- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baltimore native Duff Goldman has taken a rather circuitous route to celebrity chef status. He initially studied history and philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, before heading west to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. But it was back home in his native city where fame found him thanks to Charm City Cakes, which was a prominent feature on Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes.”

The cheerful Mr. Goldman is set to assay not one but two shows on the network this spring, “Duff Till Dawn” and “Kids Baking Championship.”

“Duff Till Dawn,” which premieres Jan. 29, will feature professional chefs vying to create the best cakes. Mr. Goldman said his show will be different from other competitive cooking programs.

“[These shows] have been ‘TV-ified’ and overproduced to the point where the star has ceased to be the art of the cake decorator and has become the drama of the producer,” Mr. Goldman said. “And so what I wanted to do was kind of get back to where the star of the show was the cakes themselves and the people making them [versus] the drama of ‘Oh, if I win I’m going to get a new storefront.’ The drama is already inherent.”

Mr. Goldman said that by removing a potential payday from the equation, the artisanship of cake making will take center stage.

“Cake decorators care about their art. It’s more about the art than it is about winning a big check,” he said. “Once you sort of take that financial reward away, the focus is really on [making] the best cake, not the one that’s going to pass the test, not the one that’s going to please the judges, not the one that’s going to satisfy all the rules.”

Two teams compete in the kitchen, but they also face an external obstacle in Mr. Goldman’s playful but insistent vocal needling.

“I’m just basically talking smack to them in a very playful, funny way,” he said. “You don’t see judges getting into contestants’ faces like this and having a back-and-forth with them.”

While he is upping the entertainment factor for viewers, he said, respect for his fellow chefs is paramount.

“We’re kind of talking trash, but at the same time, we’re all peers — the people who are competing are my equals. They’re doing things that I’ve never seen before and don’t know how to do, and it’s very clear that we’re kind of all in this together.”

On Feb. 2, the world will get a second helping of Mr. Goldman’s fun-loving personality with the premiere of “Kids Baking Competition,” co-hosted with Valerie Bertinelli. Unlike seasoned adults, he said, young bakers don’t carry with them the jadedness of the professional chef trade, which shows in their joy during the show.

“The way that these kids look at food and are so excited about baking their sense of excitement is the [same] that all chefs and all pastry chefs have naturally, but we’re taught over a lifetime to play it close to the vest,” he said of the talented children. “We’re taught not to be super enthusiastic about it.”

Laughing, he said, “There’s that old adage of when you get to the end zone you’ve go to act like you’ve been there before, but I’ve got to tell you, man, every time I get to the end zone, I act like it’s the first time. And seeing these kids and seeing the things that they get excited about are the same things that I’m enthusiastic about. I get why professional chefs love watching children, because children are saying all the things that professional chefs are thinking [but aren’t] socially allowed to say. I think that’s what really attracts people.”

Of his co-host, Miss Bertinelli, Mr. Goldman offers an anecdote from their rather unusual first meeting at a “Harry Potter” premiere party, for which he had baked a special cake.

“I was talking to these two girls, and all of a sudden somebody jumped on my back. I was actually kind of ready to throw a punch, and I looked over my shoulder and I was like, ‘Oh, Valerie Bertinelli just jumped on my back!’ And she’s like, ‘I love your show! You’re my favorite!’ I was freaking out, like, ‘Oh my God, I had the biggest crush on you when I was like 5.’”

Despite his boyhood dream come true, Mr. Goldman said Miss Bertinelli is a true on-camera professional, from whom he has learned much in his television-hosting career.

Perhaps it is little wonder that celebrity clients have come calling for Mr. Goldman’s designs. Mr. Goldman whipped up a creation for legendary comic book creator Stan Lee’s recent 92nd birthday: a 7-foot cake in the likeness of Mr. Lee’s iconic Incredible Hulk character.

“He’s looking at it, and he’s like, ‘This is a cake?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is a cake.’ And it’s an incredible thing, but the [next] question out of his mouth was, ‘Did you bring me a cup of coffee to enjoy my cake?’ When you’re Stan Lee, and you’re that old, you can say whatever you want.”

Mr. Goldman, who is Jewish, has a special affinity for baking with bacon — much to the consternation of his mother.

“Bacon is not kosher,” he said. “My mom really doesn’t understand my obsession with bacon.” His first week of college, Mr. Goldman went to the dining hall, where a tub of the forbidden meat product awaited. “I said, ‘I can eat as much of that as I want?’” he said. “I think, by the end of it, I probably put away like 3 pounds of bacon. It’s like meat candy!”

In addition to his two upcoming shows, his bakeries and his celebrity cakes, Mr. Goldman plays bass with his own Baltimore band. (When asked whether he would ever play with former Guns N’ Roses member Duff McKagan, Mr. Goldman said, “We would not jam together, because we’re both bass players.”) He’ll also be unveiling a surprise cake for DirecTV’s “Super Fan Festival” for the Super Bowl.

“At the end of the show,” Mr. Goldman said of “Duff Till Dawn,” “there’s a winner and a loser; there’s no getting around that that’s a competition. People do want to see that, but it’s not so important. What is important is that these guys feel great about whatever it is that they made in the seven or eight hours that they had to do it.”

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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