli into a rich dessert. How did the food taste? “I am amazed at how good the chefs are. As we were coming up with the different challenges, I’d come up with ideas for what I’d do in that situation. But I’d see what the contestants would come up with and I’ be blown away. They made microwave brownies that were delicious, super-fast ice cream with liquid nitrogen; it was really cool.”
This past January, you found yourself at the center of a minor controversy when the cake served at Donald Trump’s inauguration turned out to be a copy of the one you created for Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. How did that play out? “It’s funny because when it happened, my sous chef in Baltimore just texted me to see if I’d seen it. I wasn’t really mad, but it was just one of those head-scratchers. I put it on Twitter saying ‘this is interesting’ and went to bed. I woke up the next day with 100,000 retweets and said, ‘oh shit, what did I do?’ I wasn’t angry; I was amused. And it was amazing to me just the amount of anger on both sides and how such an incredibly innocuous thing as a cake became this lightning rod for people’s feelings. People on the left were mad at me because I wasn’t angry enough. And then there was a lot of anger on the right with people calling me a Hollywood liberal when I didn’t say anything negative about it. That just made it really real for me, the level of anger that people have. The country was in shock. I talked to the baker who made Trump’s cake, and she was so cool. She actually donated the profits of the cake to the Human Rights Campaign or a charity like that. It was an interesting couple days. I did get a lot more followers out of it!”
You split your time between Los Angeles and Baltimore. What are some of your favorite restaurants in both cities? “In Baltimore, there’s a little Italian deli called Trinacria, and they’ve got the craziest sandwiches. They bake the bread right there, their pesto is off the chain, and it’s like five bucks. It’s not the shiniest, nicest, hippest place, but it’s old-school Baltimore and delicious. There’s also an Indian restaurant called the Ambassador Dining Room that I love. It’s in in the lobby of an apartment building from the 1920s and spills out into this beautiful garden that they share with a Masonic temple. It’s in a neat part of town called Charles Village, and it’s really nice. You get dressed up when you go eat there. The food’s incredible. My favorite dish is the whole trout—it’s pan-fried with this tamarind glaze. Really, really something.
“In Los Angeles, there’s a restaurant I love called Union in Pasadena, and it’s not just because I’m in a band with the chef! It’s one of those restaurants that you definitely aren’t gonna leave hungry. It’s Italian-ish—incredible pasta—but there’s so much more. The meatball is amazing; an order is just one giant meatball. The spaghetti is amazing, too. The sauce is like something I’ve never encountered before. Once a week they close down for lunch, and Bruce butchers a whole pig in the dining room. It’s too small to do it in the kitchen, so he does it in the dining room! I also love Ink, and it just closed. [Ink chef] Michael Voltaggio just announced a new place called Ink.well, and everybody’s very excited for it. He’s thinking on such a different plane in terms of food and flavor and process. It’s just mind-blowing.”
What’s next for you? “A little bit of everything. In October, me and a few other chefs are going to Jordan to help figure out an efficient system for feeding Syrian refugees and make sure everybody’s getting clean water and real, good, nutritious food to give them the best chance for surviving the situation they’re in. I’m also writing a new book about soup. It’s soup and crackers, and every two pages will have a recipe for soup paired with a recipe for homemade crackers. If you’re gonna make a soup, make crackers—they’re not that hard, and you can do a lot of different stuff. I love creating recipes for stuff people almost always buy. In my last book [Duff Bakes], I had a recipe for Twinkies that’s pretty close to the real thing. As far as TV shows go, we should start filming more Dessert Games next month, and I just wrapped Season 4 of Kids Baking Championship.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.