At the start of Duff Goldman's new Food Network show, "Kids Baking Championship," which premieres next week,eight pint-sized pastry-chef contestants are lined up onstage to meet their co-hosts, Goldman and actress Valerie Bertinelli.
As the two make their entrance and approachthe kids, a trembling boy whispers to the child next to him, "I didn't think they were real."
I don't know about Bertinelli, kid, but Goldman is definitely real.
The last time I saw Goldman, back in 2011, he was winding up the last season of "Ace of Cakes," the Food Channel show that made him TV-famous, and was about to open a new bakery in Los Angeles as a complement to the home office in Baltimore. He held nothing back about the life passage he was navigating.
I asked him if he was nervous about the big L.A. gamble, and his unprintable answer involved being so "scared" that bodily functions were altered.
With Goldman, you get it raw with almost no showbiz blah-blah-blah.
And so it was again when we reconnected this month on the phone to talk about the kids cooking show, which premieres Feb. 2, and another series he has debuting on the channel Thursday. The latter series, "Duff Till Dawn," takes product placement to a new level: The series is set in his L.A. bakery.
Less than five minutes into our interview, Goldman explained that he was calling from Jerusalem, and he thought that might be why he sounded so calm.
"I've spent the last two days in the Old City kind of talking to God, so it's probably a very good time to interview me, because I feel very clear-headed and focused," he said.
The terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris had moved him — prompting him to pick up, head to Israel and converse with the Almighty at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall.
"I just felt like this was the right place to be. So I bought a ticket and within 24 hours came to Jerusalem. I don't know, [the Paris attack] really struck me hard. ... I'm just getting really frustrated with the world and with people.
"There's just so much hatred, and I kind of wanted to talk to The Man himself about it. And he's here."
Goldman sounded as though he might be working his way through another life passage in Israel.
"Religion in the world is just so distorted. There are just so many things that are wrong. And you see the televangelists and you see the politics and you see the hypocrisy," he said. "And then, you come to this place like the Holy Sepulchre, and you see there are regular people with true faith. And their belief is so strong and beautiful to witness."
Goldman said he is not particularly religious or observant in his faith.
"I mean, I'm definitely Jewish," he said. "But just to be with these people who believe. And I mean, all of them: the Muslims, the Coptics, and the Greek Orthodox and Christians."
He describes what he experienced at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
"I'm wearing a yarmulke, because I believe that when I go in a church, I'm in the presence of God, and I'm supposed to cover my head — even though I'm in a church, not a synagogue. And I'm in the part where they were saying they found the true cross. ... As I'm standing there, I can hear the Muslim call to prayer echoing all the way through this place. ... It was a such a moment. ... And I'm like, 'This is the greatest place on earth.'"
It's not easy getting from Goldman's recollection of an experience like that to talking about 12-year-olds making snickerdoodles, but the "Kids Baking Championship" is one of the reasons we were talking in the first place. And it is a show worth talking about.
Yeah, some of the kids are too precocious and precious for words — and almost all are playing to the cameras. But you have to smile at the 12-year-old who says, "I've never been in the same room with three other boys that love baking as much as I do." Or, there's the 10-year-old who has his own pastry business and says he's making $200 to $500 at each bake sale he works.
And there's nothing warm and fuzzy about the way Goldman treats them.
"I am the professional pastry chef, and I look at everything with professional eyes," Goldman said. "My job was to look at what these kids are baking as a pastry chef. Not as a guy who loves kids. Not as a guy who is a big 12-year-old."
As for Bertinelli, "Valerie got to be more like the voice of reason," Goldman said. "She could actually talk to kids. She knows a little more about child psychology."
The idea of pairing the two came from executives at the Food Network, even though he had been friends with the two-time Golden-Globe-winning actress for years. Bertinelli's TV resume dates back to 1975 when "One Day at a Time" debuted on CBS with her as a kid actress. And she's still going strong as Melanie Moretti in "Hot in Cleveland."
"I met her while filming 'Ace of Cakes,' " Goldman said. "I met her at a party, and we kept in touch. She was like, 'Oh, my God, I love your show.' And I was like, 'Oh, my God, I had a crush on you when I was, like, 5."
So when the executives told him about their idea, Goldman said his response was: "Wow, that's so cool."
Their rapport comes across on the show.
"The kids are the absolute superstars," Goldman said. "Valerie and I are just commentary. But the commentary has to work. That banter is exactly what this show needed."
Not surprisingly, Goldman also has a nice chemistry with one of the judges on "Duff Till Dawn," longtime executive chef at Charm City Cakes, Geof Manthorne.
The premise here involves two teams competing at Goldman's West Coast bakery from closing time until sun-up to see who can make the most over-the-top, Duff-like cake. Superheroes and monsters are the themes in Weeks 1 and 2.
"We wanted to film in my bakery so that it felt authentic," he said. "But we had to shoot it overnight. ... I was like, 'You know, I can't just close it down. I have a business to run.' And we're not going to rent a studio, because that's very expensive. So I was like, 'We can do it in my bakery, but we're going to have to do it after hours.' "
The production team waited until the Charm City Cakes staff finished and went home, Goldman said, "And then, we would transform it into the Thunderdome of cakes."
"Thunderdome of cakes" is pure Goldman swagger.
Obviously, the move west that so frightened Goldman in 2011 has been a success. The dragon has been slain on this leg of the Hero Quest by the 40-year-old University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate.
"It has worked out well. Moving out there was the right move. And I did not have to borrow money to do it. I did it with cash," he said proudly.
Though he's not an Angeleno, he says, he loves L.A.
"People say Los Angeles is fake and plastic and everybody's just shallow. But I have found that to be so not the case. I have met some incredible people that would be totally at home in Baltimore — people with soul, people with a very good sense of community and a sense of culture.
"I love Los Angeles, but I am definitely still a Baltimorean. Definitely. Absolutely."