About halfway through my interview with celebrity baker and Food Network star Duff Goldman, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a few people intently watching us. After a few more moments, I finally turned my head and to my astonishment found a group of kids, who looked to be about 10 years old, trying to desperately catch Goldman’s attention, since they wanted to take a photo with him.
As he went over to take some selfies with his fans, he admitted that this was his audience now. While his original show, Ace of Cakes, certainly put him and his hipster Baltimore bakery, Charm City Cakes, on the map, it’s his new show, Kids Baking Championship, which he co-hosts with Valerie Bertinelli, that has arguably made him an even bigger star and famous with a new generation of foodies. And that is fine by him. “All I really want to do is work with kids,” he tells me, once we resume our conversation and the audience has dispersed. “Any way that I can, I do.”
It clearly thrills Goldman to be able to inspire kids to bake and he proudly gushed about recently meeting a parent whose child is now in culinary school because he had watched Ace of Cakes. (Goldman also admitted that the exchange made him feel incredibly old!) He even has a new chain of stores in Los Angeles, called Duff’s Cakemix, where people can come in and, you guessed it, are given cakes and cupcakes to decorate. “I want one in every city,” he says. “Honestly, any direction I go in it’s going to be empowering people to make them feel like they’re not useless.”
On Kids Baking Championship, Goldman has an easy rapport with the contestants and a childlike enthusiasm for the challenges. That’s perhaps because “kids think about food in ways that excite them, so do chefs,” he says. (If you ever doubted his sincerity, one challenge on the show resulted in him getting a real tattoo of a waffle.) Baking “is never not cool. It’s never not interesting. Still to this day when I put a cookie in the oven and if it puffs up like it’s supposed to, I’m like ‘fuck yeah.’”
While Goldman grew up watching culinary star Julia Child and Cajun chef Justin Wilson on television, he’s adamant that “I never wanted to be on TV. I never chased this career. It just happened.” In fact, he had envisioned a completely different life for himself. “When I was culinary school, my ideal goal at the time was to be a New York City hot shit pastry chef at a 90-seat restaurant.”
And as he’s gotten older he’s fully embraced baking in lieu of making other desserts. “I used to call myself a pastry chef and now I call myself a baker. I really feel like my whole life I’ve been a baker masquerading as a pastry chef,” he says. But he adds laughing, “it’s a hazy line. I’m not really sure what the difference is.”
I’m also not sure exactly what the difference is, but he’s always pushed the boundaries of pastry arts. The first time I came across Goldman was when he competed years ago on a number of different episodes of Food Network Challenge. The show seems low-budget by today’s standards and the conceit fairly simple: you had an allotted amount of time to make an elaborate cake based on a particular theme. While Goldman wasn’t always the winner, he incorporated all types of unusual elements in his creations, like motors and radio-controlled servos, and pushed the industry to make ever more compex cakes. (He also used a range of tools one might more likely find in a machine shop rather than a traditional bakery.) “I would lose spectacularly,” he remembers. “We were failing but we were going for it.”
That same innovative spirit fueled the only real drama on his show, Ace of Cakes. Compared to other reality TV show series, where the plot lines and dialogue seem far from, well, reality, Goldman and his lovable bunch of artsy cake decorators and bakers didn’t seem to be acting and were making actual cakes for clients. He’s quick to remind me they also made plenty of “real mistakes.” But he conceded that “the relationships that you saw on Ace of Cakes are the real relationships that you’d see in the shop. And when the cameras turned off, it just kept going.”
“I think what I miss about that show the most is that there was nothing but mutual respect for everybody. We just loved each other and we were all fans of each other.”
His nostalgia makes me think that a reboot of Ace of Cakes isn’t completely out of the realm of possibilities, but for now he seems completely into his current role on his other Food Network shows and in particular Kids Baking Championship.
However, the only downside of hosting a cooking competition show is that someone, naturally, has to go home each episode and he’s the one who has to deliver the bad news. “The first day we’re filming, she’s like, by the way, you’re sending them all home,” he remembers. “You’re Valerie Bertinelli, I can’t say no.”
We got caught up with Duff Goldman at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.