By Aviva Perlman
Duff Goldman, otherwise known as the Ace of Cakes.
Duff Goldman is not your typical baker.
Unless of course using bandsaws, blowtorches, motors and fireworks to build cakes is typical.
Goldman is the owner of Charm City Cakes, a Baltimore-based bakery and the setting of the Food Network reality series Ace of Cakes, where he and his 13 employees create out-of-the-ordinary, individual cakes for any occasion imaginable.
"You can go to any corner bakery and get a cake that says 'Happy Birthday Steve' on it, but to get a cake that lights-up and spins around and shoots fire is different," said Goldman. "All we're trying to do is take it to the next level."
Charm City cakes do not come cheap, ranging in price from $500 to $2,000, and sometimes even more. But for those looking for cakes shaped like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, Cinderella's carriage, a working model of the board game Operation, or Wrigley Field, it may be worth it.
While Goldman fell into cake making toward the end of his culinary school training, cooking was an integral part of his life from an early age.
"Being in a Jewish family, everything you ever do revolves around food, no matter what," he said. "I was always around food and always around cooking."
Goldman began cooking professionally at the age of 14, working after school as a way to sustain his artistic pursuits in graffiti. It was while working at a pizza restaurant in Cape Cod during his senior year of high school that Goldman realized he should become a chef.
"I was thinking how I can't really see myself going into academia," he said. "I got good grades and studied hard but cooking was really the only thing I enjoyed doing."
After making a deal with his parents that if he went to college and got a degree, they would help him get through culinary school, Goldman enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where he graduated with a degree in history and philosophy. Following UMBC, Goldman moved on to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., where he studied pastries.
"You can pretty much learn cooking on the job," he said. "But baking and pastry are so much more scientific where you have to really understand the principles before you can actually do the magic."
Goldman's future in cakes began to take shape during a cake-decorating class.
"At that point, nobody knew I had an artistic background," he said. "I just picked up the piping bag and started doing all these crazy designs and people were like, 'whoah'."
After he revealed this hidden talent, Goldman's teachers encouraged him to pursue a career in cake decorating. However, he had his mind set on becoming a "big-thing chef" in New York City.
Eventually Goldman heeded the advice of his teachers.
"I was making all these cakes for people: for kids in the family, then for their friends and then their friends' kids and I was like 'screw this' I'm going to make money off of this."
One of the crazy cakes made at Charm City Cakes.
And so, Charm City Cakes was born.
Without ever taking out a business loan, Goldman has taken his Charm City Cakes from a modest apartment workshop, making several cakes a months, to a 6,000-square-foot building creating up to 15 cakes a week.
"I bought a cake pan with the money I made from my very first cake," he said. "I've literally built this bakery pan by pan."
While Charm City Cakes is not a kosher establishment -- though parve cakes can be arranged -- Goldman takes many Jewish values to heart when it comes to running his bakery.
"One thing that is really hammered into our heads over and over again is education," Goldman explained. "[People] can take away your money, take away your dignity, but they can't take away education."
It is for this reason Goldman tries to teach his employees every facet of what he does so they not only learn the art of making cakes, but the art of running a business.
Goldman describes himself as the "dad" of the Charm City Cake Operation, fostering a happy, safe and comfortable environment for his employees, whom he considers family.
"I do everything an MBA would tell you not to do which is praising your employees, paying them well, treating them well, etc.," he said. "I don't run this place through fear, I run it through praise and making the people who work here feel like they are an integral part of what we do, which they are."
In fact, Goldman treats them so well, that every year he takes his employees on a two-week vacation. Last year the group took a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula and this year they will be going to Puerto Rico.
Charm City Cake employees are not the only ones who benefit from Goldman's desire to give back. In addition to providing discounts for police officers, fire fighters, members of the military and even teachers, all profits made go back into the business, to his employees and to various causes such as Make a Wish Foundation and Habitat for Humanity.
"Tzedakah is very important to me," said Goldman. "I've been so fortunate with everything that has happened to me, it would be a crime not to give back."
Aviva Perlman is the Communications Associate for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.