He takes the cake

He’s a bald, hefty rocker who plays a mean bass guitar, smacks around cupcakes for hockey pucks and uses blowtorches, power saws and drill bits for kitchen tools.

Martha Stewart, he’s definitely not. And to those who tune in regularly to watch his antics on national television, the anti-Martha persona is part of celebrity cake decorator Duff Goldman’s charm.

"I can be kind of a goofball," confesses Goldman, whose adventures in the kitchen are chronicled in the Food Network series "Ace of Cakes."

Goofball or not, Goldman is serious about baking cakes. Some of his culinary confections may be a little off the wall. He has made everything from a 3-foot buttercream sculpture of Elvis to a massive edible replica of Wrigley Field. He once made a car-engine cake that shot real fireworks and a tequila-bottle cake for some new college graduates.

But no matter what he turns out in his Baltimore bakery, the finished product is usually a spectacular concoction that is admired as well as eaten.

Goldman’s cakes aren’t just cakes. They’re works of art. Which is understandable, given that the 32-year-old was a noted graffiti artist and metal sculptor before becoming a master cake decorator.

Cake making may seem like an unusual career choice for a guy who looks like he belongs on a hockey rink or an album cover instead of in the kitchen. But, considering Goldman’s art background and his lifelong love of cooking, it was really a natural fit.

"It was almost like it picked me instead of I picked it," Goldman said.

And so there he was, recently attaching gingerbread men to a train-shaped cake at Union Station in Washington while a camera crew recorded his every move.

The choo-choo — a locomotive and two cars — required Goldman to tap his skills as artisan and chef.

Since the cake was to be on display for several weeks, it had to be constructed of something that could hold up over time. Thus, the interior was made of Styrofoam — "it’s more of a showpiece than a real cake," Goldman explained — while everything visible to the eye was edible.

The exterior consisted primarily of fondant icing, while various candies — M&Ms, lemon drops, candy canes and Jujubes, for example — provided the windows and other decorative details.

Passersby in the busy train station did a double take at the sight of Goldman, his hulking figure dressed in baggy shorts and white chef’s coat, lying flat on his stomach while applying the finishing touches.

"It’s the cake man!" a teen-ager exclaimed.

Goldman grinned and kept on working.

Television may have earned him a reputation as the cake man. But in culinary school, he was known as the bread guy because of his ability to turn out a couple of hundred baguettes or bagels without breaking a sweat.

Cooking has always been second nature to Goldman, a natural ham who started fooling around in the kitchen at age 4.

When he was in the second grade, Goldman nearly severed a pinkie while carving a pumpkin. His mother had given him a carving set that included a safe knife that you could run up and down your hands without getting cut.

Problem was, the dull utensil wouldn’t carve pumpkins, either. So when his mother wasn’t looking, Goldman sneaked into the kitchen, grabbed a steak knife and went to work. The knife slipped, severing tendons and requiring plastic surgery.

Years later, Goldman studied at the Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley, where he worked at the French Laundry under acclaimed pastry chef Steven Durfee. He landed jobs at fancy restaurants in Washington, and in Vail, Colo., before returning to Baltimore to open his own bakery, Charm City Cakes.

The idea for his own television show was first suggested by some of his college housemates, who knew of his love for cooking and attitudinal rock ‘n’ roll. Their recommended title: "F— you, let’s bake!"

The title, and the show, went nowhere.

Goldman eventually did land a television gig after someone sent his brother Willie, a writer and producer in Hollywood, a videotape of one of his gonzo-style cooking demonstrations before a live audience in Baltimore.

Unbeknownst to Goldman, his brother set up a meeting with a production company and tricked him into going.

Goldman was visiting Los Angeles when his brother drove him to his office and said he needed a few minutes to take care of some business. Goldman was hanging out in the boardroom when a group of people came in and struck up what he thought was a casual conversation. The next thing he knew, he had them rolling on the floor at his stories of misadventures in the kitchen.

Only later did his brother ‘fess up. The gathering was really a "pitch meeting" to see if Goldman had what it takes to become a television star. He did. The next day, the company, Authentic Entertainment, optioned the show, which will begin airing its second season on Jan. 18.

Each episode follows Goldman and his staff through a week’s worth of deadline pressures, temper tantrums and near-catastrophes as they try to produce whatever outrageous cakes their customers dream up.

"It definitely amps up the pressure a little bit," Goldman said of the constant presence of the cameras.

The show’s success has been good for business. People call from all across the country wanting Goldman and his crew to turn their wacky ideas into culinary works of art. Before the show started, they averaged 10 to 12 cakes a week. Now, they do twice that many, said Mary Alice Yeskey, the bakery manager.

Goldman is particularly proud of his staff, a group of musicians and artists who have no formal culinary training. Goldman, in fact, is the only member of his team who went to culinary school. Yet, as Goldman himself has discovered, cake decorating allows them to apply their mastery in ways they never imagined.

"The fact that I am employing artists and they are making art as a living, I give myself a big pat on the back for that," Goldman said. "I’ve created an environment where artists can work and realize visions and be creative. I just love that. It’s a really cool environment."