Bruce Cohn, founder and proprietor of B.R. Cohn Winery

Bruce Cohn, founder and proprietor of B.R. Cohn Winery, has embraced a lifelong passion for Northern California’s wine country and its bounty. An equally strong passion for music led to a parallel career in the music industry as the manager for one of rock ‘n’ roll’s perennially favorite American bands, The Doobie Brothers. His down-to-earth attitude, focus and dedication coupled with the fact that he is a truly 'nice guy' have made both careers flourishing successes to this day.

Serendipity? The right place at the right time? You bet! All of the above! Yet talk with Bruce and he'll tell you it has been and continues to be no small task. His spotting the opportunities that came his way, capitalizing on them and maintaining the level of quality and performance that he espouses for himself did not just fall in his lap and he has worked hard. It's hard to believe that he has served as band manger for the Doobies for 42+ years, and though most wine enthusiasts now know about his award winning wines, many would be surprised to realize that he has has owned Olive Hill Estate Vineyards and has been producing quality grapes for almost 37 years. This is a man who, unheard of in the music industry, started a pension plan for he and the members of the Doobie Brothers as they rose to success in the late 70's. Such is the foresight of this enigmatic man.

Bruce’s roots in Sonoma County agriculture run deep. He became familiar with ranch and vineyard operations at an early age, when his family left Chicago for Sonoma’s Russian River Valley to open Northern California’s first grade-A goat dairy farm.

When Bruce was 10 years old, he spent his free time milking goats, picking grapes and playing in old wine vats. Another move to San Francisco during high school exposed Bruce to the vibrant Bay Area music scene of the 1960s. After graduating from high school, Bruce went on to the College of San Mateo, majoring in broadcasting & communications. He later finished his studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Bruce returned to San Francisco in 1968 for a job working nights as a television engineer for two years while running a music rehearsal studio by day. In 1969, Bruce began managing the then local band, The Doobie Brothers, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bruce continues to manage the now-legendary band to this day.

Entertainment world success notwithstanding, Bruce was eventually drawn back to the beauty of wine country. To keep some sanity and preserve quality of life, he purchased an old dairy in Glen Ellen in 1974 that evolved into Olive Hill Estate Vineyard, so-named for the property’s grove of 140-year-old French Picholine olive trees. Bruce purchased books on viticulture and read them during long periods of traveling with the band. He soon became intensely involved with all aspects of growing grapes, from planting and pruning to grafting and trellising techniques. A decade after taking ownership of the land and having great success selling grapes to other wineries, Bruce started B.R. Cohn Winery at Olive Hill in 1984.

Bruce and his family live in the Sonoma Valley where he runs both the winery and his music business from the property. He has made the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard a true family wine estate. 

The Interview

Lou: You grew up on a dairy farm.

Bruce: A goat dairy, which was a little different than most dairies in Sonoma County. We had the first, grade A, goat dairy in this area in 1957. We made feta goat's cheese in those days which nobody even knew about, pretty much.

You were way ahead of the curve.

My parents were way ahead of the curve. So, I milked goats from 3:30 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, seven days a week most of my childhood. We milked 115 of them by hand. It was quite a work ethic learned.

Quite an upbringing. Looking at some of the things you've done in your career, foresight seems to run in the family. Your mom and dad with goat cheese, you with other things you've done with food, wine and music. I understand that when you were growing up you wanted to be a veterinarian.

My first love was working with animals and from childhood that was my goal, to be a veterinarian, but it didn't pan out. My entrance to UC Davis, here in California, was very stringent and in those days they only took 27 applicants a year from the whole state. It was very difficult to get in. You had to have a stellar 4.0 grade-point to get in and I didn't, of course. (Laughter) We moved back to San Francisco, and my folks were both musicians....

So music has always been the backstage of your life....

They met singing in Chicago professionally, before we moved to California. My dad sang Italian arias and he went to Julliard School of Music.

Being artists they went to California and of course the logical thing would be: a goat farm.

(Laughing) Basically, their son, my brother, had really bad asthma and they moved to California, San Francisco specifically, because the doctor said it was better for asthmatics, lower pollen count. That's how we got to the west coast from Chicago. It was a fluke that my dad bought this ranch in the Russian River Valley in 1957 and we ended up there. We moved back to San Francisco after some time here (he's currently in the Valley) ranching. I got involved after getting a degree in radio and television. I went to work in college in a TV station.

Your brother was running a rehearsal studio at the time, correct?

We both ran a rehearsal studio, but my brother worked as an engineer at a recording studio, and I met the Doobie Brothers where he was recording in San Mateo, California. I just happened to be down there one day, I worked the swing shift at the TV station, 4 to midnight. I worked the rehearsal hall and the TV station at night. One day I went down to the studio and the drummer and the lead guitar player happened to be there looking for a record deal. They wanted somebody to find them a record contract.

We understand they were dressed more appropriately for the Hells' Angels.

Well, they looked like bikers for sure. They hung out with the Hells' Angels. The Doobie Brothers were the Hells' Angels' favorite band in the South Bay and Santa Fe area at that time. They played clubs all over the place and we ended up getting a record deal.

You got them heard at a pizzeria gig.

Yeah, Ricardo's Pizza Parlor. They were discovered by a Warner Brothers' talent scout. He went back to Warner and told them to sign them up. We got a record contract from that pizza parlor date.

That turned into a very interesting tour, The Mothers' Brothers Tour?

That was the time of Rowan & Martin and Laugh-In shows. It was kind of a take off on a spoof of the Mothers Brothers.....

It didn't do to well.

It was a total disaster. By the time that we got off the road, the CD they had put out, well LP back in those days, vinyl, was in the recycle bin at Tower Records. We were back in the clubs and I was collecting guns and knives from the Hells Angels and trying to get two bucks out of them per show.

All this while you still have a love of food.

Basically I had a love of music and a love of eating. I loved to eat and I still do. We went to a lot of great restaurants in Chicago when I was a little guy. Food was always the main focus for our family. The wine kind of came from left field. When the Doobie Brothers hit on the second LP,Toulou Street, we went from 8,000 copies of sales on the first LP to 2.7 million on the second one, and that changed our lives drastically, as you can imagine.
150 cities a year internationally all over the world all of sudden and I was on the road managing them and mixing their sound for seven years.

So you had a dual role. Did you have a family at this point?

I had four children and the reason I bought the ranch, which I named Olive Hill....

In '74 correct?

Yeah, right after the Doobies hit in '72, I started looking to move back up into the wine country where I was raised on the dairy.

Just to keep a level head because it is a crazy business. I'm an ex-musician myself, not to the level we're talking here, in terms of the tours.

You know how hard it is to be on the road, do 150 cities....

...and have a family life...

...yes and keep a family. I wanted to raise a family out in the country where I was raised. I spent good time with them. I had an office in my home, so when I was home, I was with family a lot. When I was gone though, I was gone. We had long tours in those days, we don't do that any more, they're down to 80 shows a year and we break it up to two weeks segments as much as possible. Those days we could be out 5,6,7 weeks at a time.

That can take its toll. I do understand.

Very difficult. I bought the ranch to chill out and rejuvenate myself from touring.

Speaking of foresight when we started talking, was wine in your vision at that point? I understand one of the things about the ranch that was attractive to you were the Picholene trees.

What happened when I bought this property, it was 46 acres and was a dairy. It had an olive grove planted around the dairy buildings, prior to the dairy buildings when the home was built in 1920. The trees were planted in 1870 and are 140 years old. When I bought property they were about 100 years old. We didn't really do anything with the olives, we ignored them. The dairy had been closed and the owner had started to plant grapes instead of hay. There were 14 acres of grapes on the 46 acres, so I inherited a vineyard when I purchased it, but I didn't know anything about the vineyard. I had picked grapes growing up out in the Russian River Valley.

I understand you started a study course for yourself on the road.

I started by doing it. I had started a pension plan and profit sharing plan for the band in 1974.

Which was unheard of at that time.

It's not part of rock-n-roll to have a pension plan. I had grown up with the guys in Santana and some of the other bands around the Bay Area, and they had great careers and sold millions of records and ended up broke because they didn't' have good management and they didn't save their money. I didn't want that to happen to The Doobies and myself, because we are all equal partners, and I wanted us all to come out with something at the end. I didn't know it was going to go 39 years.

That's a great pension plan.

I was preparing for the worst, hoping for the best. The administrator of the pension plan happened to be a wine collector. In those days, when I started, there were only about 35 wineries in northern California and they were mostly jug wines like Inglenook, Christian Brothers and Sebstiani.

Somewhere along here you met Charlie Wagner.

The pension plan administrator, Stan Bernie, took me and introduced me to him. Stan was collecting wines, even back in 1974, and Charlie had grown up with his father farming grapes in Napa Valley. Stan asked him if he would help me. Charlie was kind of a redneck farmer. I had hair out to my shoulders.

You were a rock-n-roller

(chuckles) Yeah, snakeskin pants and leather boots. I didn't look like a farmer, I can tell you that. I talked to him and told him I was raised on a dairy and was in Future Farmers of America and all that stuff. He said if you're a friend of Stan's I'll help you. We ended up hitting it off and Charlie ended up mentoring me for four years. It was really invaluable to have that mentoring from a guy that had been in it (wine) all his life.

You already had a history with 'working with the dirt/land'. Did he work with you out in the field, looking at the grapes?

That's what he did. He taught root stocks, cloning, how to graft, trellising techniques, how to do irrigation, which was new at that time. I took those things home, and when I was planting vineyards, and fixing up vineyards I had that weren't in good shape, I used what he told me. It really helped me. I read books as well, Winkler's book on viticulture for instance. ("General Viticulture" by A. J. Winkler). When the band found out, they were just shaking their heads saying, "What are you doing reading viticulture books?"
I explained that I had this vineyard on my property and the pictures in the book didn't look like my vineyard. I was trying to figure out what was wrong. I educated myself through Charlie's help and ended up now, knowing a lot about vineyards. You can't make good wine unless you have good grapes. I don't care how good your winemaker is and what the reputation is, I've had Helen Turley and Mary Edwards....

Well, let's stop here a minute before we get ahead of ourselves. I have a little anecdote, something a little bird whispered in my ear and I want to talk to you about it with regard to grapes. You originally started growing grapes and selling them to other vineyards?

Yes, my first contract was with August Sebstiani, because he was the big buyer in Sonoma and bought most all the grapes.

What kind of grapes were you primarily planting at that time?

I had inherited some Cabernet and some Pinot Noir, 14 acres worth.

Which turned out to be very, very good grapes.

The cab did, the pinot was not. It was not a good climate. I'm in a little town called Glen Ellen, and where we are is a very unique, very small micro-climate in the valley.

Let's put that aside for a minute, we'll get back to the climate. You were growing grapes and selling to Sebastiani, however, I was told I needed to speak with you about "late night, bumpy roads, smuggling grapes past August."

(He is laughing quite a bit here.) Wow, I don't know where you are getting all this info....

I've been accused of doing our homework...

(chuckles)...Charlie Wagner told me he was upset that August was taking my grapes and throwing them in with all this other stuff he bought from the central valley and making a blended decent wine, but nothing great. He told me I didn't realize the quality of grapes I had. He told me to bring him some grapes and he'd make the wine separate and he'd tell me how good it is. I said,"I think it's good because I keep getting a bonus from August,so it must be good." I told him I'd love to bring him some grapes, except that August, when I harvested, I'm on the highway here between Sonoma and Glen Ellen, would drive up and down the highway and watch the harvesting. Your grapes didn't go to his winery if you took your grapes somewhere else as well. He'd cut you off from your contract and in those days, it was very hard to get grape contracts because there were more grapes then there were wineries. Charlie said, "August is like me, we go to bed at 7 and get up at 4." He said, "You just wait until 8, he'll be in bed and you drive them over, he'll never know. (Laughing)

Were you driving hot-rods at this time still?

I had switched from hot-rods to Harleys.

So basically this was the moonshine of Sonoma County.

Yeah. I had an old '48 Dodge that I used to bring grapes to August with, it held 6 tons, two, 3-ton bins on it. I loaded one with 3 tons of cab and one with 3 tons of pinot and decided to take them over, what we call, The Oakville Grade, which is treacherous even in a Ferrari. It's a mountain road that's a shortcut. If you go around the long way it's a flat road and easy. I was afraid that August might be out, having dinner and he'd see my truck. I ended up burning up the brakes coming down into Oakville. Ending up at Charlie's two hours late, he was upset because he wanted to be in bed. He was waiting in the driveway when I got there and asked "Where the hell have you been?"
I told him I went over the grade and he told me, "You're out of your mind. Look, your brakes are on fire, there's smoke. You go back that way you're going to kill yourself." (Laughing)
I dumped the grapes and went home. He called me about six months later and said, "Bruce, get over here you have to try this wine I made."
So I went over, knowing absolutely nothing about wine. The Doobies and I were drinking mostly Cuervo. We didn't know fine wine, we were drinking Lancers and Matuse. I faked it and told him the wine tasted great. He said it was great, it was the best cab he'd ever had from Sonoma County. He said I was missing the boat and had to get my name on a label. That was in '78.
Six years later after again selling grapes to August, I started selling to Ravenswood and Kenwood and they all start winning gold medals with my grapes. I was taking 'night loads' to them. (More laughing) Olive Hill started showing up on all the vineyard designated wines. Luckily he (August) didn't look at anybody else's winery or he would have known. I was selling him the same amount of grapes, but I was planting more each year.

You have close to 100 acres now?

Now we're at 90 acres. I've bought land over the years and it's all Cabernet. I found out that because of the micro-climate here...

Yes, let's talk about your special micro-climate.

It's what makes us stand apart from the other Cabernet growers in Sonoma. This micro-climate, which is about a half a mile radius around my property is unique.

You have the subterranean springs, correct?

We have geothermal hot-springs under the property which warms the ground and forms a frost-free zone on our property and creates a longer growing season.

You also get less winds because of the mountain break.

Well, we get less fog and more sunlight hours because the Sonoma Mountains are directly behind my property and that backdrop creates more sunlight hours. When the fog circumvents our ranch and goes around into Sonoma and Kenwood up the road, we are sitting in sunlight. We found out recently that our heat grid, which is calculated by different counties and state agencies to make your zones, is almost identical to Charlie Wagner's vineyard in Caymus, a Rutherford Bench. That's why Charlie loved my grapes.  
They were very familiar to him.

The flavor profile and the ripening patterns of my grapes were similar to what happens over there. So we're, hence, a Cabernet producer. When Helen Turley started in 1983....

I was going to bring her up next...

...we started with 93, 94 ratings. We had these great ratings right out of the box and no one in Sonoma was doing that and we rivaled Napa in the consistent Cabernet production.

Your award list is very impressive.

Yes, it is because of this micro-climate, that's what does it.

How did you land Helen?

At the time she was a 'cellar rat' at Bundschu Winery. When I decided to start my winery I called Jim Bundschu's winemaker at the time, Lance Cutler, and told him I wanted to make wine. After we had a discussion about still selling grapes to them, he told me about this girl that was working there in the cellar that wanted to make wine and I could try her out, if she wants to. I had her come over and we struck up a deal and she made my wine for four years and built the little winery that we started with. She put us on the map with Cabernet. She was an excellent winemaker and still is to this day.

Now you have Tom Montgomery.

Mary Edwards came after Helen, she did the 90s B.R. Cohn. Then Steven Croft was here a for a short time and then I brought in Tom, he was a Napa 25 year veteran from Constantino Winery and Conn Creek, he's a really great guy. He's been making our wine now for six years and I think probably the best consistent wines we've had across the board. Between Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, he makes every variety of wine really well.

Mary Edwards is now specializing in Pinot Noir, Helen makes Chardonnay and I believe Zinfandel. Tom makes everything great, which is very hard to find, a winemaker who knows how to deal with each grape. I'm happy to have Tom here and he's doing a great job.

We buy a lot of grapes now. We have our estate production but that is just a portion of what we make now. We can't grow Chardonnay or Pinot Noir here, it is just too hot, so we have to purchase some of those grapes. He goes out to those growers and works with them proactively.

You've come full circle from the story that we started with. You were just starting to grow some grapes, and planting some and selling them. Now you are the winemaker, purchasing the grapes. It's been an interesting road you've taken.

We went from grower, to winery and now we are purchasing from growers, but I'm still a grower as well.

Through all of this you maintained your tremendous love of food and all things culinary.
You are very exacting in terms of your standards.

My name's on the bottle. I learned a long time ago, that it doesn't feel good when somebody comes up to you on the street and says, "I had your wine and it was really lousy." It doesn't make your day. You know, The Doobie Brothers have been consistently making great music for 39 years. I've been making wine for 34-35 years. I'm trying to do the same thing, make consistently high quality products, whether it is olive oil, wine, vinegars, tapenade. Whatever it is I want it to be as good as it can be.

Let's talk about that a bit. You started with your wine and the focus has been on B.R. Cohn Wines. As a food, wine and lifestyle magazine, we feel you encompass all those things. Lifestyle being the music that you bring to the world. The food end, you have started to expand that quite a bit. You've been working on it for a long time, it's not something new to you. You discovered that those olive trees you have are pretty special.

We ignored them for many, many years because we were so busy with the band and the winery. Ironically, as things happened to me, a lot of my life has not been planned.

It just happens to you.

It's kind of like John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." So life is what is happening to me. These opportunities arise and I have been able to take advantage of it, work hard and make something out of it.

That says a lot about your character and getting behind who you are and the things that you do. Getting back to the family side, do you still live on property?

Yes. I live here and my four kids live and work here as well.

You've kept yourself surrounded and grounded by family and people who live their lives based upon good values. Most people associate rock n roll with a wild lifestyle, but usually good things come to good people. I would have to assume that you've been doing the right thing by the people that surround you, as it is evidenced by what God has put around you.

I've worked very hard, we've had some very hard times. Starting a winery is not a cakewalk. It is very difficult, very cash intensive. It's still hugely expensive to be in this business. You have to cellar wines for 3 years before you can sell them. That's unbelievable when you have millions of dollars tied up in inventory.

I say I'm an overnight success and it only took 34 years. It looks great from the outside and it is a great lifestyle. I have to say, knock on wood, I can live this life and eat good food and drink good wine and hear good music. But, it's not that easy. You have to work hard at it like anything else.

I'm a firm believer and say it often, "Life is 10 percent what it gives you and 90 percent what you do with it." The onus being that..the 90 percent is on you to get it done.

We've done a lot of charity and I try to become part of the community. Because I was absent so much, on the road with the bands I managed, I was not involved with the community as much as I would like to have been. So for the last 23 years I've done this concert to support local charities, which is my way of giving back to the community that I live in.

Let's talk about the olive oil and then talk more about your charitable endeavors.

I got an ultimatum from my now ex-wife. Pick up the olives, because the kids were tracking in all these stains on the carpet in the house, or buy her new carpet. I didn't want to buy her new carpet, so I picked up the olives and sent them to a friend of mine in Modesta, California, who was the only one producing extra virgin olive oil in California 1990.
They pressed my olives, very similar story to Charlie Wagner's in Caymus, called me and said "This is special olive oil. This is French Picholene olives, which we hardly ever see in California." California grows Spanish or Italian varieties, they were planted here when the missionaries came in or by the Italian immigrants.
It was a fluke that I have 8 acres of French Picholene olives planted here. It turned out to be very rare. We bottled it and it was a big hit. We put it out and it got number one in the country. No one was making estate grown virgin olive oil in California, I was the first.

You are expanding that into other products now, correct?

We make three tapenades, three mustards, three herb and spice rubs. Food stores want more than one of each. We are doing 3 different flavor profiles of each. We're making chocolate sauces with Merlot, Cabernet and chardonnay.

Your vinegars are very unique, you do them 'Orleans' style.

No one does that anymore. Everything is commercially made in large quantities. We make classic vinegars, we ship French oak barrels down to our maker, and they take Cabernet, Chardonnay and Champagne, and they make these great handcrafted vinegars for us. No one is doing that either, it is very rare. We came out with raspberry champagne vinegar, pear vinegar, Cabernet vinegars.

You are a busy guy.

I like food and do a lot of wine dinners. To me wine is to be paired with food. B.R.Cohn wines are 80% in restaurants and 20% in stores. We are mostly a restaurant wine and we craft them to be paired with foods. I also add, "or television if you like to have a glass with television" (laughing.) We try to make them accessible. Soft tannins and fruit forward wines that make them really great whether you pop a cork in a restaurant or at home, so you can drink it right away with your dinner. You don't have to cellar it for 5 years and wait for it to get ready.

Are you a fan of the aeration products on the market?

We have huge pump-over of our wine, 24 hours a day, over and over. That really softens the wine, it not only makes it a better color and full flavor, it aerates the wine and makes it ready to drink.

The majority of the times we have your wine it is with food. Stellar flavors. It is fun that it comes from a 'foodie.' What's refreshing, is your passion, including the music. Then, you take all these elements and include it in your charity work. You're in your 25 year of the Fall Music Festival?

Thank you. Years ago I did a golf tournament with The Doobie Brothers in L.A. for the United Way. From that, I decided to bring the event up to my winery and try to do a golf tournament, but you don't make a lot of money on golf alone. We decided to combine the food, the wine, do a concert and a golf tournament in the same weekend. It worked. We started in 1986 or 87 and we've been doing it ever since. Now we do two concerts and the golf tournament with dinner parties, it is a four day event. We've raised millions and millions of dollars for charities, mostly children's charities, and veterans charities as well. It really is a marrying of music, food and wine all in the same weekend.

It's become such a success. Have you finished work yet on the new amphitheater?

No, we've got the permits all done and we're trying to break ground this fall after this concert in October. We have an amphitheater that seats about 2500 now and we've had great acts. I thank all the artists for coming. They play for their expenses and that's how we've made all this money for charity. We've had Graham Nash, Steve Miller, Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt, The Doobies. It's just wonderful to be able to put on these shows in an intimate setting. We're sold out every year.

This year you have three charities your event is supporting.

A friend of mine is a trauma surgeon in Mendocino County and they needed help financially. He and I have been working on getting Journey to come and perform for several years. Finally this year, their schedule opened up to where they could do it. They agreed to come and play, so now I'm also giving to trauma centers as well as the children's charities I normally give to. We've spread it out because of Journey being able to come. They'll headline one day and The Doobie Brothers are headlining the other day, to spread the charity money out.

You've been doing this a long time.

This is a great event, we have great food and of course the wine is B.R. Cohn. We serve beer and have a great weekend. We have a dinner party and auction on Friday night. Bradley Austin, a great chef , well known in California who has a restaurant in Las Vegas, is cheffing the dinner for us. It's our first celebrity chef dinner.

You also have a wine expert coming in Narsia David.

Yes, he's also going to be talking about food. He's a foodie and a wine critic. We're really having a great time with this. On Monday, after the concerts and the food, we play some golf.

Sounds like a fantastic weekend. So what's on the horizon? You have so many things going, are you content, or do you have other things in mind to do?

We're actually starting two new lines of wines. I'm a car buff and I've been restoring cars since I was 16 years old, racing them too. I've been called a 'gear head.' We make Roadster Red Wine (for my Woodie Wagon), Panel Wagon Pinot (for my panel truck), Boater's Barbera (for my boat). We have all these car wines we sell at the winery. We're trying to work on a national program for those wines.

You do a charity car show as well.

On Fourth of July, we did it for Hospice, it was our inaugural this year, we'll do it again. We had 80 cars here, all classics, with music and wine again. That's a line of wines I'm really happy to be working on. The other line that we are coming out with is a Silver Label. We have a Silver cab' which as become extremely popular, so we are going to have a Silver chardonnay, possibly a Merlot. We're going to do some new labeling with the high end wines and have three tiers of wine instead of two for all of B.R.Cohn.

The wine business on a whole, with regard to the economy, has been reducing their price points on some of the higher end wines.

Many raised their prices considerably when we had that great economy and they got over zealous. When the rug got pulled out from under the economy last year, everything in the high end stopped selling. People went to the mid-priced wines. B.R. Cohn hasn't raised its prices in 7 years, we didn't get caught up in the 'bubble.'

So, your high end prices are right in line with what they should be.

We're right where we were 7 years ago when everyone was saying we were crazy, that we should have raised our prices. I believe in giving good quality wine to people at a good price. A lot of the guys in Napa went crazy and raised their prices to $100 and $150 per bottle, even upwards of that. Now they are having a lot of trouble and they have to reduce their prices. B.R. Cohn's most expensive Cabernet is $55.00 retail. That's a long way from $150.

It sure is.

Our Silver Label Cabernet retails at $20.00 and that's a great value. We put French oak on that wine. Nobody does that with a $20 cab. People are not asking us to reduce our prices because we are already fairly priced.

Have you thought about making a rose?

We do make a rose but you won't see it anywhere but at the winery. We make 12 different wines, but only 5 of them are shipped out nationally. The other 7 are only sold direct to our wine clubs and here in our tasting room. We make Syrah and Port, a Cabernet Port, but you'll only see those here.

My focus is to de-mystify what is happening with wine on a gourmet level and bring it to people in a way that makes it accessible to them.

We're starting a culinary event center with guest chef dinner series. We're doing cheese and wine pairings.

I am about relationships. People are drinking B.R. Cohn wines across the country and the world, but sitting down and having this intimate chat with you really resonates with our readers. It personifies what you are about, sitting down with good friends, hanging out, drinking wine, chatting about food and wine.

I do wine dinners in my home. I'm cheffing on some TV shows a little bit.

I saw you do the stir-fry on TV.

I'm big on stir-fry's, do risottos and things of that nature. I'm not a full blown chef but I do have my fun dishes I like to make and people enjoy. I was very lucky to get this property. I'm only the third owner since the Spanish Land Grant. I know you were thinking about coming out for the event and that would be great but I'd like you guys to come outside of that event and we'll pair some wines with some of my food. I'll show you around the property, it really is a beautiful spot here.

I haven't taken Bruce up on his invite yet, but I will soon and of course,  you'll get the scoop right here...on the winery AND his stir fry..*-)

Bon Appetit!

Photos used with permission and courtesy of  B.R. Cohn Winery, Bruce Cohn and the Doobie Brothers. All rights reserved.


An Up Close & Personal talk with The Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro

Photos were provided by the Valastro family & TLC..

Tradition...a very important word for a young man growing up Italian in Northern NJ. If only because when we heard it we now knew we were in for one of those stories about the good ole days and "not like you kids today". When our father or uncle, or grandfather pulled the 'tradition card' you would have to stay a spell and listen. In an Italian household, especially those with a specific craft or skill set that runs through generations, such as mason, or carpenter, baker, car mechanic, art dealer, or whatever was the specialty of a household, while all families wished better for their sons & daughters, Papa was always sneakingly hoping the kids would come into the 'family' business.

Need some proof? Okay:. Baldini & Sons, Vincenso & Sons, Bartulli & Sons, Palucci & Sons, Martini & Sons, & Sons & Sons & Sons. Nuff said? There are many staple Italian restaurants in the northeast and elsewhere, where upon entering, you are facing fifth (5th) generation family members who are taking NANA & PAPA'S dream into the 21st century with time tested family recipes and wearing the family name proudly.

Some of us rebelled from tradition, wishing to make our own way, success or failure. Others listened. Oh thank God for those who listened, so as to save a rebel like me when I need a sfogliatella with which to drown my sorrows. Bartolo Jr. “Buddy” Valastro is one who listened. Or, maybe listened and rebelled at the same time. He's passionate about the bakery he inherited from his father and has worked hard to preserve a tradition. He is passionate about his bakery, Carlo's, his art, his pastry, his competitions on Foodnetwork's Challenge, still recalling when we talked, "maybe I should of done this and used more fondant here," as if the event were just yesterday. Today, Buddy is an accomplished master baker and cake decorator and star of the hit TLC reality show Cake Boss. He's often asked to demonstrate, compete, and teach his craft around the country. In his 10,000 sq ft. state of the art facility, Buddy and his staff turn out thousands of wedding cakes, specialty cakes, and pastries weekly.

Through all this, Buddy is most passionate about his family. His legacy to his father, and dedication to the rest of his family and community are a throwback. To old world values of commitment, loyalty, love, dedication, and yes... tradition. From an outsiders perspective, but being one who is very familiar with the dynamic of the Italian father-son, mother-son relationship, it is my opinion that the most important tradition that Buddy has kept of Bartolo Sr. & matriarch Mary Valastro actually has nothing to do with the bakery at all. It's that of being a good decent, hardworking guy who loves and takes care of his family and upholds the integrity of the family name.

The Interview

Lou: We all have seen the relationship you have with your mom. Tell us about your relationship with your dad, outside of the bakery.

Buddy: My dad was my best friend before he passed away. We did many, many things together. We went fishing together, we bowled together, we took a trip together. He wanted to show me where he was born, show me that he succeeded. He was a little poor boy from Sicily, who was born in this shack, came here with nothing and worked hard. It was like a life lesson he taught me. My father instilled values in me and made me the man I am today in so many ways.

When he died, the wake was for three days. When I tell you there was a line, up the block, around the corner, just people waiting to see him. I realized he touched so many people's lives. It was the little things, "I went out of my way for this one, I made a cake a little extra special for this one, or I made a phone call for this guy." I saw the love and respect that everybody had for him. He didn't do much, well he did, it was just little things that really impressed me.

Lou: He was just being himself.

Buddy: Just being who he is. I'll tell you a really good story: When my dad died, my mother and I were at my house. Our landscaper, who was our landscaper for 20 years, came and knocked on the door. He was crying that my father had died. I remember being a kid and my father telling me, "Buddy go get them (the landscapers) iced tea, get them egg sandwiches, get them a beer." He would sit down and have a conversation and a meal with our landscaper. My dad died in March, there was snow on the ground and the landscaper came crying telling us he was so sorry for our loss. He said, "I want you to know I'm going to come here tonight and I'm going to plant all flowers." My mother says, "No, absolutely not, we don't want to do that."

Lou: We're taught that. We don't say yes.

Buddy (laughing) : He said, "When the boss comes here for the last time, I want to make the place the way he liked it. I'll come back the next day and rip every flower out, but when he comes past in his casket, I want his house to look the way he liked it." That man sat outside my house with blow dryers, thawing out the dirt, to plant flowers and he did. You can understand the magnitude of the man that he was.

Lou: It says a lot about who he was for someone to go to such lengths to show their respect. You And I, we grew up in the same house, just different moms. We as Italians understand the ability to spend 24 hours a day with our family and not kill each other. How did you and your family deal with being together all the time? We're not talking about now, we're talking about when you were growing up. If you weren't home you were at the bakery, if you weren't at the bakery you were home. How did your mom and dad balance that for you growing up and giving you a normal life?

Buddy: Certain things in my family and my household are traditions and seemed normal to me because we didn't know any different. Christmas morning the bakery was open. We weren't toasting eggnog like everybody else. My dad would work and we would wait until he came home and opened our gifts together. (Someone in the background tries to talk to him and he responds with, "Oh.....I am in an interview, I cannot be disturbed.")

Lou: It's just like the TV show (laughing).

Buddy: Yeah, basically. That was a sense of normalcy to us. There were times when me and my sisters wanted to kill each other, or they would pick on me. No matter what, my parents instilled the value in us that said, "They're your family." Even to this day, some of my sister's drive me crazy, but I would jump in front of a bus for one of my sisters. The only person who can yell and scream and call them crazy, is me. Nobody else, you understand what I'm trying to say?

Lou: We know that you worked in the bakery from a very young age. There has to be a time when you night have thought, "I want to do something else." What was it?

Buddy: Honestly, I always wanted to do it. Dad always tried to keep me away from it. When I was young my dad said, "I don't want this for you. You're going to go to school, you're going to be a somebody." When I was twelve (12) years old, I got into trouble, not bad trouble, with my friends. After that he said, "You don't like school, you don't like this, you're going to work. You want it, you got it." He tried to scare me straight. He brought me to work. I loved it, it was like my calling. I could tell he was surprised because I was great at it. Instantaneously I picked things up. I remember him, I was 14 or 15 years old, and he used to have people come pick me up so I could work, because I was needed. He'd send Jimmy to pick me up 4 o'clock in the morning.

As my dad, before he passed away, got sick, it was just one of those things that I was given those responsibilities. Here I am 14/15 years old, it's around the holidays, I'm cuttin' school like 4 or 5 days, not that we did much the week, but I'm cuttin' school to work. Which was completely opposite from most kids. If they were cutting school it was something that most likely would get them into trouble, but you were going to work. I remember my first day at work, my father wanted to teach me humbleness. I asked if I was going to make cakes. He brought me into the bathroom and said, "Clean the toilet bowl."

Oohh. That's humbling.

That was my first day. (laughing) That's what I did. It was very important to him that I knew all aspects of the bakery. I knew what it was like to be the pot washer, the delivery guy, the cake decorator, the mixer, the baker. You don't see it much on the show, but I'm a really good baker. I really understand mixing, I'm a bench man, I know how to work with dough. Anything, danish, croissants, you name it I can do it without a problem. All parents say the same thing, "I'm working really hard, I want you to be somebody." It could have been my father saying that.

When you first started, and he saw that you had a love for the bakery, even though he said to you, "I want something better for you," did you get a sense that he was really proud of you following his tradition?

Absolutely, he was so proud of the things I could do. Sometimes he wouldn't tell me, he'd tell his friends.

They don't want us to get a big head (laughter).

He always wanted to keep me grounded. His friends would tell me, "He's so proud of what you can do." Believe it or not, when it came to cake decorating, I was almost exceeding what he could do.

You said, "If somebody cut you, you would bleed icing."

In his defense he didn't have the mediums that I have. I was way ahead of my time. I encountered problems with some of the recipes that he had and I reformulated them, like the butter-cream recipe.
The old timers had a different mentality, it was all about volume. They used to throw the butter and shortening in the bowl, whip the shit out of it and get as much as they can. Yeah it's great, but the next day when you go to ice a cake, it's going to look like crap. I went around it and called the shortening companies up and found the breaking points. How long it should be mixed, what the temperature should be, what the ratios are, you know what I'm saying. I went to the science end of it, things that my dad wouldn't have understood. I changed a lot of recipes like that. Once I started changing things like that, I had better mediums to work with and I became excellent. I had 50-60 wedding cakes a weekend to practice on. I used to squeeze 800 pounds of butter-cream a week through a little tube. I had forearms like Popeye. (Laughing)

What was it like for you being the only boy, not counting your dad, in a house full of girls?

I have to say, I didn't really compete with my sisters. My sisters never had anything to do with cake decorating or baking or anything. They always just did the store front. My dad's theory was the guys were in the back and the girls were in the front. Now I have a bunch of girls working for me and my dad is probably rolling over in his grave. (Laughing)

That's the bakery, how about at home.

I grew up in an Italian family. I was the baby and the only boy. I never did nothing. (Loud laughter by everyone) I was a spoiled brat! It's funny too, sometimes my brother-in-laws get mad, because when I go to my sisters' houses, they sit me down and they cater to me. It's like it's ingrained. If I sit down and say where is the salt, they'll jump up and get me salt.

You're the godfather of the table.

Yea, (chuckling) but that's how me and my dad were.

We know you were very close to your dad, but at 17 when your mom handed you the reins, not just for the bakery but the family too, how did you cope with that? That's a lot of pressure.

It was a lot of pressure, but my family helped me through it. I'm not going to try and say I did it all on my own. There were a lot of battles, and a lot of struggles. I had a lot of bakers who didn't want to respect me.

Were you overwhelmed a bit, we're not talking about the bakery? You're 17 and you're kind of the patriarch.

And I lost my best friend. My dad was like a living god, a legend. It was like he could walk on water. I had really big shoes to fill.

How did you handle it?

There were times I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. There were times I just wanted to run away and never come back. My wife says, "You take care of everything." If I don't do it, who's going to do it for the family.

Did you ever resent that?

I think that God gives certain jobs to certain people who can handle them. There are people who are doers and there are people who are not. I'm the kind of person who can handle it. Sometimes I find myself struggling, overstressed or overworked, but God made me a worker and able to handle it.
What am I doing this for? Everything I do now, I'm doing it for my kids, my wife, my sisters, my nieces and nephews. I always told my dad, we used to kid, one day I'm going to make this bakery a household name. I remember him laughing as we looked at wedding cakes in magazines, saying the cakes are beautiful. He said, "Maybe son one day we'll be in magazines. I said, "Dad, I promise you, we'll be in magazines. I'm going to do whatever I have to do." I knew that I had talent to do it.

You've talked on TV and on the Foodnetwork Challenge, about carrying on your father's legacy and taking it to the next level. When you took over, did you hope you could do it, or did you know you could do it?

At first, it was I hope I can do it, then it turned into I know I can do it. The one thing we had a lot of problems with was the Sfogliatella, it's the hardest Italian pastry to make. If somebody comes in and says they are an Italian baker, you ask, do you know how to make Sfogliatella? If they tell you yes and they know how to do it, then they're good. That was always the test that my father taught me.
We were having problems with them because my dad always handled them, I was so frustrated. I remember falling asleep one night, it was the first dream I ever had of my father, it was weird. Being Italian, weird shit like this you'll get, my father comes to me in the bakery. I said, "Oh my God dad, wow, I'm so happy to see you. Where have you been?" It was probably six months after he died. He says to me, "I'm not here to bullshit with you." (We're laughing at this.) He said point blank, "I'm here to show you how to pull Sfogliatella." I get chills when I think of the story. We started working side by side, doing the motions. As my hands moved, his hands moved, it was the same thing. By the time we were done there were two of me. He passed the torch to me, kind of. The next day I went in and no problem.

My next question was going to be what got you through that time, but I think you answered that.

I've always been a lucky guy. I believe in faith and that good things happen to good people. I always go out of my way for people. You don't have to publish this, I have a homeless guy that I see every day and I basically give him money to eat and for clothes and stuff. I remember being young with my dad, he'd always give to the homeless. I was probably 8 years old and I asked him why he always gave to the people.
He said, "First of all I know what it's like to be poor and hungry." I don't but he did. He said, "This could be Jesus or God asking me for money. I have a pocketful of money and I'm not going to give this guy some to eat?" It made so much sense to me. From that day forth, anybody who asked me, I always stop and always give. I believe that if you are good in life, good things happen to you.

We're going to talk more about your charitable side a little later. So here I am, interviewing you, "The Cake Boss" and right after we're done, the crew from TLC is here and you start shooting without thinking about it. Put yourself in your dad's head and tell me what he would say to you? How do you think he would feel?

He would be so friggin' proud. What an accomplishment. To see what I've done and where I've taken things. My mom often cries and says, "Man, if only your dad could only see what you did." Listen, I was given a great opportunity. I had a thriving business, we've been around almost a hundred years, but I took that business and I brought it to another level. I can say that proudly. I can say that I just didn't inherit my father's business, and I don't work, and I'm lucky. I broke my ass and made this happen.

You took the legacy and you're turning it into something bigger.


Most people don't understand the dynamic of Italian families, and I know you are very close with your mom and your sisters. Your persona on TV is tension and a lot of yelling. for us , that's completely normal. (Lou) We talk at a very high level, even when we are happy with each other. It's when we don't talk to each other that you know we are upset with each other.

Me and my sisters, we could fight in the morning and have dinner that night (We laugh).

My sister and I are exactly the same way. What would you say to those fans and viewers that perceive you as always being angry and yelling to make them understand that that's normal.

First, you've got to put them in my shoes too. Right off the bat, I'm in charge of 40 people. That in itself is a problem.

Most of them Italian.

Yeah, (laughing) number two, I never thought it would be this bad, I have to put in my schedule time to pee. This was the only hour I had (8:00 a.m.) otherwise we would have had to do this interview at 10 o'clock at night.

I appreciate you taking the time.

It's not a problem. I guess when I get bothered with stupid things, I fly off the handle. You'll notice I have employees for so many years, if I was that bad of a guy, do you think I'd have employees for 40 or 50 years? My workers would bleed for me. They would go to hell and back because I've been there with them. I'm not the kind of boss who barks out orders and leaves.

You would bleed for them.

Absolutely I do. Down and dirty. When push comes to shove, on personal levels and everything else, they'll come to me. Sometimes I'm a boss, a financial counselor, a financial helper, whatever they need, they come to me. Anything within my means, I do. They're having problems at home and need a day off, they're over stressed, it happens, it's human nature. But you have to be willing to take the good with the bad. It's the same with my sisters too.

There are a number of episodes where you and Mary were going at it. I was thinking, there it is, that brother/sister thing.

Absolutely. You know what? My sister inevitably knows that I know best. (chuckles) Mary is a perfect example. Mary is a good person. I don't want people to perceive her as a bitch. I want people to know all the good she does. Is she a pain in the ass? Yes, hands down, but you have to see how much good she does. Mary would be the first one to give you the shirt off her back.

That doesn't sell episodes unfortunately in some cases. It's a persona.

That's true too, but besides episodes, it's just in life. So I'm like, "Look Mare, why do you have to be a bitch?" "I don't care what people think." (Mary)
"Well I care. You're really not a bitch. So why should people think you are one." (Buddy)
It was always about my image, even before the show. I want people to say, "Hey, Buddy, he's a good guy, he does what he's gotta do. He works hard, he's a family man, he's a good guy."

You're running Carlo's bakery to your father's standards, TV's not in the picture, how did you meet Lisa?

(You can hear the smile in his voice.) My cousin was here from Italy and her parents were friends with them. He was having dinner at her house and I stopped there to pick him up, we were going out to a night club. I was 23 and my wife was 20 at the time and couldn't get into the clubs. My cousin says me, "Lisa's here, do you think you could get her into the club?" I was like, yeah no problem, I'll get her in. We went dancing that night and we kind of hit it off. Boom, that was it. We were married a year and half later.

Did she get free pastries when you were dating?

It's funny, she did. She always knew me. It's north Jersey, everybody knows everybody. She knew who I was and about the bakery. She was a very old fashioned girl. She wanted to be a housewife, she didn't want to work. She was looking for certain things and I was looking for a girl like that. I was a spoiled brat, don't get me wrong, I was working like dog. But at home I didn't pick up after myself or worry about anything and not everybody understands that.

Did you woo her with sfogliatella or cannolis?

(He chuckles) It's funny, she's one of my biggest critics. She's a pain in the ass when I do things. I'll ask her if she likes something, she's go 'eh.' She likes the cakes, likes being part of the family. She's a good girl.
We got married (a year and half after we met) and she's been supportive of everything. Even for her to just deal with me, I work a lot.

You've never worked anywhere except the bakery. Long, long hours, you're there early in the morning until late at night. At least Lisa knew what she was getting into. How did you squeeze in time to date?

When I was in my early twenties I felt like I had a lot more energy. It was weird, I'd get to work at 6 in the morning and work until 5 or 6 at night. I'd go home, eat and sleep until 10 or 11, go out till 2 in the morning, then go home and sleep or a couple of hours. It was weird. I had it down to a science, a system. After I started dating Lisa, instead of going home to sleep, I go home, then spend some time with her and then I'd be at work. She was a home girl. She just wanted to be married, that type of lifestyle. We go out for dinner and go dancing once in awhile. For the most part, she was just content spending time with me.

When you decided to ask her to marry you, who did you tell first? We Italian guys, when we decide to marry a girl, we have to tell somebody.

My mother. My mother helped me go pick out the ring.

How did you propose to her?

On one knee in my house. I was going to do this big thing in front of the families, but I had the ring and I just wanted to give it to her. I was just so excited. We had a really wonderful evening and I just said, "Hey, I love you." I asked permission too.

So being a good Italian boy, you to talk to her parents. How many cakes did you have to pay for her dowry?

(Laughter) Lots of cakes, lots of cakes. My in-laws are great. They are like us. I didn't marry my wife because she was Italian, but it made things a lot easier. In the sense that she understood the traditions, and this and that. I went and asked her parents and they were really happy.

You asked them before you asked her?

Yes, absolutely.

So they knew before she did.

You hafta. You hafta have the father's permission. I was actually shooting pool with my father-in-law in his basement. I asked him and he was ecstatic.

Did you make your own wedding cake?

Absolutely, it was huge. I worked two and half weeks just on the flowers.

Tell us about the day you told your mother she was going to be a grandma.

It's kind of weird on that because she has so many grand-kids. I wasn't the first, but she was really happy.

Well, you were the baby of the family.

Anyone one of us she is happy. But there are just so many of them. (Laughing) There are twelve (12) grandchildren now.

Does she spoil your kids?

She spoils all the kids. She is a great grandma. She's always been there for everything. I've got a great mother.

Will history repeat itself, and when the Cake Boss retires will they, your kids, be in the business too?

I sound like my father. I really want them to go to school and not go through what I went through. But inevitably, when I see them here and see how much they love it, I can't change history. If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen, you don't know. I don't know what the business is going to be like then. It might be a better business for them. It might not be so involved as it is for me. You don't know who's going to be creative enough to do it, or not. I am a clone of my father, if you look at pictures of my father and me. I can remember his arms and his hands. It's like a cast of him was made by me. I look at my son Buddy and it's the same thing. Who really knows.

Do the kids come into the bakery and you mess around with them?

Yeah, they come in and we play around making cakes. I remember being a little boy and rolling out dough and cutting cookies out, bake them and bring them home to mommy. I do the same thing with my kids.

The kids are small now, but coming soon is baseball, play dates, girl scouts and school events. In business, you're a lot like me; you have to be there all the time to make sure that everything is perfect. Yet you are a devoted family man, that much is obvious. Right now, it's easy to devote the time to things that you are perusing, because they are little, but in the back of your mind is this nagging little thought of being there for your kids, and your obsession of needing to know what's going on at the bakery. You're already thinking about how you are going to deal with it. Have you figured it out yet, or are you leaving that for when it happens?

I haven't figured it out yet. I have to pick and choose my battles. I know there are going to be certain games that I ain't going to make. It's just the lifestyle. If I'm not there, I'll make sure that my wife is there. My dad didn't come to all my games. I'm not going to sit here and lie. But when he was there, it was special. I knew he was doing things for the right reasons, for my future. I hope that my kids will understand that.

I never thought that I would understand my dad the way I do now. I remember he used to go home and sit in his chair and I could see his 'wheels' were turning, scratching his head, so many pressures. Inevitably being in business you have to eat shit. Sometimes I want to tell some of my employees to go....., but you can't always do that.

What's down time for you?

Lately, it hasn't been at all. I'm working 12-18 hours a day, 6 days a week.

So on the 7th day you rest?

In the fetal position on my couch. (Laughing)

Let's talk a little bit about the show. We've talked to a number of Challenge contestants. Rob Sobkowski being one of them. That's where we were first introduced to you. How did that parlay into TLC TV show?

They (TLC) actually saw Challenge footage. Another competitor from Challenge sent them a tape, coincidentally I was on that tape.

They must love that.

I'm not going to say who, or what happened, but when they sent the tape to TLC and they saw me, they said, "we love him." They called me and asked if I wanted to do a show. I always had an idea for a show and I think it would be awesome. I took a camcorder and ran through the bakery and sent it out to them. The next day I had an offer, they said they wanted me. Boom. This was December too.

That's pretty amazing. I want to talk to you, not necessarily the network and/or the show, about the cake you made for Kerri Vincent. We're very egotistical Italians, that's who we are. What was it like making cakes for her?.

I'll tell you the truth, I'm going to be 100 percent honest. A lot of that, Challenge, is hyped up. She's actually a sweetheart. She and I have a great relationship. That Challenge in particular, was probably my worst Challenge. Reason being, when I went to that Challenge, I already knew that I was going to have a TV show. Coincidentally, I found out the day before the Challenge.

So your mind was in a completely different place.

I remember being in Challenge and preparing, with my brother-in-law who was my assistant, finding out it was Kerri's cake. Honestly, I could give shit. We had a game plan for a cake for a 16 year old girl. When I found out it was Kerri's cake, I should have changed the total design, which I could have, but I didn't care. If that makes any sense. I couldn't focus, I had so much on my mind. It's funny, because the producers of Challenge are the producers of my show. My producer, Art, said to me, "You could tell. You were just zoned out." I really was. My brother-in-law took the reins of that competition. When it came to Challenge, a lot of times I felt like I got ripped off.

It's kind of manufactured

I definitely should have won the "Wedding Cake Surprise." I did a wedding cake and groom's cake. I should have won that hands down.

I remember that Challenge. Your cakes were gorgeous, that groom's cake was amazing.

I am big enough to admit when I should lose. When I did Scar, the Lion King cake, that was no comparison, my character should have won hands down. After that competition, just to give you an example of the type of person that I am, I didn't even know what modeling chocolate was at that competition. Me and Mike became very friendly and he turned me onto it. It's like competing with a handicap. Most of his stuff is done out of modeling chocolate. Once you've played around with it, you can do some amazing things. When you think of the scope of my lion, the whole thing was made out of cake and we covered it in fondant. If I'd a used modeling chocolate it would have looked 200 times better. There were things I took from that and I made myself a better cake decorator.

Challenge allowed you to become exposed to different techniques.

Yes, now I feel very well versed. That's what separates me from a lot of cake decorators. I don't have a style. You give me butte-cream and you want me to do an old fashioned butter-cream wedding cake, no problem. You want me to do a cake with fondant and sugar flowers, no problem. Something whimisal, topsy-turvy, with hand painting on it, a modeling chocolate figure, now I can do them. The people who do modeling chocolate figures, usually don't do sugar flowers. You know how many people can't make a butter-cream flower? I'd say 3/4 of the competitors can't.

You're in a different situation though. There are other, you may not know this, cake makers on TV (Laughter). The difference is that you have a tremendously busy, thriving bakery. You're not a pastry chef in a restaurant. You've got a bakery that's kicking butt 7 days a week. You have the daily retail business going on simultaneously while you are creating cakes. You bring a totally different feel to this.

I agree. The big part of why I wanted to do this was to bring back some respect for the bakers. I honestly feel like I'm a baker. I'm not trying to knock Duff. He's a nice guy. Me and him are two different worlds.

We agree with that. If I'm allowed to ask, because people are going to want to know, and we're not asking because we don't really care. Why wasn't it the 'other' network.

(Laughing) There are a lot of rumors back and forth with that, that they didn't think I was good enough, or whatever. I always envisioned myself maybe on Foodnetwork, because I didn't know much about TLC, but I couldn't have found a better home. I'm not competing against anybody, it's my own game. TLC has put me in the position to be their baker, chef, whatever you want to call it. I'm the only one really. They're an amazing network. It's more of a broader audience than Food. Shame on Food, they had me on these Challenges and they never approached me.

We have nothing bad to say about Foodnetwork, but what I see here with your show is there is much less manufactured and more of showing what is happening.

That's it, you get an Italian bakery in Hoboken as busy as we are, you've got a show man. It's easy. In the past we have always spoken about the shows and any time we said the word cakes, they said, "We have a cake show." Mine is not a cake show, it's about a bakery and has a family dynamic. I think the show shines more because we are on TLC than Food. I mean I watch Foodnetwork shows. I think it's a great network and I know a lot of the people over there. If I wasn't on Challenge I probably wouldn't have gotten the gig. But TLC saw something in me that I guess Food didn't. It's kind of bitter sweet in a sense. We're the number one food show on television and it's our first season. If there was any doubt at Foodnetwork, what am I supposed to say, ha ha.

You've got to have class.

Exactly. You don't want to be a jerk, but listen, we're just doing what we do.

But you do go home and go "ha ha."

You have that in a sense. I don't need anyone to tell me. I've been a baker for 20 years and I see, this is the truth, my niche in the market, there's not a real baker on TV. A full fledged baker. I'm the only one. I'm talking about somebody born and bred. Bakers didn't go to culinary school.

You went to culinary school by being in a bakery making cakes.

That's it. When you're a pastry chef, it's a different mentality than a baker. I've been saying for years that there's not a baker on TV.

I talk to a lot of chefs. Many tell us, "I went to school, came out, got my first job and wasn't prepared for what to do." Technique and actually doing it are two different things.

When you are in the CIA, you have to make your cake as your final project. Come to the bakery and you have to make 500 a week. It's a different type of animal.

How has the show changed your life? Both good and bad, start with the good.

Good, I think I'm helping a lot of people. I think I'm putting bakers on the map. The RBA (Regional Bakers Association of America) is very supportive of me and they are so happy. Even the different suppliers are saying that I'm bringing life back to the bakeries. Letting people know that bakeries are still around and it's a great thing. Kind of like when we were young, we'd go to the bakery. For me to be able to help that, that's huge. Honestly, at the end of the day, all bullshit aside, that's who I am. I want to bring back that sense of homemade, from scratch. I want to get people to not want to go to the big lot stores and buy mass produced pies which might have been sitting in some freezer for who knows how long, with all kinds of preservatives. You pay a little bit more, but inevitably, you get what you pay for.

The personal side, how has it changed you?

I don't have a lot of time with my wife and my children. When I go places I get recognized a lot, it's a great feeling and all, but it's crazy. I'm the type of guy I'll never say no to a fan, shake a hand, take a picture or sign an autograph. Knowing my personality it's tough.

Many people don't know that you have a huge heart for charity. Like most people who have a passion for giving, it's not an accident that you are quiet about it and it reminds us what you said about your dad.

From a young age, here's a perfect example, every night we send cakes to the homeless shelter.

At GGM, I am very much about Good Giving. Tell us why your charity work is so important to you, beyond what your father ingrained?

It's gone to a whole new level. I never thought my autograph or my cakes would pay so much. If the money is going for a good cause, for a cake that I make, how can you say no to that. We do Cupcake For A Cause every year and that's for kids with cancer. How the hell could you not want to help? I cry just thinking about it, it goes right to my heart.

Tell us about Cake for 10. What do you remember most about that experience?

It was weird for me to hear that kids, from Make-A-Wish, wanted to make cake with me, I was, "Holy Shit." There's Jordan, Bon Jovi, I'm just Buddy the Baker. Right off the bat, I'm astonished. It was so amazing to see the joy that I brought to their faces. I didn't do much. I just hung out with them and made a cake with them. That's what life is all about. What these kids have gone through, and they want to spend a half hour or hour with me making a cake? I can't say no to that. Anyone who would say no to that is heartless. Anything I can do, I'm going to do. I'm honored to be part of Make-A-Wish. Kids want to see me, really? I could never say no. My father would kill me. You've got to try and stay humble, stay true to your roots. I am who I am.

Here is your soap box moment. What is it about you that people don't know, that would surprise them to learn about you?

I remember years ago I used to get really mad when I used to watch Challenge, and I'd see people blog about it. People thought that I was arrogant or that I was jerk off. That really bothered me because I know who I am. I am an honest, hard-working, family man. I know I'm not the best cake decorator in the world, but I know what I do, I do well. I've earned my stripes to say I know enough about cakes to get the respect I deserve. I want people to know that I am a family man. I yell and scream sometimes, but it's part of my life. I'm Italian, I'm very passionate. When you see me talk, I talk with my hands, it's a little bit of everything. But I do a lot of good and I'm really trying to help an industry. I want bakers to get some recognition because of what my show does. I want people to go back to making scratch recipes.

A lot of times Buddy, people mistake confidence for arrogance, because of the way we present things, and I'm going to go back to north Jersey here.

You know it, you lived it.

What I applaud about what I hear in your voice is the same thing I live my life by, I can't put my light under a bushel because somebody else is intimidated by it.

You can't. At the end of the day, I know that I'm good. I've been doing it long enough and have seen people's reactions and have made thousands and thousands of people happy with the cakes that I've made. People don't like what I do, what can I say? I know what I'm talking about, I've done it a long time. When you look at our fan base, there is a lot more positive than negative. I guess a lot more people want to see me do what I'm doing.

Our standards are highest for ourselves than for anybody else. I don't think people realize how hard we are on ourselves.

I think in this country we are racing to mediocrity. That can tend to make us harder on the people around us, but we don't expect anything more than we expect from ourselves. My team sees me at 6 o'clock in the morning and I'm here until the cameras are done. It's not like I stroll in, in a suit and tie and throw on my chef coat for an hour and leave. It's not like that. People don't realize that we work day to day, week to week.

I got a request for a robot cake, that had to move like a robot and had two days to do it. I went to the toy store, bought toys, cut them up, to figure out how I was going to do this. We worked from 6 a.m. - 1 a.m. two days in a row, but I figured it out. It sucked, but I did it.  A quote I'd like to do back on that soapbox thing: My favorite part of the show is when I get families who come to the bakery to visit and they tell me Cake Boss is the only show they can sit together and watch as a family. Mom likes it, Dad likes it, the kids like it, Grandma and Grandpa. Families are coming together for half an hour to watch my show. Cause I'm a family guy, that means a lot to me.

And it tastes good.

My dad always said to make an impression on people that is good for you. I'm bringing families together. Mission accomplished.

What are your hopes for the future?

Keep going with Cake Boss. Get bakers recognized out there. I set my goals pretty high. I'm sure the world is going to see a lot of me doing a lot of different things. I want to cook and do other shows, because I can cook too! My idea with cooking, no formal training, like how I bake, the school of hard knocks. When I cook it's that north Jersey, old school Italian, Sunday sauce.

Yea...we know... story of our lives.. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did doing it. Too many times, TV can give  us the persona, but never really give us a glimpse into the people behind that persona. I hope this intimate look and chat has helped you understand a little but more of the Cake Boss behind the cakes. Buddy has gone on to have that show, Kitchen Boss, as well as Cake Boss, cooking for us all the traditional recipes from his family and childhood and Cake Boss has gone on to be a household name all across America. Like I said in the beginning, it all starts with a dream..based in Tradition...

Bon Appetit, 



Molecular Gastronomy, The Science of Food

While watching Iron Chef a few weeks ago, I was intrigued by this particular battle. The ingredient was much less of interest to me than was the complete polar opposite applications applied to it. It was old school classic French technique vs. a complete application of molecular gastronomy. For example, both chefs decided on an ice cream dish, yet while one took the traditional route, classic ingredients put into an actual ice cream maker, the other made an instant ice cream using injected CO'2 and nitrogen. While both presentations were well received by the judges, regardless of the diametrically opposed directions from which they came, it got me thinking. Old school time tested traditional and classic French techniques vs. the 'new garde' and the advanced science of food. This was something that has fascinated me and a subject I needed to explore. So here we are.

Though seemingly new, molecular gastronomy has been around since the time of Escoffier and the term was first introduced into the lexicon in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This. It became the title for a set of workshops  they held in Erice, Italy that brought together scientists and professional cooks for discussions on the science behind traditional cooking preparations. "Molecular Gastronomy," first based on exploring the science behind traditional cooking methods, is also known now, as the scientific discipline co-created by Kurti and This.

What I have noticed, is a marked loyalty to the pro or con when it comes to this issue. I myself, happen to like both, so for my tastes I feel I get the best of both worlds. Since the individual palate is as diverse as the person to whom it belongs, the opinions are just as varied. The other thing that must be mentioned is that while we may discuss what it is in picture and word, the true experience is in the eating. Until you have had a creamy caramel sphere burst warm liquidy deliciousness inside your mouth, or Foie Gras Ganache (above) ooze onto your plate, you will never truly know the joys that can come from the science of food.
If you are a fan of this discipline, as I am, then you are familiar with those chefs, such as Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz (pictured right), Wylie Dufresne, Jose Andres, Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, as well as a handful of others that push the limits of creativity by breaking the boundaries between the lab and the table. If you are not familiar with it, you should be, if for no other reason than to have experienced the genre at least once. 

What I think you will be surprised about, as I was, is the fact that many of these same chefs are not big fans of the term molecular gastronomy. Now don't get me wrong, we all agree what they are doing pushes the boundaries of taste and dining into the highest levels, but they are concerned that what they do is misunderstood because of the term. You'll read some quotes from some of them here that may put things in perspective, especially if this is an art form that captures your imagination, as it does mine.

What is it exactly?
There are many branches of food science, all of which study different aspects of food such as safety, microbiology, preservation, chemistry, engineering, physics and the like. Until the advent of molecular gastronomy, there was no formal scientific discipline dedicated to studying the processes in regular cooking as done in the home or in a restaurant. The aforementioned (perhaps with the exception of food safety) have mostly been concerned with industrial food production and while the disciplines may overlap with each other to varying degrees, they are considered separate areas of investigation.

The discipline covers some of these areas:
~How ingredients are changed by different cooking methods.
~How all the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food.
~The mechanisms of aroma release and the perception of taste and flavor.
~How and why we evolved our particular taste and flavor sense organs and our general food likes and dislikes.
~How cooking methods affect the eventual flavor and texture of food ingredients.
~How new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor.
~How our brains interpret the signals from all our senses to tell us the "flavor" of food.
~How our enjoyment of food is affected by other influences, our environment, our mood, how it is presented, who prepares it, etc..

Though many disparate examples of the scientific investigation of cooking exist throughout history, the creation of the discipline of molecular gastronomy was intended to bring together the chemical and physical processes of cooking. It broke it into an organized discipline within food science, A. To address what the other disciplines within food science do not cover and, B. Cover it in a manner intended for scientists rather than cooks.

Here's a perfect example of new knowledge brought about by molecular gastronomy: A soufflé is based on a viscous preparation, for example a Bechamel sauce made of butter, flour and milk, to which is added cheese, egg yolks and whisked egg whites. It used to be thought that soufflés rose as the air bubbles in the egg whites grew bigger as they became warmer. However, Hervé This has measured the temperature and pressure inside a soufflé and calculated that the bubbles can swell by 20 per cent at the most, whereas soufflés can double in volume.
In fact, the soufflé rises as water from the milk and yolks evaporates, and rises to the top of the soufflé, pushing the layers of mixture upwards. This means that heating the container from the bottom produces the best results. He has also found that the stiffer the egg whites, the more the soufflé rises. The firmer egg whites have a greater volume to begin with, but the firmness of the foam also prevents the bubbles from passing quickly through the soufflé and escaping; slowly rising bubbles are better at pushing up the layers of mixture.

Up until this time, most chefs will harken back to what many have called the bible of true cookery for a professional and semi-professional chef, Harold McGee's book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," a publication that provided the chefs mentioned, as well as many other chefs, with the technical understanding they needed to help them create their dishes.
The irony is that some of the chefs most thought of when the term molecular gastronomy is used, are still not quite comfortable with the phrase. There seems to be plenty of opinions about the term and discipline. In layman's terms, I believe a quote from Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago says it best. In a recent post on his blog, Back of the House on, about the continuing debate over the term and discipline; "...this horse has been beaten down and down and down. Science is an integral part of cooking. What we (the so-called "molecular gastronomists") are doing is about far more than just science; it's about crafting an experience, about creativity, and about change."

Chef Heston Blumenthal of the UK's 3 star Michelin rated Fat Duck, in Bray, stated he thinks the term creates artificial barriers. 'Molecular makes it sound complicated,' he says. 'And gastronomy makes it sound elitist.' However, he accepts that, by pairing mustard ice creams with red-cabbage gazpacho, sprinkling cocoa powder over cauliflower risotto and making snail porridge, he has pushed back the boundaries on flavor combinations. 'It's the diners who have become most open. Six or seven years ago when I put a crab ice cream on my menu, it was regarded as the devil. Now if something like that is done for the first time, I don't think anybody bats an eyelid.'

"In late 1999, one of the most widely reported of our discoveries was the combination of caviar and white chocolate," says Chef Blumenthal. "I demonstrated this combination to one of the world's leading flavorists (This, pictured right), who was amazed at the marriage..He went off and came back with a printout [of the chemical makeup of cocoa and caviar, and sure enough,they both contained high levels of amines."  

Hervé This's research helps the Fat Duck staff blend some unusual ingredients. Spice bread ice cream and crab syrup, smoked bacon and egg ice cream served with French toast and tomato jam, and oysters and passion-fruit jelly are a few examples. They may sound odd, but these are winning combinations.
Hervé has recorded more than 10,000 examples of adages, all of which get written down in a notebook. He tries to test as many sayings as possible, and after many lab experiments and a number of failed dinner parties, he has managed to disprove or improve upon many maxims.
He regularly teams up with chefs to exchange information. Every month, he picks a theme based on his research and challenges his friend, three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire, to invent a recipe from it. "We work very hard, and Hervé's research helps us to find new perspectives," says Gagnaire, who is known for his innovative cuisine and food combinations.

While it may not have a proper moniker according to these chefs, the presentations that it represents are very much in the forefront of moving food into areas never before explored. Creations such as Blood Orange Foam, or Chef Marcus Samuelsson's 'Foie Gras Ganache,' are true genius applications of time honored traditional ingredients and dishes, presented with new imagination and flair.

But, it’s also about what arrives at your table as well. What do diners see? How do they interact with the food? How is their experience changed by the surrealistic plating and surprising presentation, or ingredients that look like other food, or scented air released from air pillows while you dine?

To me, molecular gastronomy is more about the experimentation of flavor profiles and presentation, than it is about science. Yes, new techniques including the use of lecithins, the making of foams and the uses of nitrogens are all making the blending of ingredients and the focus on textures and mouth feel all factor into the discipline. Personally, I think that the major focus has always been interesting and never thought of combinations and flavor profiles using fresh and unique ingredients. This was evidenced to me recently when I enjoyed a delicious Basil & Lime Sorbet or the delicious Lobster Bisque Cappuccino (pictured left) prepared for me by Guy Martin protégée, Phillipe Ruiz. at the Biltmore Hotel in Florida

Examples of Molecular Gastronomy

Related back to my first query about flash freezing to make ice cream, El Bulli was the first restaurant to experiment with quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center, using a volatile set-up involving a bowl of liquid nitrogen dubbed the TeppanNitro. Later, Alinea’s Achatz began using an appliance called the Anti-Griddle, whose metal surface freezes rather than cooks.

Also known as ravioli (not the kind you eat with marinara sauce), spheres are what you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then dunk it in a bath of calcium chloride. A sphere looks and feels like caviar, with a thin membrane that pops in your mouth, expunging a liquid center. Popular experiments from the chefs above have included ravioli made from purées of things like mangoes and peas. 

Meat glue
One of the greatest hits of the movement has been Wylie Dufresne’s “shrimp noodles,” which, as the name states, are noodles made of shrimp meat. They were created using transglutaminase, or meat glue, as it’s known in wd-50’s kitchen, a substance that binds different proteins together and is more familiarly used in mass-produced foods like chicken nuggets.


You probably know about foams, which are sauces that have been turned into froth using a whipped cream canister and sometimes lecithin as a stabilizer. They were invented at El Bulli, along with similar “airs” made with an immersion blender. I must admit this is one of my favorite applications of the discipline.

Edible menus
Probably the biggest wow factor innovation has been the edible menus by Homaro Cantu of Moto. Using an ink-jet printer adapted for inks made from fruit and vegetables, and paper made of soybean and potato starch, he has created menus that taste like everything from sushi to steak.

Alinea’s multi-course tasting menu often includes a crispy piece of bacon decorated with butterscotch and dehydrated apple, served threaded on a horizontal wire. The famous dish exemplifies Alinea’s use of creative serveware, and molecular gastronomy’s enthusiasm for dehydrators and savory-sweet combinations in general. There has also been a huge movement recently to bacon and chocolate, and though I love both, I must admit, I am not a fan of this combination.

Dusts & Dehydration
The dehydration of certain well known ingredients into a dust which changes the way one might use these ingredients, an example would be Black Chanterell or Black Trumpet mushrooms. We have had this dust added to dishes as wide ranging as soups, steaks and foie gras.

While Molecular Gastronomy may not be for you, I highly suggest that you experience this dining genre at least once. The creativity of chefs and restaurants embracing the nuances of breaking down food to the molecular level is moving food, dining and presentation to even higher levels than ever before, and frankly, I like where it is going and am excited to see who will push the boundaries of the culinary envelope even further. As the 'dining public' we are the beneficiaries of these talented chefs and the masterpieces they create on a plate.

Bon Appetit!