Duff Goldman Revels in the Magic of Baking and Reveals Why He Decided to Become a Baker
When Duff Goldman first appeared on Food Network on Ace of Cakes, we originally knew him as the owner of a small cake shop in Baltimore that put out some pretty inventive and over-the-top sweets. Since then he’s expanded his business to Los Angeles, and we’ve gotten to see the inner workings of his studio — and meet his exceptionally creative staff — on Duff Till Dawn and Cake Masters.
More recently Duff has also lent his expertise as a judge to Spring Baking Championship and Holiday Baking Championship, and he’s served as a co-host and judge on Kids Baking Championship. But now Duff has taken on the role of teacher on Worst Bakers in America, airing Sundays at 10|9c. He’s paying forward all he’s learned by mentoring a set of bumbling baking wannabees, from which he hopes to train a winner.
So why did Duff end up becoming a baker, and what inspires him about his craft? FN Dish caught up with the cake-baker extraordinaire on the set of Worst Bakers to chat about his baking philosophy and the ups and downs he’s gone through in his career to get to where he is today.
How would you sum up the concept of baking in a few words?
Duff Goldman: Baking’s incredible because you take four ingredients, flour, butter, sugar and eggs, you combine them together in different ratios, in different orders, in different quantities with different flavors and you get, literally, millions of different things.
What made you become a baker in the first place?
DG: I think what made me become a baker was, well, two things. One, it’s analytical, and I’m a thinker. I have a degree in philosophy. It’s sort of what I do, but it’s a thinking person’s game. You know, you have to think; you have to be very observant when you’re baking. You got to sort of be in the moment. The other thing was when I first started my first fine-dining job, I was baking cornbread and biscuits, and I didn’t really know much about fine-dining kitchens and how they were set up and what the work was like, but after a few weeks I kind of noticed that I’d be on my station baking cornbread and biscuits and I’d have a coffee and I’d be talking to the cute servers and I’d be baking my stuff, and I’d look over on the line and these guys are burning themselves, getting screamed at by the chef, they’re cutting themselves, they’re running out of mise en place, you know, they’re freaking out, they’re sweating, and I’m like this job is much better than that job. So, I became a baker.
What’s the first dish or baked good you learned to make?
DG: The first baked good I learned to make was cornbread at my first fine-dining job. Cornbread and biscuits.
How would you describe your baking philosophy?
DG: The thing about baking is that it’s always magical, every time you do it. You put something in the oven and a couple minutes later it’s something completely different.
Who were your teachers and mentors when you were coming up? What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
DG: I had a lot. The first was Chef Cindy Wolf, she’s at Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore. She actually got me started baking. I wanted to cook. She wouldn’t let me cook, but she needed someone to bake cornbread and biscuits, so I did that for two years, which was good for me because I learned how to bake. Pastry Chef Stephen Durfee, who is an instructor at CIA [Culinary Institute of America], he was my pastry chef at The French Laundry. He’s a really, really good pastry chef. He came from savory. So I think Stephen really thought about pastry very differently, but he’s got a very analytical mind and is incredibly smart and really kind of taught me how to think about food. Todd English really taught me how to go for it [and] make things ridiculous. If you’re going to use saffron, use a lot of it. Don’t skimp, because then you’re just wasting it.
What’s the first thing you ever baked successfully?
DG: I think the first thing I ever baked successfully was a Shrinky Dink.
What’s your biggest baking disaster that you’re willing to admit to?
DG: My biggest baking disaster was in culinary school. I was the bread guy, I’m a really good bread maker, and we were having a big conference for the ACF, the American Culinary Federation, at my school, and a couple hundred ACF chefs were going to be at my school for this big thing. We were doing a big dinner, and my teacher, one because they didn’t want to do the work, but two because they trust me, they’re like, “Duff, can you stay after class and bake all the bread for this ACF conference?” Needless to say, it has to be really, really nice bread. And I was like, “Sure, it’s an honor.” This was a couple hundred of the best chefs in the country. So, I stayed late, I stayed in the kitchen and I baked all this and, I mean beautiful bread, all these different shapes and really, really cool stuff. I was showing off a little bit, but I’m a chef — we like to do that. So, I go home, the next day I go into school, and my teacher’s like, “Hey you know all the bread really looks awesome, it’s all beautiful.” And I was like, “Thanks, you know I worked hard on it.” And they said, “Hey, did you taste it?” I was like, “No, no I didn’t.” They’re like, “Oh, you should taste it.” So we went over to the rack where all the different breads were and I took a bite of it, and I had forgotten the salt. Yeah — so then we had to bake all the bread again.
If you could make a cake for anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make?
DG: I would bake a cake for the band Led Zeppelin in the summer of 1977, and I would have to deliver it to them backstage at Madison Square Garden so I could go and see that show. … I was 2. I would really like to see that show live. … I think I would do John Bonham’s drum kit, but not the acrylic one. Those are see-through, and you can’t really do that with cake. So, I’d probably do … a wooden drum kit that was really sweet, and then on top of it I would do this giant balloon, like a giant blimp with the Led Zeppelin logo on it that had some kind of fire element so it looked like it was on fire, but it really wasn’t, so it could sort of be on fire for, like, a long time.
If you had to eat one baked item for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
DG: Does meatloaf count? … It would be a blueberry cake doughnut.
Who do you love baking for the most?
DG: My mom, because nobody inflates my ego like my mom. Like, I could bake something and it’s good, but I know it’s not my best work, and my mom will act like it is manna from heaven. Every Passover I bake matzo, fresh matzo, and, I mean, some years it’s better than others. I mean, it’s matzo; it’s never that good. And my mom’s like: “Oh, it’s so good. It’s the best matzo. I can’t believe. It’s delicious.” … She’s so sweet.
What kitchen tool can’t you live without?
DG: Sans my knives? Stand mixer.
I love baking because (fill in the blank)
DG: You’re like a magician. Anybody who works in kitchens can cook, but very few people can bake, and I feel like when you can bake and you can bake well everybody else kind of looks at you like you just know something that they don’t. Which is true, you do, but it’s like a little something extra. You have a better grip on reality.
I hate baking because (fill in the blank)
DG: One thing I hate about baking is how it’s perceived. I think a lot of people look at baking and they kind of see it as a soft option. They’re like, “Oh, you’re a baker, so you just didn’t really want to be a chef; you just wanted to bake.” And it’s like, “Well, take it easy, kids.” You got to be really smart and really on the ball to be a good baker. A good baker, you’re like a drummer. A good chef, you’re like a good guitar player. There’s a lot of good guitar players out there, not that many good drummers.
Word Rorschach (Name the first thing that comes to your mind)
Cake: Ice cream
Butter: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
Milk chocolate: Delicious
Dark chocolate: Ehh
White chocolate: No!
Cream puff: Michael Gambon
Frosting: With a spoon
Danish: Cream cheese
Watch Worst Bakers in America on Sundays at 10|9c to see Duff in action.