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Three Questions For: Duff Goldman

April 14, 2010
Chef Duff Goldman

Photo illustration: Marc Librescu

Chef Duff Goldman started Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, Maryland in 2000. He’s one of the most sought-after decorative cake makers in the country and is the star of the reality show Ace of Cakes, which can be seen on the Food Network. He’s the co-author of Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes.

1. The employees at Charm City Cakes look like they have a lot of fun on the job. How do you create a fun work atmosphere and still ensure that work gets done?

Good question. I think the vision of “productivity” and “economy” has been getting very skewed in business today. I know that a business like mine is special. Large companies absolutely cannot operate like we do—but a world where a very few are making hundreds of thousands of dollars every minute might explain why we have a health care crisis or an economic crisis or any other social ill. When our lives become about mere existence and continuance, devoid of a larger meaning because it’s all we can do just to keep a roof over our head or to get enough food to eat, then that is a bleak world, indeed.

I can’t change the world, but I can try to create an atmosphere around me that can benefit the people who I employ and who are my friends. Charm City Cakes is a place where people can feel safe to express themselves, and at the same time, have enough time in their lives when they aren’t working. Maintaining a balance in life lets them lead diverse and healthy lives.

We love what we do at the bakery. Thanks to the way we do business, we don’t work just to live, and we don’t live just to work. We also love what we do outside the bakery. We make art. We enjoy our community of friends. We play music in bands.

I think this way of living and working keeps the bakery as happy and as positive as it is. We have the flexibility and the free time to NOT be at work, which makes being at work that much more enjoyable. Lots of folks turn their passion into their job, but sometimes that can dull the passion because you wind up spending all your time doing it. Yes, it takes time and effort to get to the point that we’re at, but as long as you put in the time, and the goal is secure in your mind, when you get to that point, you know you’ve done so deliberately and haven’t burned yourself out.

Have I gotten lucky? A little. Was I in the right place at the right time? Absolutely. But the hard work, raw talent, and desire to be crazy good were all there—so when opportunities come along, we’re primed and ready to make the most of them.

Nobody gave me a TV show because they thought I might be good at something. I already was. So when that spotlight shone for a second, it caught something amazing and is keeping it in focus. It’s when we get complacent that the spotlight will wander and look for the next hungry subject to focus on. And for that, our vitality, our joy, our passion, and our love for our work and for each other is what we have to keep giving.

So the work gets done. It gets done because we enjoy doing it. If we didn’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t be interesting for us and therefore the art would suffer, wither, and eventually fade. That won’t happen. I won’t let it and neither will my crew because to create is what gets us out of bed. Fun, not money, is the greatest motivator for us.

So who cares if we’re not rich? We make enough to pay our bills. If my motivation was always the bottom line, that attitude would permeate everything we do and it would cease to be art. It would take on the mantle of a marketable commodity. I think there’s already enough of that out there.

2. Your work combines visual art with the culinary arts. Charm City Cakes may spend days creating a cake for a customer, but once the cake is delivered, it’s usually gone in a matter of hours. Other kinds of art, like paintings or sculptures, can last for hundreds of years. How do you feel about the ephemeral nature of the work that you produce?

Cake is that rare kind of art that can really symbolize the impermanence of life, beauty, and relevance. We slave over it, agonize about it, dream about it, and then it’s gone. We’re making people’s dreams and joys tangible in a sweet medium that is meant to be consumed, like the hearts of vanquished Aztec warriors that are consumed to impart that warrior’s bravery.

We make an art that excites on so many more levels than a painting or a statue. One can look at the Mona Lisa, but you can’t eat it, you can’t touch it, and you probably don’t want to smell it. Our cakes are destroyed in a fraction of the time it took to make them, yes, but that is why they exist. They are impermanent, they are fleeting, and they exist in a form that mirrors the very industry they are a product of—they are frivolous. That is no bad thing, the world could use a little more frivolity. There are serious issues in the world that we face today, but if we don’t take time to be silly and joyful, we can get mired in the sludge of our own existence. I know, maybe I’m over-thinking the importance of cakes, but if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be as good at what we do.

3. Because of the economy, many people are deciding to start small businesses out of necessity. As a successful business owner, what advice do you have for someone who is starting a small business for the first time?

Biggest thing—don’t be afraid to get punched in the face. Not literally (well, maybe once in a while), but you have to be prepared to take it on the chin and keep going. Starting a business takes a lot of courage and there are some crazy risks that you just have to take. Seeing that you do have to make some tough decisions, you really need to believe in what you’re doing. You have to try an be as objective as you can and you have to be brutally honest with yourself. If you don’t have complete faith in your product and yourself, it WILL NOT WORK. Also, you need to think on your feet. If there are 15 people doing the same thing in your town, do something different. Create your own niche. See what doesn’t exist but should and do it…well!

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