Janice Ceperich and Jeff D'Andrea visited the Web site of Charm City Cakes and saw what makes Duff Goldman unique -- cakes in the shape of dogs, popcorn boxes and motor scooters, and cakes that look like they just landed from Venus.
Instead, for their August wedding, the couple were thinking of something small, white and relatively plain. "We saw this stuff and we thought, 'Whoa,' " says D'Andrea, sitting across from Goldman at his bakery, a renovated church in Remington. Not their style.
"The Web site just shows what's possible," says Goldman, smiling easily despite looking worn and jet-lagged. He pulls out a sketch pad and draws a white cake with delicate willow branches crawling up the side.
He tells Ceperich and D'Andrea that he can make the cake small, but they will need a second cake to feed all of their guests at the wedding. The couple wonder if two cakes will cost more than one big one.
"Nah," Goldman says, then quickly adds: "I mean, if the second one is hanging from the ceiling, spinning around and shooting fireworks, well then ... "
If a pyrotechnic wedding cake is your style, it's entirely possible with Goldman, whose elaborate, sculptural cakes are quickly making him a celebrity, even beyond Charm City.
Days before the meeting with Ceperich and D'Andrea, Goldman was on a whirlwind tour of Hollywood, where he appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and blew white-hot fireworks out of a cake shaped like a hot-rod engine.
Over the next several weeks, a film crew will be shooting Cake It to the Limit, a reality-style show for the Food Network, set in his bakery. Goldman is the show's "extreme baker," its iconoclastic star.
"Duff has a personality that will stand out on the Food Network," says Kelly McPherson, the supervising producer of Cake It to the Limit. "He moves to the beat of his own drum, but he's very likable."
Short, thick and powerfully built, Goldman, 31, has tough-guy looks that contradict his soft-spoken, easygoing nature. He does not appear the type to wax philosophical about the complexities of pastries or the chemistry of bread, but he does.
His life is largely consumed by his work. He and his girlfriend live in an apartment adjacent to the bakery. Many days, Goldman wakes up, lifts weights in a home gym in the basement, then walks 20 paces to the bakery and spends at least 12 hours there.
Under the spotlight, he can become a larger-than-life performer. When he is not making cakes, he plays bass in an instrumental rock band called So I Had To, an outlet he calls "cathartic."
His talent for performance, and a keen sense of the media, helped land his Food Network gig. "I found out pretty quick with the Food Network that it's about putting on a good show," he says.
Rodney Henry, whose life has followed a somewhat similar arc -- from rock guitarist to the founder of Dangerously Delicious Pies, which recently expanded from a small Canton shop to a West Baltimore warehouse -- hangs out with Goldman at baking events. "The cat is very talented," he says. "You can't find freakier cakes anywhere, and it seems like a lot of people want to imitate what he does."
Stephen Durfee, a pastry chef who hired Goldman at the French Laundry restaurant in California's Napa Valley, says Goldman was "passionate" about his work and always showed potential. Now a pastry chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, Durfee regularly shows off Goldman's work.
Goldman credits his willingness to break the rules in cake-making to his artistic heritage and to rebellious influences while growing up near Boston. His father is an economist who worked for President Ronald Reagan. His mother is a stained-glass artist -- one of a long line of female artists in her family.
Hip-hop culture and graffiti art stoked Goldman's creative side, but he also got into trouble when he was caught stealing cars as a teenager. He had wanted to go to culinary school since he was young, but his parents pushed him, their second son, into college. Given his wild youth, "They thought I'd end up as a dishwasher," he says.
While at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he studied philosophy and history, he got a job making corn bread at Savannah restaurant, working for chef Cindy Wolf.
There he learned the basics of restaurant work, and more: He saw line cooks who were drugged up and stressed out, frantically keeping up with orders during dinner rush. The pastry chef worked at a saner pace, starting early and working methodically through the day.
Goldman decided he would study breads and pastries. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and worked for no wages at French Laundry, one of the nation's finest restaurants, for seven months before he was hired.
From there, he became the pastry chef at a resort in Vail, Colo., and later baked bread at Todd English's Olives restaurant in Washington, D.C.
He returned to Baltimore with the vague notion of starting a wedding-cake business. In 2000, when he had saved up three months' salary working as a personal chef, he quit and went looking for wedding publications and wedding businesses in which to advertise. ("I pretended I was a bride," he says.)
His first job was for an engaged couple who wanted an unusual cake. Goldman charged a paltry fee and made what he remembers as a brown and ivory "Judy Jetson-style" cake, covered in atomic icons reminiscent of 1950s space-age designs.
When he brought it to the reception, "The people at the restaurant were looking at it like, 'What is that thing?' " Goldman says. "That's when I knew I had succeeded."
He made more crazy cakes, even when there were no clients to buy them, and put them on his Web site, charmcitycakes.com. Word spread and, within two months, his fledgling business had taken off.
Today, his bakery is an assembly of college buddies and friends of friends, many of them graduates of art school rather than culinary school. "If anyone gets the idea that 'We're Charm City Cakes and we're famous,' I try to stomp that out," Goldman says.
"This is more like a co-op than a capitalist enterprise." His employees say he sometimes calls it a "benevolent dictatorship." The good dictator will use the $10,000 he won in a recent contest to fly his crew to Costa Rica in February, when business is slow.
His appearances on Food Network contests and other bake-offs led to his new TV show. One early contest for the Food Network taught him a valuable lesson about television: While scrambling to finish a cake, he dropped a crucial piece on the ground.
"The second I dropped it, nine camera crews descended on me" to capture his reaction, he says. "I thought, 'You don't care about my cake -- it's all about the drama.' That was my turning point. This is television. This is what they want."
With a camera crew in his bakery 12 hours a day most of the week, Goldman is trying to give the Cake It to the Limit producers that drama -- up to a point. He doesn't want to imperil his business or stress out his employees.
On a recent morning, Goldman and Camie Holmes, one of the show's producers, are discussing a crisis that happened the day before that the cameras had missed.
While driving south on Interstate 95, one of Goldman's cake deliverers slammed on the brakes to avoid an accident and the cake in the car went flying. Goldman got on the phone, talked it through with his employee and told her how to put the cake back together.
The camera crew happened to be off that day, but Holmes tells Goldman that this is the kind of material she wants to capture. Absolutely not, Goldman says. That would put too much pressure on his cake deliverers, and it might make his employees look like a bunch of chumps.
But, he adds, if the show's producers want to capture a smaller crisis -- perhaps even if they want to manufacture one just for TV -- that would be fine.
While Goldman straightens up things around the bakery, Holmes says she doesn't think she'll have to manufacture a disaster. "We hope it will happen naturally," she says.
The crisis of the moment is the case of the missing fondant. Fondant is the Play-Doh-like icing that helps give Goldman's cakes their wild colors and shapes. The fondant was supposed to arrive by express mail, and it's needed to finish the $15,000 worth of cakes sitting in the kitchen, but no one has seen it.
Many of Goldman's employees seem to take the cameras in stride, but others confess an uneasiness with the way the new attention is changing the bakery.
"Just knowing that there is always someone around listening to what you say -- it's kind of creepy," says Geof Manthorne, one of Goldman's first employees. "I'll be relieved when they're gone."
Anna Ellison, a cake decorator, says that during the filming of the pilot episode, directors and producers tried to pump up conflicts among the staff -- a big turnoff for her and others. Goldman has gotten away from the kitchen in pursuit of something else, she says. "I think he would like to be famous."
Even Goldman seems ambivalent about his new celebrity. His recent trip to Hollywood shook him up as he saw agents, managers and big stars interact behind the scenes. "The hoopla, the spectacle, and just how bizarre the whole thing was," he says.
"I can understand why fame is so fickle and fleeting. ... What I need to do is figure out what I want -- and use my temporary pass into this kind of accessibility to get what I want. Hopefully, I can use this as a springboard to make better and better and better cakes."
While the film crew is hovering around Goldman, the case of the missing fondant is solved. It was among some unopened boxes near the front door. Goldman tears open a box and pulls out big plastic tubs. "Hey, we got our fondant," he says, looking relieved. Then he adds a note of tension just for the camera: "Now, hopefully, we'll have enough to do all of those cakes."
But with the cameras rolling, a different side of the baker emerges. He starts talking about the properties of fondant, the differences in fondant brands, and the ways that they perform -- the mad scientist at work.
He declares his business philosophy, which comes off as humble and not Hollywood. "I run this place on two principles: Be nice to people, and make nice cakes."
Jeffrey Adam "Duff" Goldman
Grew up in:
University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Culinary Institute of America in California
Started working with chef Cindy Wolf at the Baltimore restaurant Savannah, making corn bread. While at culinary school, he worked at French Laundry.
The Tonight Show With Jay Leno; Today show; CNN; Food Network Challenge: Mystery Cakes; Food Network Challenge: Elvis Birthday Cakes; Sugar Rush; The Christopher Lowell Show
If he wasn't making cakes:
"I would be a bread baker," he says. "Bread is one of the hardest things to do as far as cooking goes. ... I think a lot of people don't appreciate how amazing good bread is."
[ Scott Carlson]