There are cakes and then there are these cakes. Popularized by Buddy Valastro on his show Cake Boss, these fantastical creations push the boundaries of baking to make edible pieces of art. There was that time he made a 16-ft. cake in the shape of an alligator, and that other time he made a moving go-kart, a robot that wheeled itself in to the party, a Space Shuttle that launched, and a Transformer that almost transformed.
The success of Cake Boss has inspired other cake artists around the world, including the duo behind Bunny Baker, Aila and Zach Yonzon—perhaps most famous for making a life-size sculpted cake in honor of Manny Pacquiao.
During Valastro's latest trip to Manila for the TLC Festival, we arranged for the two cake bosses to meet. They compared notes about baking and spoke about working with family, success, and what it means to be a working man.
ZACH YONZON: I want to thank you, because you guys put custom cakes on the map. It’s become a boom here. And my business—I make custom cakes—you’ve inspired that. Now, I’ve had my share of challenges, like giant custom cakes that go splffft. What’s the worst experience, and how did you salvage it?
BUDDY VALASTRO: To touch on one of the other things you said—that’s one of the things I love. Not just to inspire young children to bake or to follow your dreams or whatever, but being in the bakery industry for so many years, knowing that my show has helped the baking industry worldwide, that’s something special. The baking industry has been good to me and to my family for many years, and to know that it’s helped so many other people do these kind of cakes or push bakeries to go over the top or do different things, that’s special to me.
As far as disasters go, we’ve had our fair share. And it’s funny that my bro Maurizio is sitting here, because the worst disaster was the carousel, where he and Frankie didn’t use the right-sized screws and the cake was so heavy it toppled. And honestly, there was no way to rectify it.
The cake took a day and a half to make, we were four hours from home, because we were in South Jersey, and the event was happening then. There was no way to fix it. I just had to put my hand on my heart and tell the client I was sorry. Thank god they were very understanding and I had to make it up to them at a later date. That was the only time…well, the chandelier cake was bad too, but those people were just happy eating the cake off the floor, too. (laughs) Pretty wild.
ZY: You mentioned that you didn’t see yourself as a baker. But this is a family business, so…
BV: I saw myself as a baker, but not [a reality show baker]. Honestly, I started working when I was 11 years old. Truth be told, I went to work because of a punishment. I got into trouble because me and my friends got caught playing with matches in the woods, and my dad spoke to me and he said, I’m going to take you to work. I didn’t mind going to work because he was my idol, and I wanted to spend time with him. When I started that first day, he brought me to the bathroom, and he said, ‘Clean the toilet bowl.’
I grew up in an old-school Italian family—I had four older sisters and my mom, so I never had to even take my plate from the table to put into the sink. For me, I’ve never cleaned a toilet bowl, but my dad said, ‘No, you have to do this. You think you’re too good to do this?’ And I said, ‘No,’ because I knew that he would do it. And he told me, ‘You have to take as much pride in cleaning that toilet bowl as you do in making a cake. Everything that you do in life, if you take pride in it, you’re going to be okay, son.’
I think he didn’t want his employees to think that, because I was the boss’s son, I was getting any special treatment, and I also think he wanted me to know how it would feel like to be the guy who cleans the toilet bowls. Today I have a lot more admiration and respect for that person.
"'You have to take as much pride in cleaning that toilet bowl as you do in making a cake. Everything that you do in life, if you take pride in it, you’re going to be okay, son.’"
He never said, ‘You have to come to work because you’re going to be a baker.’ He said, ‘You have to go to work to learn what it’s like to be a man. To get up in the morning, go to work, and do something.’
After four or five years, it was the cake decorating that made me want to be a baker, because when I bake a cake, I go into the Zone. And then all of a sudden, it’s just me and the cake. And the room goes quiet, and I am laser focused on it. My problems go away, I’m calm, and you put your heart and soul into that creation. And then you step back and look at what you’ve created, and then you get that feeling of wow. That feeling of self-worth. I knew from that age that I wanted to have that feeling for the rest of my life.
I tell a lot of kids that I’m successful because I have my dream job. And after all these years, and after all these cakes, I’m still that same person who steps back and looks at what I’ve made and gets that feeling of wow. It’s never been work to me. It’s my art, it’s my passion. I think, if you can find that thing that makes you tick the way cake decorating makes me tick, I think you’ll be successful.
ZY: Now we know that you’re more of a businessman than a baker. I know how much time it takes to make custom cakes, and I can’t imagine you spending that much time on it. How often do you get to do cakes yourself?
BV: One thing for sure: Even before Cake Boss, I’m a businessman. First and foremost, if you’re doing something, you gotta make money doing it. Even when we were doing that bakery, we had to be able to grow it a certain way. I had to be able to make money, have enough work, charge the right prices, do the right thing. At the end of the day, if you don’t have enough money, you can’t pay your employees, or you can’t grow, what’s the use of working?
I believe you’re born with certain attributes. I mean, I didn’t go to Harvard Business School. Unfortunately, I’m a high school dropout. When my dad died, I had to drop out of school to take over the bakery. But a true entrepreneur is born with certain senses. Like a shark smells blood in the water, well that’s what an entrepreneur does. When Cake Boss came and certain opportunities started to come around me, it’s what you do. I was smart enough to diversify and come up with a plan and do certain things. Now we have 22 bakeries, we have two restaurants, and we’re opening another two this year…I’d say in five years, we’ll have bakeries on every continent in the world. I also do all my television production, it’s my own company. We make all our own content that we do, not only the shows that Buddy Valastro is starring in, but other people as well. We have other shows under the Cakehouse Media brand. Real estate—I’ve always been involved in real estate even before Cake Boss began. Now again, bigger money, bigger projects, you get into different things.
I’m the kind of person who, when he sees something, has to get involved in it. And a true entrepreneur isn’t afraid to take risks, is a true visionary.