He’s been a star on the bridal magazine circuit for several years, and now he has his own reality TV show, “Cake Boss,” which premiered on TLC last week and airs again Monday night at 10 pm.
Sure, a chat with volatile yet affable Hoboken baker Buddy Valastro isn’t easy to come by these days, but it’s not because he’s lunching with his agent, doing press junkets, or simply out on a yacht fishing on the Jersey shore.
Chances are, he’s toiling away in the place he’s worked since he was boy, the century-old Italian family bakery passed down to him by his beloved father, churning out the spectacular cakes that have made him and his business, Carlo’s Bakery, famous.
Demand is huge for Valastro’s unique cake designs, which have adorned Britney Spears’ circus-themed 27th birthday, as well as wedding scenes in “The Sopranos.” Meanwhile, the clientele (lots of brides) are often fussy, and his employees (which notably include his mom, three older sisters and two brother-in-laws) aren’t always easy to deal with.
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But Buddy’s clearly the boss, and he makes sure it all gets done before anyone gets to go home.
“I don’t like saying no, not to my wife, not to my kids, not to my customers,” he says. “In fact, other bakers often send customers to me, saying, ‘If Buddy won’t make it, nobody will.’”
Fancast recently caught up Valastro on Friday afternoon at his 10,000-square-foot bakery, as he was putting his signature decorative touches on a flurry of wedding cakes that had to be ready for weekend nuptials.
So why cakes? Why not cookies or bread? It’s because the best money is in cake. That’s where you make the most profit. Cakes have become so big. Twenty years ago, people didn’t care about their wedding cake, now it’s a big deal. And even in Corporate America, everybody wants something specially tailored when they’re having an event. You don’t know how many times I get phone calls from someone saying, “Where having this big gala, can you bring us a cake?”
Business seems like it’s booming right now. How long has it been like that? “Things started ramping up about 10 years ago, when we started getting our cakes featured in bridal magazines. Then – boom! – we were all over the place, I was all over the place. People started coming to us because we made unique cakes and we were the only company doing that. I saw a niche – we have cakes that not only look good, but taste delicious. We combine classic recipes going all the way back to 1910 with styles that people want.
Do you think your dad ever envisioned the business getting into glossy magazines and TV shows? My father had a vision. I remember being with him and looking through magazines. He’d say, “Son, maybe one day we’ll be in one of these.” And starting in 1999, when we were featured in “Modern Bride,” we’ve been in something like 250 magazines. I felt like I did that for my dad.
Now you’re father passed away suddenly when you were 17. What was it like taking over the family business at such a young age? To be totally honest with you, I kind of knew earlier than that, at like age 14, that this was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like I was doing something else and I got forced into this, but it was very hard. We found out my dad had cancer, and he died three weeks later. Before he died, we were able to talk about it as a family, and I decided to drop out of high school with a year and a half left to go. I kind of didn’t have a choice. I had to be here.
So what was it like being the Cake Boss at 17? My dad was a master, a god. And he had employees who looked up to him, some of whom had been there for decades. I had to take over and be the boss, and I had to have the right attitude about that. I had to show everyone that I knew enough to be the boss, and I had to be the first one in in the morning and the last one to leave. It was a rough couple of years, a hard transition, but we made it. And I actually turned the bakery into other things with my cake-decorating skills.
Pretty artsy stuff. How did you learn all those nifty tricks with icing? Mostly I learned from watching my dad – I was self-taught. But I did take a three-day class with (renowned cake designer) Betty Van Nordstrom, who’s amazing. She’s the sweetest old lady. I took what she taught me and applied it.
What’s your favorite thing to do in the kitchen? I like cake-decorating. Like you see in the pilot episode, when I’m doing that old-school piping, I can just close my eyes and do my thing. I almost go into a trance. If I’m decorating, I’m a happy guy.
Now, when dealing with your employees, many of which are family, you’re not always a happy guy, are you? It’s hard for my sisters, because I’m their baby brother. But they’ve got to understand that I’m their boss. We fight, we yell and we scream at each other. But at the end of the day, we make up. I would jump in front of a car for one of my sisters, and they’d do the same for me.
How did so many family members end up working for you? My business has grown over the years, and I had to have more people. It ain’t easy working with your family, but who can you trust more?
It almost seems like you guys are too busy, and that you could make more money by expanding Carlo’s Bakery beyond just a family business. Any thoughts to going corporate? I have thought about it, but the problem is, I’m too much of an obsessive-compulsive person. I’d have to have my fingers in the mix. I worry too much about quality control, and if you have a mass-production thing going on, that gets harder to manage.
You deal with a lot of brides. What’s that like? On any given weekend, I meet with 25 to 40 brides, and some of them are a real pain in the neck, and you meet some girls who are really quick. My tip to them is just be honest with your baker. Don’t come in here with expectations of a $5,000 cake if you’re on a $500 budget.
Check out ‘Cook Yourself Thin’.
What was your best cake creation, the one you’re most proud of? Wow, there have been so many. We did an animal cake for the Museum of Natural History once, and that was awesome. It was like 400 pounds.
Any cakes that went wrong? I’m usually proud of my work. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t leave the bakery.
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You got married eight years ago yourself. What kind of cake did you and your wife, Lisa, have at your wedding? Our cake was huge, probably 300 pounds. We worked two and a half weeks on it, covering it with sugar flowers.
What do you do to unwind? You like to fish, yes? I do like to fish, and I want to buy a boat. But I don’t know if it’s worth it, because I’d only get to use it three or four times a year. I do share a condo with my family (on the Jersey Shore). You’d think we’d all get sick of each other working here, but we love to hang out there together.
See the next episode of ‘Cake Boss’ Monday night at 10 pm on TLC; also check out the series’ premiere right here on Fancast.