Duff Goldman has just baked a cake of Baltimore's Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. And it looks just like the city's most famous landmark — right up to the statue of the nation's first president that stands atop its tower and down to the fine black piping that mimics the wrought-iron fence at its base.
Only with Goldman, it's never enough, is it?
Just two hours before he's supposed to deliver the cake and emcee the annual holiday monument-lighting ceremony alongside Gov. Martin O'Malley, the rock 'n' roll chef decides that what the cake really needs are fireworks inside its tower — real fireworks that explode and keep on exploding out of the cake for several minutes.
"It would be really cool if we could blow it up," Goldman says with his trademark TV bravado.
"Yeah, it's all fun and games until the governor gets his eye blown out," Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey, the office manager and resident adult at Charm City Cakes, counters.
But Duff prevails.
The cake makes it to Mount Vernon on time. The tower is packed with fireworks, and they start exploding out of the top of the cake right on cue as thousands of Baltimore residents standing in the park at the base of the real monument applaud.
That's TV Duff as seen in an early episode from his Food Network show, "Ace of Cakes," a weekly TV series featuring the daring, super-confident Goldman and his Baltimore cake-making collective. The series, which is seen by 2.5 million viewers each week, is ending its run next month.
Now, the real 36-year-old Duff Goldman is testing the limits again. After a decade of much success making elaborate cakes in his Baltimore apartment and then in a converted church on Remington Avenue, Goldman is moving to Los Angeles in March to open a California version of Charm City Cakes. And the entrepreneur who says he has never taken out a loan through all the years of building Charm City into a multimillion-dollar empire of TV shows, books, recipes, department store appearances and a food product line, says he might show his first loss ever next year.
Everyone knows TV Duff, the "bad boy of baking," and all the narratives of his former and parallel lives as graffiti artist, bassist in an indie band and lover of all things mechanical and fast.
But there is also a more thoughtful, less … well, adolescent … Duff Goldman behind that character — one that even the most ardent TV fans over the years might not know. It took a few days of chasing after him and his hyped-up persona to track it down. But late on a Friday afternoon, after all the cameras were gone and maybe Goldman was just too worn out to still be "on," there was a glimpse of a real person who was starting a new and scary chapter of his life.
"It's a huge change I'm undertaking," Goldman said, leaning way back in his chair and slowing down his delivery long enough for the first time all day to take a real breath. "I would be stupid if I wasn't nervous. I'd be stupid if I wasn't scared. But being nervous and scared are great motivators. There's nothing like painting yourself into a corner to motivate yourself to perform. It's huge. It's a really big thing to be doing, especially because I don't really know anything about business. I know what I've been able to accomplish so far. But I don't know if I can do it again. This is kind of a big test for me. It's like, 'Can you really do this?' Can I really believe the hype? Do I really know what I'm talking about? I don't know. Maybe."
'The same goofball'
Goldman likes to portray himself as a perpetual adolescent banging away on his bass in the teenage boy's fantasy of a band room he has in the basement of Charm City Cakes.
"I feel like I'm 18, with the maturity level of like a 14-year-old," he says when asked his age. "I'm still the same goofball; I'm still in college, as far as I'm concerned."
Goldman's love of motorcycles, contact sports, hot cars and the bass guitar he plays in the experimental indie band soihadto are all part of that. So are the fireworks and car engines that he puts inside some of his more outrageous cakes.
A sense of how much he sees himself in this goofball-college-kid way surfaces when he's asked whether being "management" of an enterprise as large as Charm City Cakes doesn't sometimes put him at odds with the younger members of the team.
"I'm not management," he says, laughing at the suggestion. "I'm like their dumb-jock older brother or something."
But, of course, he is management, and as you press him for specifics about his philosophy of business and how it relates to the move to California, some decidedly conservative, old-school attitudes toward running a business start to surface. And they seem at odds with the reckless jock and fearless avant-garde cake-artist-with-a-blowtorch images he cultivates.
"When I got a deposit on my very first cake, I took that deposit and I bought some cake mix with it," Goldman says when asked whether the move to Los Angeles is going to put the Baltimore operation at risk in any way.
"I've never taken a loan — ever. And we're doing this expansion just like everything we've done in this bakery as we've grown. If we weren't able to afford paying for something cash, we didn't buy it. And that goes for this building, it goes for all of our vehicles. It goes for our ovens. … Why do I operate that way? Because I'm a neurotic Jew who doesn't want loans. I can't even carry a balance on my credit card without having a nervous breakdown."
Goldman, who was "home-schooled in business" by a father with a doctorate in economics, according to his elder brother, Willie, has used his media exposure and business beliefs to build a growing empire.
Duff has deals with Michaels, Party City, Walmart and Target for Duff Goldman cake-baking products. And Blue Bunny Ice Cream will soon feature five flavors created by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate. The AEI Speakers Bureau lists him under "Speakers 5K and Above" per appearance. And he says he has "one to two offers a week" coming in.
He also has three new TV shows in development — two of which he's willing to discuss. One is about the move to Los Angeles, while another blends travel with pastries. Think Duff Goldman in pursuit of great desserts.
"I'm going to be branching out a little bit and just sort of studying the pastry world," he says of the production. "That's the one that is farthest along right now. One thing I've never been able to show off is how much I'm a student of food and cooking and food science. It's a travel show; it will be me going and checking out cool places, with me sort of talking about pastries and all kinds of desserts in a way that's accessible. That's the key — not science-y, not nerdy, not exclusive. Very inclusive."
Goldman wants to stay with the Food Network, the operation that launched him into stardom, and the network says it wants to stay with him.
"Duff has an offbeat, passionate personality, yet remains laid-back and approachable, which easily allows fans to connect with him," says Bob Tuschman, general manager of the channel.
As Tuschman sees it, Goldman has something that is rare in reality TV: "Duff is real — what you see is what you get. In a world of reality TV where many personalities often seem disingenuous, Duff is comfortable with who he is and what he does."
To a point. Duff plays the college-kid card again when asked where he's going to live in Los Angeles.
"I don't know yet," he says, with the move only about 45 days away. "I'll get out there with a truck full of my stuff and find out. Hopefully, Venice Beach."
But in truth, a lot more planning has been done than that remark suggests. And a support system is already in place.
At the heart of Goldman's West Coast team is his brother, Willie, a Hollywood producer who helped Duff find his way onto reality TV and remains a partner in everything from the TV projects to the bakery. You can say you're going to just jump in a truck with a bunch of your clothes and sound cavalier, if you know you can always stay at Willie's house in The Valley if that Venice Beach thing doesn't work out right away.
"Yeah, it's a big move for Duff," says Willie, who is 22 months older. "Transitional, transformational? Yeah, it's all of those things. But if somebody had said six years ago that you were buying an old church in the Remington district of Baltimore and converting it into a bakery where you were going to make really crazy and expensive wedding cakes, everyone would have thought that you were insane.
"Look, people were paying us to deliver cakes to Los Angeles from Baltimore," Willie adds. "And that's just absolutely insane. It just makes more sense to have a facility on the West Coast that could service the need. There's a void here. Now when we get requests from the studios or from stars to make cakes for events or big parties, it's going to be a lot easier and cost-effective to fill them with a facility in L.A. Yeah, it's a big risk, but so was the first bakery. So why not? Sitting on our hands and waiting for life to happen to us, I don't think anyone in our orbit is that sort of person."
While Duff's away …
No one embodies the change taking place within the Charm City Cakes community more than Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey, the unofficial den mother of the operation. The co-worker whose connection to Duff extends back to their days as dorm mates at UMBC is currently away from the business. She went on maternity leave shortly after the show finished filming and gave birth to a son on Christmas Day.
"The show ending for me was uncannily timed because it was such a period end of that chapter of our lives, and then my son was born two months later. It was like, 'OK, now we start Phase 2,' " Yeskey says.
"Years ago," she adds, "Duff and I, we sort of joked about me having kids and bringing them to the bakery. And it's funny that this half-serious joke we sort of fantasized about is actually coming true."
Yeskey, who will be returning to the bakery within the next two months, says the place "will definitely be different" after Goldman leaves for California.
"But I don't honestly think there's going to be that much difference in terms of the day-to-day," she says, explaining that in recent years Goldman has been away for months at a time making in-store appearances and doing speaking engagements out of Baltimore.
"Maybe more in terms of the psychological culture of the bakery, him coming back now will definitely feel a little bit more like 'Dad's coming home' than it used to," she says. "Like it used to be, he'd be gone for a couple of weeks doing appearances, and we'd all just be like, 'OK, good, you're back now.' But now, I think it will be more like proving ourselves, saying, 'Look, we kept the shop running and everything's going OK. Look what we did. See, we're OK.' "
While acknowledging moments of "sick to my stomach" worry, Yeskey believes the cake-making crew and the business will be fine.
"If I take a step back and I look at what he's done the last five years, I don't get nervous anymore," Yeskey says.
"I think, it's going to work out, because it always has. He's got an unintentional but very good business sense. His instincts tend to be spot on."
Goldman insists that he is not abandoning the Baltimore operation, which will now be run by Geof Manthorne, the sous-chef and decorator.
"Baltimore will remain the main branch," Manthorne says emphatically. "Some people in Baltimore have the feeling or the opinion that we're packing up our shop here and moving to L.A., leaving Baltimore behind," Manthorne says. "But the way we look at it, we're taking a piece of Baltimore somewhere else — we're not leaving Baltimore."
But Goldman is. And as revved up as he gets when talking about Los Angeles, he seems a little in denial when talking about the actual move and things he will be leaving behind.
When asked about the future of his band, he says, "We'll just play national dates. We all know the songs, we can just fly in and play the jobs. So the band will continue, sure."
But when asked whether that means Baltimore fans will never hear soihadto again in a local club, he pauses as if the reality of "never again" had never occurred to him. He seems lost for a second thinking about it.
"Well, I'll be coming back once a month, so like we could play locally. Why not?"
Goldman acknowledges that he doesn't have it all worked out.
"I kind of know what works, and I kind of know what doesn't work," he says. "I have a good idea for how to make money and how to hold onto it — how to hopefully not make too many mistakes. But I know I'm going to make mistakes. My confidence comes from the fact that I'm very comfortable with being nervous. I'm very comfortable with my fear, because my fear comes from a very real place. It comes from a place that will make me perform above and beyond what I think I'm capable of doing."
He knows one of the greatest dangers is that he could lose his Baltimore attitude or edge out there in all that sunshine.
"When you say, 'How does Charm City Cakes capture the essence of Baltimore,' I think it's mainly that there are no rules as to what we do when it comes to cakes. We make cakes, and a lot of times people say, 'Oh, there's a two-by-four, or there's Styrofoam, or there's Krispie treats. That's not a cake,' " he says.
"But in Baltimore, we're not really bothered by pigeonholing or labels or some strict definition of what is a cake. If I build a life-size working motorcycle, and the gas tank and the seat are all cake, but nothing else is, can I call it cake? I don't know, but I think I can. … I think we have that same kind of fearlessness that all Baltimore culture has."
And he brings the conversation back to that cake with the exploding fireworks and the night of his crazy triumph standing alongside the governor and thousands of Baltimore residents celebrating one of the city's most cherished events.
"But here's what I'm saying about rules, and it ties up with the cake we made for the Washington Monument," he says. "Before George Washington died, he said, 'Do not under any circumstance build any monuments to me.' And the second he's dead, Baltimore builds one. We're trying to take that spirit to L.A. We don't care what the conventions or the rules are. Some of the biggest parties in the world happen in Los Angeles, and they have crappy cakes. Well, we're here to help."
Duff's favorite cakes
Harry Potter castle and surrounding lake: OK, maybe this list of Goldman favorites will feel a little Potter-centric, but at least Duff wasn't shooting fireworks out of the towers. This one was for the Hollywood premiere of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
Harry Potter Hogwarts Express: The magical train from London to Hogsmeade is rerouted through Baltimore and comes out looking good enough to eat. This cake was for the U.S premiere of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
Ducati motorcycle: When GoDaddy.com founder and CEO Bob Parsons got married, he hired Goldman and Charm City to make a groom's cake that was as big as his Super Bowl commercials. Modeled after motorcyle-lover Parsons' Ducati Streetfighter, this was the life-size result -- complete with an engine that revs, smoking exhaust and working lights.
R2D2: Goldman and the crew ended Season 9 of "Ace of Cakes" at Skywalker Ranch, where they presented this replica of cinema's most famous astromech droid to George Lucas. Beep-beep.
Taj Mahal: This one's for Geof: Sous-chef Geof Manthorne's Taj Mahal might not have the gear-head appeal of an edible Ducati. But check out the detail, and you don't have to worry about swallowing the engine if you take too big a bite -- or inhaling exhaust.
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: