The grandchild of Holocaust victims, Duff Goldman became a brand name through hard work, creativity and a blowtorch.
Born in Michigan, Goldman was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for baking the world’s largest cupcake. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he is the executive chef of the Baltimore-based Charm City Cakes, a shop featured in the Food Network reality television show “Ace of Cakes.”
Goldman’s bakery shop—which recently added three locations in Los Angeles—is unusual in that blowtorches, as well as power tools such as grinders and drills, help form the underlying supports of the shop’s unique edible creations.
According to Goldman’s instructor at CIA, pastry chef/team leader Robert Jorin, Goldman was more enthusiastic about his work than most students.
“He knew what he wanted to do when he came here and he always put a lot of effort into it,” Jorin told JNS.org. “He wrote in his first essay that his goal was to be on the cover of Pastry Art and Design. That set him apart from the rest.”
Amid his increasing fame, Goldman consistently gives back through tzedakah. Among his charitable causes are police officers, firefighters, the military, teachers, the Make a Wish Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and the Lower East Side Girls’ Club. These causes, he said in an interview, are just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’m a cook who won the lottery,” Goldman told JNS.org. “Seeing the effects this has had on everybody makes us want to give back. Every time we give it makes us want to give more.”
Goldman was reluctant to further describe his charitable efforts, citing the tzedakah principle of giving anonymously.
Cooking since he was 4 and working professionally since he was 14, Goldman’s unique approach comes, in part, from his artistic Jewish family. His great-grandmother “Mamo” came to the United States from Ukraine and became a baker and cook. Her daughter, Duff’s grandmother “Nana,” was a professional artist whose work includes painting, printmaking and silversmithing. Goldman’s mother Jackie is an artist who began in printmaking, created and taught ceramics in her own commercial studio, moved on to stained glass for more than 30 years, and is now working on clay, silver and gold creations.
“I was taught growing up that they can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your heart and your education,” Goldman said. “As long as you keep your brain and your heart, you can carry on.”
During his younger years in northern Virginia, Goldman studied art at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, and was a local graffiti artist. With his culinary degree and growing experience, he baked bread for Todd English’s DC-based Olives Restaurant under executive chef Steve Mannino. Inspired by the chefs he worked for, Goldman’s entrepreneurial spirit took him back to Baltimore in 2000, where he realized his dream and opened Charm City Cakes.
Goldman said word-of-mouth, the media, and even the health department all began to take an interest, and he soon found himself in a real bakery of his very own.
“It was small, but it got the job done,” Goldman said.
Goldman kept the health department happy, his press coverage increased, and a growing list of clients helped propel him into an even bigger location: an old church he retrofitted into a modern bakery.
“The important part that all these great chefs taught me is how to dig real far into yourself and how to do your absolute best,” Goldman said. “It’s about striving for excellence, making things as perfect as possible.”
As word about his unusual and daring cakes got out, Goldman hired staff with more artistic experience than the typical pastry chef, like painters, architects and sculptors. His team produces cakes that range from “Star Wars” characters and vehicles, to a replica of the Stanley Cup, to a working life-size motorcycle, a Hogwarts Castle for Warner Brothers and their premiere of “Harry Potter,” to thousands of more creations for everyone from the bar across the street to the NFL celebrating the Super Bowl.
In 2006 the Food Network tapped Goldman and his fellow baking artists to star in “Ace of Cakes.” After six years and 10 seasons, the show is popular not only in reruns, but also in more than 40 countries worldwide. In 2011, the show saw its United Kingdom premiere draw record numbers for Food Network’s latest overseas venture: Food Network UK.
In addition to his work on “Ace of Cakes,” Goldman also stars in the Food Network series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and has been featured in episodes of “Iron Chef America” and “Cupcake Wars.” He also guest-starred in both TV and film, including Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Fox’s “King of the Hill,” Walt Disney Pictures’ “You Again,” and the indie film “Below the Beltway.”
“He was always innovative and the wild one when it came to ideas,” his teacher, Jorin, said. “He was not the quiet person in the class. In the kitchen he got things done without hesitation. His projects were always interesting and out-of-the-norm. This is what sets people apart who are going to be successful later on.”
The growth of Goldman’s brand isn’t finished just yet. In 2012, he opened Duff’s Cake Mix, a bakery in Hollywood where customers create their own cakes and he is collaborating with “Electus for Hungry,” a new food-centric channel debuting exclusively on YouTube.
But before he made all those artistic cakes, Goldman made a bunch of flops.
“You don’t learn anything by succeeding all the time,” Goldman said. “You’ve got to fall down, get hit and beat up. You’ve got to fail. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not advancing.”