My interview with celebrity baker Duff Goldman [classic article]

[photo courtesy of Duff Goldman]

Duff Goldman is the star of “Ace of Cakes”, the Food Network show filmed right at his bakery in Remington. Goldman is not only a celebrity himself, but also bakes for the likes of Jay Leno. He got his gourmet cooking start through Cindy Wolf’s Charleston restaurant. In addition to owning Charm City Cakes, he is a sculptor and indie rock musician.

What are your latest projects?

Oh, man! When the economy was first getting bad, I thought, “We can’t possibly start another business,” but we’re going to be opening our second shop in L.A. later this year.

How much time now is devoted to media?

It depends. I’m doing lectures, appearances, a product line. I still decorate a cake once a week, it’s still my job. I’m putting out food coloring, some professional supplies, some retail. In the middle of May, it’ll be in every Michael’s in North America! It’s a really fresh look at cake decorating. There’s a lot out there, but a lot of what’s out there is very ‘70’s and ‘80’s. There are cake decorators who are still hip; they don’t want to decorate a cake like Grandma.

Do you ever get requests to make Kosher or Kosher for Passover cakes? What ideas do you have to make them a more exciting dessert?

We do! We’re not certified Kosher, though. I ask them, “How Kosher are you?” I can Kasher the kitchen whenever we need to. I say the blessing; I’m very Jewish. For Passover desserts, it’s pretty tough. It  makes me think of all the Passovers. I mean, nobody asks to substitute parsley and salt water. I like the Charrosses, the horseradish, the matzo. I don’t go out of my way to eat matzo and Charrosses in the middle of March.

I like that for each Jewish holiday there’s a food, there’s a food/cultural connection. I know what holiday it is by the food: cheese blintzes, latkes. I was working for a family as a private chef that wanted a brisket. My mom makes the best brisket. I’m not just saying that because she’s my mom, I’m saying that as a chef – it’s the best brisket. This family, they wanted their own brisket, with the ketchup, onion soup, maple syrup and crap. People want what they grew up with for the holidays.

How did you get involved with baking?

I helped my mom in the kitchen. She’d put me in front of Julia Child. That was my Saturday morning cartoons!  My mom is an expert cook. I’m a good cook too, better than a baker, really. She has been on the show a few times. She’s a stained glass artist, so she has a lot of patience. When she’s in town, I put her to work! When I first brought her in, the guys gave me a funny look. They didn’t care who she was. They’re artists: when it comes to sculpting, painting, these guys are amazing. There’s a guy now, making blue food coloring with a Pantone chip. My mom went through the same hazing process that they did. But when she started, they were like, “whoa!” I wouldn’t have had her working with a client if she weren’t amazing. If the guys had to fix something after her, they’d have been honest if they weren’t happy. Now when she comes in, she fixes a pitcher of iced tea and goes to work.

Do you have any suggestions for people looking to serve something snazzy that they can do themselves?

Totally! The easiest way is to start looking at photographs. When you get that visceral response, go for it. It might be a cookie with a scoop of sorbet, a ragout of tree fruits. It’s not as hard as you think. It just takes practice.

What family traditions did you have growing up?

We had so many. One was dinner every single day unless we were at a sleepover. I realized so many of my friends didn’t have dinner with their family.

Are there any kinds of cakes you won’t make?

Bachelor, bachelorette parties. It’s a waste of my staff’s time. They have incredible talent. I won’t do anything that’s distasteful I do some cakes for doctors and they have a crazy sense of humor.

How does being in Baltimore influence you?

Ed Mart! I’m there once a month for brisket. Baltimore has a huge Jewish population. I was Bar Mitzvahed on the Sabbath. I do feel the most comfortable around Jewish people and culture. I do events at JCC’s up and down the East Coast. I just felt so comfortable around a thousand Jewish people, talking about matzo brei, schmaltz, and everyone knew what I was talking about.

What are your long-term goals?

When all of this is over, in a long while, eventually I want to teach. There’s something incredibly respectable about teaching, both being Jewish and as a chef. To be a chef is to be a teacher. It’s what we do. “Rabbi” means teacher.

When I teach, I will teach people how to think about what they’re doing. Nobody ever asked me why do I cook. Cooking sucks! You’re on your feet, no money, barely a thank you. You have to love to do it! You have to love the process. Jews love to create. There’s also the need to please people. I learned that from my Russian grandmother. When they make something, they’re staring at you and if you don’t kvell like a maniac, they’re all over you! When I go to my Jewish friends homes, their moms are like, “Sit down, I’ll make you some eggs.” Even if you’re not hungry! It’s not about being hungry.  Cooking is the last craft. We don’t have blacksmith shops.

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