Duff Goldman's credo on baking cakes is to "make it bigger; make it badder; make it awesome!" In order to accomplish this time and time again, Charm City Cakes in Baltimore has been equipped more like a Home Depot than a bakery.
But then again, in order to produce such extraordinary edible works of art, Duff's team needs every tool imaginable. Creations have ranged from Harry Potter's Hogwarts Express to Yoda to a gigantic Mr. Clean.
We sat down with the Ace of Cakes and got a peek at his recipe for success.
Q: Your cakes not only have to stay in place, but also taste good. Do you have a special recipe that you alter depending on the cake?
A: The recipes we started the bakery with have expanded over the years, but our basic recipe has largely stayed the same. I started with a pre-1950s version of a cake recipe. We took the lard out and added butter. It's an adapted recipe from "Joy of Cooking." But there is no secret flexing agent that you put in there. Cake is cake. They can be beautiful and amazing. But at the end of the day it's still a cake, and it needs to taste good. I went into the cake business, not into the sculpture business. They don't have to be dry and disgusting for what we do.
Q: So the secret is how you put it together?
A: Yes. It's basically all about building the cake correctly. You don't have to make it dense. You do have to stack it right. If you look around here you'll see it's like a Home Depot. We make everything so precisely. We measure everything. Our cakes will never be cooked unless we want them to be. We have levels for everything; we have laser levels and photography levels. I was once doing a wedding in D.C. and the florist saw me with a bar level. They were watching me really closely. They came over and asked if I was using a construction level and I say 'Yes, is that OK?' and they said 'Yeah, that's genius. We've never seen a cake decorator pull out a level before.' Well, I'm redneck. I want everything to be nice and straight. We have more construction tools than cake decorating tools.
Q: So how do you make a cake to travel, for example, to Paris?
A: We would do a lot of work here. The way the shop works is that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday all we are doing is making structures. We make anything here that doesn't go bad. We can dye all the fondant first, make any details ahead of time, like little flowers and birds. We would find someone there to let us use an oven and bake the cakes. By now we have it down to a science. We have travel airbrushes and travel kits you can just pick up and go.
Q: Is there any kind of cake you won't do? What about a naughty cake for a bachelor party?
A: Before the show started I was actually going to open up another bakery that did those types of cakes. But then we started getting really busy. But also we have some really talented people here. They are incredible artists and I didn't want to waste their time like that. It's kind of trashy. We've done, like, three or four over the years that have actually been really funny. We'll do something that's so over-the-top and ridiculous and has a story behind it, as opposed to like 'Oh! Just do some huge breasts.' We try to keep it classy and professional here.
Q: Has the show changed how your team gets along? Does having cameras in front of you all the time change anything?
A: When you see the show and see we are always goofing around, that's real. Somebody will say something and another person will jump in and all of a sudden we are having this ridiculous conversation about some game we just invented. It will ping-pong ball over the place. Then someone will have invented a song about it. Thirty minutes have gone by, and we've been wasting it on this. But that's what makes the show so good. It's not like someone is back in Hollywood telling everyone what to say. When someone is carving everyone walks over to try the cake. The TV crew is great at working with us. Everyone gets along. It's a pleasure to come to work with all of them.
Q: So what do you do if a cake falls apart while it's being moved?
A: Oh, yeah, but we have a great system for dealing with it. It's always on a case-by-case. Sometimes you can fix it right there on the spot; other times you have to bring a bunch of gear. Over the course of eight years, it's probably happened three times where I've actually called in Jeff and the team on a weekend and said, "I need you in the bakery right now." We have these great delivery drivers that actually work for all the museums around here and Washington. They are highly trained. They are used to delivering art and are amazing, careful drivers. If something is really bad, they call me, we rally the troops here in the bakery and sometimes they will send me pictures with their cell phones so that I can assess the damage. That's one of my personal strengths: Putting out fires. My crisis management skills are ridiculous. I got outstripped in the cake decorating department a long time ago, but when it comes to a snap decision, that's when I step up. It's a great joy to rely on such intelligent, artistic people. When you can be a leader for people like this, they don't need to be led so much as supported. I don't tell them what to do. I give them the tools to do it. We're friends. My brother is here. There are no egos. When someone sends us a thank you note, it gets printed out and posted on the wall. We all know where the real is coming from.
Q: When a client comes in, do you let them suggest just about anything, or do you straight up tell them things you don't do?
A: Usually when we are talking to people, we tell them straight up: 'Your idea on paper sounds great, but it's going to suck. You're going to hate it.' We give them alternatives we know will work, so that they are not disappointed with the end result. We try to avoid the biography cakes -- when people want to tell their life story on a cake. In some situations, like a 50th wedding anniversary, you can get into it and make it really sweet. But for someone's wedding cake, in which they want their college days in there and their dog and their first car and a great meal they had in Italy. We'll stop them and explain, "Guys, this is a wedding cake." It's not that we can't do it, but we know we can do something better that's awesome that makes sense. Something with some immediacy and impact. If it was mine, it would be a hockey rink or a motorcycle. Something that people will easily identify as being my personality.
Q: What about money? How do you calculate the cost of a cake?
A: We refuse to negotiate, and sometimes it's hard for people to understand that I'll draw out their idea and give them a price. And we'll figure it out by labor. It's all labor. How many hours will it take to make? The food cost is less than 1 percent; we make 15 cakes a week. We'll tell them $1,200, and they ask, 'What can we take off to make it cheaper?' Well, nothing. It's like we can't go and use crappier flour. Or get some Betty Crocker mix. That's just not how it works here. We're not going to completely redo the idea so you can save yourself a hundred bucks. We don't take shortcuts. With every cake that goes out, that's our name and reputation. We guard it fiercely. We have products now in Michaels and other retail chains, but before any product goes out, not only do I approve it, but everyone here approves it.
Q: Any funny stories?
A: Someone once offered me a lot of money --and I mean a lot -- to be the spokesman for irritable bowel syndrome. I was just like, 'No way.' I mean look at what I do. Is that what I want people thinking about when they see me?
Q: Show me a cake your team is working on right now.
A. Working on a topographical map of Pennsylvania for a client who is a geography major. It looks like a photograph, or literally a model, from a mapping company.