‘Ace of Cakes’ goes West

It all started with a wedding cake. 

When Duff Goldman — the now-famous star of the former Food Network reality series “Ace of Cakes” — was working as a hotel pastry chef in Vail, Colo., a friend asked him to make a cake for his nuptials on the side. It was the amazed reaction of the venue owner more than anything that led him to change career paths.

“That put the idea in my head,” said Goldman, whose eye-popping works of edible art in all shapes and sizes have earned him world renown since he opened Charm City Cakes in Baltimore in 2000.

Goldman staked a sweet claim out West in June when he opened Charm City Cakes West on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. His Duff’s Cakemix, a do-it-yourself cake decorating shop, is located next door. 

So far, reports the 38-year-old chef during an interview at Cakemix, “Business is great.” Charm City typically juggles orders for everything from a life-size, 2-ton NASCAR cake to tiered wedding cakes — both traditional and unconventional — that make up 40 percent of its total orders. 

Prices start at $7 per slice for wedding cakes and $1,000 for sculptural cakes, with prices determined by complexity. Of the 48 different flavors available, the most popular are pumpkin chocolate chip, lemon poppyseed, cardamom and pistachio, and, for wedding cakes in particular, carrot cake. Vegan and gluten-free versions are available.

Recent memorable wedding cakes include an inverted tiered cake and a more traditional one for his brother’s nuptials, with “a lot of piping, a few flowers — very simple and elegant,” Goldman said. “We kind of based it on the bride’s Monique Lhuillier dress.”

Goldman says he hasn’t received requests for many Jewish-themed cakes, but that could change.

“Once we’re certified kosher, which we will be in the next month or so, I’m sure we’re going to get a lot more.”

Some aspects of operating in Los Angeles have offered interesting challenges for the chef.

“In L.A., you’ve really got to be quick on your feet,” Goldman said. “People don’t plan ahead. They come in and ask for a wedding cake on a Thursday for that weekend.” 

Since opening in Los Angeles, Goldman has made a few wedding deliveries to Hawaii, holding the cake on his lap. 

“It is nerve-racking,” the new Santa Monica resident said. “There’s always damage to fix when we get there. But it’s the best way to do it because the cake is nice and fresh.”

Inspired to open a West Coast outpost by high demand — and because he’d grown tired of driving cakes across the country for delivery — Goldman has six employees at the bakery, including Baltimore transplant Anna Clara Ellison, his executive chef, and another 15 at Cakemix, which was inspired by a popular charity event.

“We put a bunch of materials in a room, let kids loose and decorate cakes. It sells out every year,” said Goldman, who recalled telling his agent, “We could turn this into a store.” 

So he did, and he foresees expanding to other locations, possibly even franchising the concept one day. At Duff’s Cakemix, 6-inch and 9-inch cakes or cupcakes are prebaked and ready for decorating, or customized flavors can be ordered at least seven days in advance. 

“We give them everything they need to decorate it. We have parties and special events here,” Goldman said. “We have tutorials online, and we offer classes.” 

The cake master currently splits his time between Southern California and Baltimore, but he’s well accustomed to a peripatetic life. Born Jeffrey Adam Goldman in Detroit, he lived in Missouri, Massachusetts and Virginia in his youth. He was educated at the University of Maryland, Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., and at the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus in Napa Valley.

Initially taught to bake by his mother, Goldman got his first job at a bagel bakery, where he says he “got canned for making the sandwiches too big.” Eventually, he found the perfect outlet for both his creative and culinary inclinations in cake construction. 

“This satisfies the scientific side of my brain and the artistic side,” he said.

As for his television career, “Ace of Cakes” showcased his work — think: an edible replica of Wrigley Field — and ran for 10 seasons before it ended in 2011. Although it ultimately was Food Network’s decision, Goldman says he was fine with it.

“I could never have [expanded West] if we were still filming,” he pointed out. “The filming was getting in the way of doing my job.” 

Nevertheless, he believes he will do another show someday, possibly based around Cakemix. In the meantime, there are plenty of other things to keep him busy.

“A few months ago, I was made a culinary diplomat by Hillary Clinton. I get to go to other countries and talk about American cuisine and what it means to be a chef in the States,” he said. “It’s diplomacy over the dinner table.”  

Goldman doesn’t consider himself religious, but he has a strong Jewish identity and an affinity for Jewish holidays. 

“I recharge my Jew batteries every Passover — and I love homemade gefilte fish,” he said. “Sukkot is one of my favorite holidays because I love the fall, pumpkins and apples. And I love having blintzes on Yom Kippur.”

His Jewish identity manifests in other ways, too. 

“I talk to God a lot. That’s the thing I love about Judaism: There’s no pope or hierarchy. It’s you and God, and that gives you a real sense of yourself and how you fit in the world,” said Goldman, adding that it impacts the way he treats his employs and his charity work.

“I derive my compassion from my Jewish upbringing. I feel like that was something that was very strong and imprinted on me early by my family,” he said.

Asked what he’s proudest of so far, Goldman replies with a chuckle.

“That I still have a job! That’s a big accomplishment in today’s climate. And that I’m still able to make so many people happy on a daily basis, and the fact that it hasn’t become stale or old.”

Faith in Travel

Vail, Colo., might seem like Siberia compared to the more established Jewish community of Los Angeles, yet here in Lionshead (elevation: 10,350 feet) there’s some 75 Jews gathered for Shabbat morning services.

Under the burning morning sun, the clouds feel close enough to touch as we sit on wooden benches facing the stage, a "wedding chapel" on the precipice of a mountain. Aspen trees line the hillsides and, in the clear distance, peaks crowned with snow glisten, reminding us of Vail’s other purpose.

As a relative newcomer to Southern California, I can find no rationale for leaving my beach community during the summer, but my internal travel bug is oblivious to reason and has sent me off to Colorado for outdoor adventures.

Yet, I am really only following in the tradition of the Jews, who have historically always been a nomadic people. Only in this last century have we seemed to settle down, and still, we are a more transient and traveling people than most. Perhaps it has to do with the comfort of readily available communities located in places as far as Siberia or as close as the Rockies.

B’nai Vail, a congregation of some 230 households, usually holds weekly services in the Vail Interfaith Chapel in the Valley, but in the summers they use the outdoors by praying at Gore Creek outside the chapel — and twice each summer at Eagle’s Nest on the mountain.

Its mission statement reads: "We are an active community committed to building a Jewish congregation that is welcoming to individuals and families of all backgrounds including full-time locals, part-time, summer and winter residents and visitors who are here for just a short time. The beautiful and splendid natural environment that surrounds us enhances our Jewish experience,"

Cantor Jennifer Werby welcomes the congregation, advising us to take in our surroundings and yet remain "present" for the services, to push away thoughts of the outside world and concentrate on the godly. It’s hard not to. Even as a baby fox darts by with a mouse in its mouth, as mountain bikers and hikers stand on the side observing, the cantor’s familiar opening Carlebach melody brings me back to dozens of similar services, from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side and Jerusalem.

During the Torah reading — yes, on the top of the mountain, there’s a Torah, not to mention wine and challah for "Kiddush" — the cantor calls up various members of the congregation and, finally, all those who have not been called up. We stand close to the edge of the stage, closer to the sky than to the ground, recite the blessing and kiss the holy scroll.

I am visiting a girlfriend who has moved here to be with her boyfriend, whom she is hoping will eventually convert to Judaism. This is his first service, and I think it has inspired him; I have been to services all my life, and it has managed to move me, too.

In life, when we travel, we seek out the exotic, yet we also search for the familiar. The Jewish communities of Colorado are challenged by issues similar to those in other American communities: intermarriage, assimilation, disinterested youth, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The characters are even the same.

I was reminded of this when I visited my cousins in Denver, the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Charedi community, a growing group of some 100 families. I asked my cousin if he would be interested in meeting with the Conservative rabbi of a synagogue on the other side of town. My learned cousin stammered; he was busy, he might say hello in a social setting, he said. Finally, as I stood there, he admitted: "We don’t have official meetings with them, because we Orthodox only believe there’s one way — the Orthodox way."

A meeting with non-Orthodox rabbis would imply that he believed the others were rabbis, he explained, citing the rabbi he followed who ruled against it. A gentle and intelligent man, my cousin brought to life for me the conflict in the book, "One People, Two Worlds," conversations between a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi who ultimately could not seem to find common ground.

The old Zionist pioneering song says, "Kum v’hithalech ba’aretz…" ("Get up and go travel around the country, with a backpack and a walking stick, and maybe on the way we will meet the Land of Israel").

Wherever our travel bug takes us to this summer — whether it’s Israel, Denver, Siberia or Spain — we may be trying to escape, but what we might find, as I did in Colorado, is ourselves … for better and for worse.