The grandchild of Holocaust victims, Duff Goldman became a brand name through hard work, creativity and knowing how to use a blowtorch.
Born in Detroit, Goldman is in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for baking the world’s largest cupcake. He recently created a nine-tiered, military-themed cake served at the Commander-in-Chief’s ball during the festivities around President Obama’s second inauguration.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he is the executive chef of the Baltimore-based Charm City Cakes, featured in the Food Network reality television show “Ace of Cakes.” After the show’s six-year run ended in February 2011, he moved part-time to Los Angeles, where he has two bakeries and a do-it-yourself shop where customers can decorate their own cakes.
Goldman’s bakery is unusual in that blowtorches, as well as power tools such as grinders and drills, help form the underlying supports of the shop’s unique edible creations, such as a Hogwarts castle for Warner Brothers’ premiere of “Harry Potter.”
Goldman, 38, consistently gives back through tzedakah. Among his charitable causes are police officers, firefighters, teachers, the Make a Wish Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity. These causes, he said in an interview, are just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’m a cook who won the lottery,” Goldman said. “Seeing the effects this has had on everybody makes us want to give back. Every time we give it makes us want to give more.”
Cooking since he was 4 and working professionally since he was 14, Goldman’s approach comes, in part, from his artistic Jewish family. His great-grandmother came to the U.S. from Ukraine and became a baker and cook. Her daughter, Duff’s grandmother, was a professional artist whose work includes painting, printmaking and silversmithing. Goldman’s mother, Jackie, is also an artist.
“I was taught growing up that they can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your heart and your education,” Goldman said.
During his younger years, after his family moved to northern Virginia, Goldman studied art at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., and was a local graffiti artist. After getting a culinary degree and inspired by some of the chefs he worked for in the Washington area, Goldman’s entrepreneurial sprit took him to Baltimore in 2000, where he realized his dream and opened Charm City Cakes, initially working from his home.
Goldman said word of mouth, the media, and even the Health Department all began to take an interest, and he soon found himself in a real bakery of his very own.
“It was small, but it got the job done,” Goldman said. He later found a bigger location: an old church he retrofitted into a modern bakery.
“The important part that all these great chefs taught me is how to dig real far into yourself and how to do your absolute best,” Goldman said. “It’s about striving for excellence, making things as perfect as possible.”
As word about his unusual and daring cakes got out, Goldman hired staff with more artistic experience than the typical pastry chef, like painters, architects and sculptors. His team produces cakes that range from “Star Wars” characters and vehicles, to a working life-size motorcycle.
In 2006, the Food Network tapped Goldman and his fellow baking artists to star in “Ace of Cakes.” The show ran for 10 seasons over six years and is now popular in reruns, having been aired in more than 40 countries. In 2011, the show saw its United Kingdom premiere draw record numbers for the Food Network’s debut in the U.K.
Goldman also has starred in the Food Network series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and has been featured in episodes of “Iron Chef America” and “Cupcake Wars.” He also guest-starred in both TV and film.
Goldman’s brand is still growing, with the bakery in Hollywood where customers create their own cakes being a recent venture. Recent press coverage includes accounts of his struggle with his weight, which he acknowledges is a by-product of his runaway success with desserts.
Making cakes is not all sweetness and light, he concedes. “You don’t learn anything by succeeding all the time,” Goldman said. “You’ve got to fall down, get hit and beat up. You’ve got to fail. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not advancing.”