Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Up Close & Personal with Food Network's Duff Goldman

Certain people have an inimitable style. Their uniqueness sets them apart from the pack and always calls our attention to them. Such is the case with Duff Goldman. His infectious laugh, his love of life and his cherub-like smile have captivated audiences and Food Network fans now for over a decade. He is incredibly funny and we had a blast doing this Up Close. With his first show Ace of Cakes we tagged along as he and his crew made incredible cakes, from the famed full sized Nascar car to his intricate full sized Star Wars R2D2. We fans of the show tuned in each week for not just the cakes, but the fun. Duff and his friends at Charm City Cakes took us on a sometimes hilarious ride while they created masterpieces and as we got to know them, they became part of our weekly fabric for over 9 seasons. Now with hit shows Kids Baking Championships and Holiday Baking Championships he is back on our TV sets, bringing us not only his incredible wit, but his baking expertise as well. As you know, if you are a fan and follower of these Up Close & Personals, they are just that for me as well. This series satisfies my need to
know more about those personalities that I enjoy and admire. In turn, I get to bring you in as a fly on the wall to sit with the guest of the moment and maybe get to know them a bit better, understanding the person behind the persona. I truly enjoy doing them as much as I hope you enjoy reading them. So without further ado, let's get Up Close & Personal with Geoffrey Adam "Duff" Goldman.

Goldman was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1974 to a Jewish family. He moved shortly thereafter to Missouri. Goldman's nickname Duff came about when he was a baby. His toddler brother was unable to pronounce the name and kept saying Duffy instead of Geoffrey. When he was four, his mother caught him in her kitchen wielding a meat cleaver and watching food personality Chef Tell. I asked him expand a bit about his childhood and its influence on his culinary career. "My mom was a great cook," he explained, "dinner was every night, the same time, at the dinner table. Food was an important part of our house and an important part of our religion. Growing up Jewish, every holiday surrounds itself around food. Food is a very central thing and it's not just that there is just a meal tied to each celebration, but conversely, it's the celebration that's tied to that specific meal. It never seemed though, that food was overly important in our family, it just was what it was, an intrinsic part of our lives." I mentioned that I could relate because as an Italian the heart of our house was the kitchen. He chimed in. "Yeah yeah, it's like every time the family would get together at our house, we'd all be in the kitchen while my mom was trying to cook."

Duff and his Mom
"The whole thing with the cleaver and Chef Tell, that's completely true, but when they do the 'bio of Duff Goldman,' there is not gonna be this scene where this little four year old is in the kitchen saying, 'I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was little.' There are plenty of celebrity chefs who have that story," he laughed. Folks I can relate to hearing those long winded statements like 'I was in the cradle and one day while drinking my bottle I realized that cooking would be my life.' He continued, "When I was three years old I wanted to be a fireman, like all the other 3 year olds. Sometimes I hate telling people, 'No, I didn't start baking until I was in college.'"

Duff, his Mom and Brother
After the divorce of his parents when he was ten, Goldman spent time living in both in Northern Virginia and then in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1992, Goldman attended McLean High School in McLean, Virginia where he played for the Highlanders. In 1993, he graduated from Sandwich High School in Sandwich. At the age of fourteen, he began to work in kitchens; one of his first jobs was at a bagel store at a mall, where the story is that he was almost fired for making the sandwiches too big. He tells the true story, "This shop you could get all these different sandwiches on a bagel, tuna salad, ham and cheese, turkey etc.. You pick your bagel, you pick your sandwich, that was the concept. The way that they would do it was, they made it idiot proof." He explained, "They would pre weigh out the sandwich meat, but it was so small I would use three of them and they were not happy about that. The thing that actually almost got me fired though was this couple that came to the counter and I was there by myself. They ordered a Coke. I tried to work the register but couldn't get it open so I told them 'Here just take it.' The manager saw it and was like 'What are you doing? You just stole from the company!' Duff laughed, "I think it cost them all of $0.04 cents. So I got taken to the woodshed and they put me on mopping duty and I became a professional mopper. Actually I love mopping." Now there's something not everybody knows about Duff!

Chef Cindy Wolf
Goldman has said that when he was a sophomore in college, he went to what he considered the finest restaurant in Baltimore, named Charleston, with head chef, Cindy Wolf to apply for a job. He offered why. "There was this really cute girl in one of my archaeology classes, " he giggled. "Turns out she worked at this restaurant and she told me I should come work there and so I applied as a chef...cause you know...I had all this experience from cheffing at that bagel store, McDonald's, the sandwich shop making breakfast, etc." He smirked, "So I brought my resume in and Cindy looked at it and said, 'Um, you don't know how to cook!' I argued, 'Come on of course I do, I can make 12 Big Macs in a minute!" However, Cindy did offer him a job making cornbread and biscuits and this is what Goldman cites as the turning point in his career. He continued, "I took the job and that's what I did. Every single day.... cornbread and biscuits. Slowly but surely, the other cooks realized that I wanted to learn so they would show me how to do their grunt work. They asked, 'Can you brunoise (finely cube) a tomato?' I said, 'I don't know what that is.' So they would show me. Each day they would teach me how to do something else and what happened was, I started learning." Duff started to help out at each station, doing certain chores. I paused and asked him, "Isn't there a name for a chef that does all that in the kitchen?'' and he answered immediately, "Yea....bitch!"

"I was even the dishwasher's bitch," he laughed, "but here's the funny thing. They could prep man. The dishwashers were the ones that actually taught me knife skills. It wasn't some Japanese institute of knife skills, it was these Salvadorian dishwashers. It was exactly what I needed. I learned so much from these guys and that's where I realized what Cindy was talking about when she initially told me 'you need to go work somewhere else to learn, then come here.'"

"It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a pastry chef," he continued, "I worked with a pastry chef at Cindy's restaurant and ended up doing all the prep and he would simply come in and assemble all my prep. I liked how really ordered that baking and pastry was. I liked the exactitude. I was good in math and I could actually do geometry in my head. I love to make bread for instance. It's very exact yet very loose at the same time. You have to adapt for humidity and temperature. If I come back, I'm coming back as a bread maker.

Duff went on to work at several acclaimed culinary destinations, including the French Laundry, the Vail Cascade Hotel and Todd English's Olives before returning to Baltimore in 2000 to become a personal chef. He expanded on his French Laundry experience working under Chef Stephen Durfee. "Durfee is the man," he offered. "The thing that makes him such an amazing pastry chef is that he started out savory and he approaches pastry from a flavor aspect. Many times I've seen pastry chefs that deliver in terms of flawless execution, but they fall short when you actually taste what they've made. With Durfee, he taught me to think about all the raw ingredients before you ever assemble them into something. As an example," he continued, "one time we were making a honeydew sorbet. We pureed then strained them, to have basically honeydew water. He then had me taste it and yes, it tasted like honeydew. Next he had me add a touch of salt and a bit of lemon juice and taste it again. We had reserved a bit of the plain honeydew water and he had me taste first the plain, then the one with salt and lemon juice. The second honeydew water was like a honeydew punch in the face. That was a huge lesson for me. He is a master of technique, but he truly cooks from the heart and it changed the way I approach being a pastry chef." I asked him what is was like working there and he answered, "Very tough kitchen. You had to be perfect 100% of the time. Not in a way that is militant. You walk in and and it's just in the DNA of that place that you have to be super focused. In the moment. Once you walk in it's all about the food. It's about passion for the food in a real way, not the mundane, foodie use of the word passion."

I then switched gears and asked him to compare that to working with Todd English. He laughed, "Todd is an incredible chef. I love watching Todd cook and he's hysterical. It's like a good old boys club. In the kitchen away from the cameras, watching Todd is an amazing experience. He doesn't talk much but his facial expressions are priceless. The way he moves, like when he tastes something; he gets very quiet, there's a lot going on in there and the world disappears. He would run it through his little Todd English computer and figure out what to do. That was a fun kitchen. Clay Conley was the Sous when I worked there. Hands down Clay is the best line cook I have ever seen!"

We jumped to Charm City Cakes and Ace of Cakes. It was through Duff's love of music while a personal chef in DC, that Charm City Cakes came to be. Duff is a bass player and quit cheffing for a time to play music full time while he continued to make cakes out of his apartment to actually pay the rent. "The only reason I started baking cakes was to actually fund my music career. Then my friend from college Jeff, also an incredible musician, was working as an architectural model builder. He called me one day and said, 'I can't do this anymore, can I come and make cakes?' I was like sure. And we actually started making money. I had a few more friends call and I started hiring all my friends.

This was a nice way that we could all make a living and still play music. It finally grew so large we had to actually get a place, which became Charm City Cakes. A lot of folks don't realize but all through filming Ace of Cakes we were all still touring, gigging and playing music. That's the only reason we started this in the first place. Not to get rich, be on TV or make a lot of money. We did it to pay our bills so we could keep playing," he laughed.

He explained how Ace of Cakes came to be. "I was in a cake contest for Bon Appetit out in Colorado. Not televised or anything. But, I brought an arc welder with me. Got lots of weird looks from the judges. I made this cake, it was awesome. But I broke every rule of the competition," he laughed. "I even lit the table on fire at one point. I lost, because I lose every competition I'm in for some reason, but it was really funny watching me. Colette Peters, who was one of the judges, went back to Food Network and told them 'There's this guy, he's a complete lunatic he's crazy and he made a really cool cake but he's insane."
So Food Network called us up, this is when they were doing all those cake competition shows, and they asked if we wanted to compete. So we go to this competition in Seal Island Georgia, The Spooky Halloween Cake and Candy Competition. We go to Georgia," he continued, "and we meet all the contestants and everyone is nervous and practicing. Jeff and I, on the other hand, went and shot shotguns at a skeet range. And the film crew came with us. When the episode came out, they showed all the other contestants practicing and then me and Jeff shooting. It was hysterical. What attracted them was how relaxed we were. We weren't with the sob story like 'Oh, I need to win this money for that operation I wanted,' like you always hear contestants saying. We told them if we won I was going to take my staff to Mexico to party."

We cut to present day and his resurgence on Food Network and his new shows. Fans of Duff can find him on Holiday Baking Championship, Spring Baking Championship and with Valerie Bertinelli, he hosts and judges Kids Baking Championship. In addition to the Kids show with Bertinelli I asked him why he is attracted to working with kids. Duff is very involved with No Kid Hungry and the Make-a-Wish organizations. "I don't know," he answered, "adults have really screwed up the world. I think
it's because kids still really see the world as a beautiful, wonderful place to be. I believe they need to eat well and have art and creativity as a part of their lives. Make-a-Wish is really important, not just for the kids but for their families too. They are going through this really tough time and whenever I do a Make-a-Wish, I try to include the entire family. I've noticed it's not about the celebrity either. Most of these kids that call and say 'I want to make a cake with Duff,' simply really do want to make a cake. And that's what we we do. We bring them in and we make a cake together. I think the families really appreciate their son, daughter or brother or sister being treated just like any other kid."

Duff has a new book "Duff Bakes" coming out in November and we touched on that briefly. "It's cool," he offered, "it's everything, bread, cookies, pies, cakes, muffins. It's a comprehensive baking book, all about how I think about food and how to bake. I basically tried to demystify everything. I meet people almost everyday who tell me 'I love to cook but I just don't get baking.' People, I think, are scared of baking because a lot of bakers talk about baking in such scary terms, the science and how exacting it is. I just try to let people have fun actually baking and not worry about the science portion of it. I try to explain it in English they understand. I just want people to actually do it. I've been baking half my life now and it's still magic when you put something in the oven and it changes and comes out this whole other thing. There is something beautiful about that. I hope this just helps folks actually bake."

As a fan of Duffs since he first hit TV, this was really fun for me. He is a caring, very funny guy and you definitely get what you see. I guess the best way I could describe him: genuine. He hinted at something exciting coming up with Food Network, so you'll have to stay tuned for that and he also surprised me by mentioning that a new cookbook about soup was in the works. See, there it is right there, one of the things I love about Duff; he's always experimenting, always looking for new adventures and always bringing us new surprises. I hope you enjoyed this Up Close with Duff. I know I did.

To connect with Duff, you can follow him on his social platforms here: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and visit his websites, Charm City Cakes and Duff Goldman. Look for his new book out this fall and as always you can see him on his many appearances on Food Network.

Till next time, Bon Appetit,

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