Extreme baker

When it comes to cakes, Duff Goldman's elaborate creations break the rules - and they've earned him a shot at food fame

June 07, 2006|By SCOTT CARLSON | SCOTT CARLSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Janice Ceperich and Jeff D'Andrea visited the Web site of Charm City Cakes and saw what makes Duff Goldman unique -- cakes in the shape of dogs, popcorn boxes and motor scooters, and cakes that look like they just landed from Venus.

Instead, for their August wedding, the couple were thinking of something small, white and relatively plain. "We saw this stuff and we thought, `Whoa,' " says D'Andrea, sitting across from Goldman at his bakery, a renovated church in Remington. Not their style.

"The Web site just shows what's possible," says Goldman, smiling easily despite looking worn and jet-lagged. He pulls out a sketch pad and draws a white cake with delicate willow branches crawling up the side.

He tells Ceperich and D'Andrea that he can make the cake small, but they will need a second cake to feed all of their guests at the wedding. The couple wonder if two cakes will cost more than one big one.

"Nah," Goldman says, then quickly adds: "I mean, if the second one is hanging from the ceiling, spinning around and shooting fireworks, well then ... "

If a pyrotechnic wedding cake is your style, it's entirely possible with Goldman, whose elaborate, sculptural cakes are quickly making him a celebrity, even beyond Charm City.

Days before the meeting with Ceperich and D'Andrea, Goldman was on a whirlwind tour of Hollywood, where he appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and blew white-hot fireworks out of a cake shaped like a hot-rod engine.

Over the next several weeks, a film crew will be shooting Cake It to the Limit, a reality-style show for the Food Network, set in his bakery. Goldman is the show's "extreme baker," its iconoclastic star.

"Duff has a personality that will stand out on the Food Network," says Kelly McPherson, the supervising producer of Cake It to the Limit. "He moves to the beat of his own drum, but he's very likable."

Short, thick and powerfully built, Goldman, 31, has tough-guy looks that contradict his soft-spoken, easygoing nature. He does not appear the type to wax philosophical about the complexities of pastries or the chemistry of bread, but he does.

His life is largely consumed by his work. He and his girlfriend live in an apartment adjacent to the bakery. Many days, Goldman wakes up, lifts weights in a home gym in the basement, then walks 20 paces to the bakery and spends at least 12 hours there.

Under the spotlight, he can become a larger-than-life performer. When he is not making cakes, he plays bass in an instrumental rock band called So I Had To, an outlet he calls "cathartic."

His talent for performance, and a keen sense of the media, helped land his Food Network gig. "I found out pretty quick with the Food Network that it's about putting on a good show," he says.

Rodney Henry, whose life has followed a somewhat similar arc -- from rock guitarist to the founder of Dangerously Delicious Pies, which recently expanded from a small Canton shop to a West Baltimore warehouse -- hangs out with Goldman at baking events. "The cat is very talented," he says. "You can't find freakier cakes anywhere, and it seems like a lot of people want to imitate what he does."

Stephen Durfee, a pastry chef who hired Goldman at the French Laundry restaurant in California's Napa Valley, says Goldman was "passionate" about his work and always showed potential. Now a pastry chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, Durfee regularly shows off Goldman's work.

Goldman credits his willingness to break the rules in cake-making to his artistic heritage and to rebellious influences while growing up near Boston. His father is an economist who worked for President Ronald Reagan. His mother is a stained-glass artist -- one of a long line of female artists in her family.

Hip-hop culture and graffiti art stoked Goldman's creative side, but he also got into trouble when he was caught stealing cars as a teenager. He had wanted to go to culinary school since he was young, but his parents pushed him, their second son, into college. Given his wild youth, "They thought I'd end up as a dishwasher," he says.

While at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he studied philosophy and history, he got a job making corn bread at Savannah restaurant, working for chef Cindy Wolf.

There he learned the basics of restaurant work, and more: He saw line cooks who were drugged up and stressed out, frantically keeping up with orders during dinner rush. The pastry chef worked at a saner pace, starting early and working methodically through the day.

Goldman decided he would study breads and pastries. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and worked for no wages at French Laundry, one of the nation's finest restaurants, for seven months before he was hired.

From there, he became the pastry chef at a resort in Vail, Colo., and later baked bread at Todd English's Olives restaurant in Washington, D.C.

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