- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

BALTIMORE — Spend a few hours at Duff Goldman’s bakery, and it becomes clear the omnipresent Food Network camera crews don’t have to manufacture the dramatic tension that fans of his show, “Ace of Cakes,” have come to expect.

Like Mr. Goldman himself, Charm City Cakes — where the ace and his staff produce their fanciful, edible creations — has a relaxed, welcoming vibe. But then crisis intrudes as a $1,600 cake that once looked like a Scottish castle becomes, well, a pile of crumbling pastry and green icing.

It is about noon, and the party that the cake was made for starts at 6 p.m., so the Charm City crew has about five hours to remake it from scratch. Plus, the customer wasn’t exactly thrilled with the cake before it collapsed, so she has asked for changes.

“This will be a good episode,” said Willie Goldman, a co-executive producer of the show and Duff’s older brother.

Duff Goldman knows that cakes fall apart sometimes. He can handle that. But he is taken aback that a customer isn’t happy with a cake that was designed precisely according to a detailed contract.

“I would have pulled out my wallet and given her what she paid for the cake,” he said.

The bakery moves into triage mode, with employees pulled from other projects to help rebuild the castle. As the anxiety subsides, they return to cracking off-color jokes, confident they will persevere to create a beautiful, exquisitely detailed new cake.

With a devilish grin on his face, Mr. Goldman tells Richard Karoll, the employee who delivered the first cake, that he is now in the Charm City Cakes records for worst foul-up ever.

“You couldn’t have planned this to make it more awful,” Mr. Goldman said.

The second season of “Ace of Cakes” debuted Jan. 18 and will run for 13 weeks, airing at 10:30 p.m. Thursdays.

It is an unusual series for Food Network, because Mr. Goldman doesn’t teach viewers how to bake cakes. Instead, the show chronicles what he calls “the insanity that ensues” every time he and his gonzo bakers try to put together a cake that looks like, say, Machu Picchu, or a working soda fountain.

With a shaved head and a long, rectangular tuft of hair protruding from his chin, Mr. Goldman contrasts with Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and the rest of Food Network’s folksy, ingratiating stars.

Mr. Goldman, 31, is a former graffiti vandal and college hockey player. He plays bass guitar in a rock band. He can take a car engine apart and put it back together, and when he is assembling a cake, he likes to use power tools.

He has been cooking all his life, and he graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. But he wasn’t enamored of the hazing process aspiring chefs have to go through. He learned early that in the culinary world, pastries are the path to sanity and serenity.

He made desserts at several prestigious restaurants, but when a wedding cake he made for a friend drew raves, the light bulb went on. Mr. Goldman moved back to Baltimore — he had graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he studied history and philosophy — and started Charm City Cakes in 2000. Just two years ago, the bakery was operating out of a row house near the Johns Hopkins University campus, but then “business just blew up.”

Charm City Cakes moved to a sprawling space that allowed Mr. Goldman to hire more staff. Rather than sifting through the resumes of culinary school graduates, he recruits local artists, many of them alumni of the Maryland Institute College of Art. With their variety of skills, they can make a cake that looks like virtually anything.

“I’ve got sculptors on staff, I’ve got painters on staff, I’ve got graphic people on staff, color people on staff,” he said. “[Customers] just tell me what they want, and I’m like, ‘All right.’ ”

The work has an undeniable appeal.

“Cake, for me, it’s joy in the flesh. It’s the physical manifestation of happiness,” Mr. Goldman said. “I feel it’s the most artistic that you can get with food, on a visceral, visual kind of level.”

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