TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Cakes, innovation, and making awesome stuff without knowing how


About Duff

Jeffrey Adam “Duff” Goldman is a pastry chef and television personality. He is the executive chef of the Baltimore-based Charm City Cakes shop which was featured in the Food Network reality television show Ace of Cakes, and his second Los Angeles-based shop Charm City Cakes West, which is featured in Food Network’s Duff Till Dawn and “Cake Masters” series.


Okay, let’s say you want to make amazing cakes. One thing you might want to do is hire people that have no idea about how to decorate a cake. See, the thing of it is is that people that learn how to decorate cakes from cake decorators decorate cakes like cake decorators. Cake decorating — think about that for a second. Cake decorating can be very rigid, can be very set in its ways. And that’s okay because to innovate to something, you need to have something innovate from.

What do we know about cakes, right? They’re not round, obviously. What do we know about cakes? We know we’re going to eat them. We know we’re gonna look at them. That’s it. Those are the two universal truths of cakes.

To innovate — anything, but to innovate — what we need to do is look how the universal truth is put into practice and then we need to change the practice.

For example, somebody comes to me and they want to get a cake, but they’re gluten-intolerant. What do we do? They need a cake, but all my cakes I made with wheat flour, wheat flour has gluten in it, so I can’t make a cake like that. I need to change the practice.

So what I’m gonna do is I’m going to make a cake that has arrowroot and xanthan gum — it’s delicious, by the way — and almond flour, right? And then I’m gonna make a cake that’s gluten-free. Now I’ve changed the practice to fit the truth. I have a customer who’s gluten-intolerant and now they can eat the cake.

Now we’re going to look at the cake. Why do we look at cake, besides to put them on Instagram? We look at cakes because cakes usually convey a message. You know, cakes will say something like “Happy Birthday,” right? Cakes will say “Congratulations.” Cakes will say “Welcome home from jail!” I got a couple of those. These are all successful cakes.

Now, let’s say you’re a race car driver, right? You just won a big race and all your buddies are really excited because, like, they get to hang out with you and you’re going to go, you’re going to be on that Wheaties box, you get to go to Europe and party and squirt champagne at people, and like this is a really, really big deal because you won this race.

So they come to me like, “Duff, we’re gonna have a huge party. We’re going to celebrate this guy, you know, he, he won this race and we want to get a cake.” And I’m like, “Cool, let’s make a cake that says ‘Congratulations’ on it!” Right? I mean it’s a good cake. Look at thing, right?

You’re not going to give him that cake. That’s terrible, right? That is so underwhelming, you know? So for like, okay, this is probably you graduated third grade. Big deal. You get, this is your cake.

When you win a big race, you’re going to need something a little bit more than that. You don’t need the prison cake. You’re going to need something that’s really going to celebrate the gravity of the situation and how excited are your buddies are.

So what if I made you… what if I made a life-sized car? What if I made it the size of the actual race car and I painted it to look exactly like his cake? This cake represents innovation of practice, as what we did was we changed the practice, we still, we could have made a cake that said “congratulations” and that’s good for a third grade graduation. That doesn’t work for this. This cake works. Man, that thing’s good. I get excited every time I look at it.

Now, who makes cakes like these? It’s made out of cake and frosting, so you would think that the people who work with cake and frosting the most would be the kind of person that would make this, a cake decorator.

The thing about this cake, though, is that we had a 45-pound motor that was stuck inside of it that made the tires spin, okay? It had a smoke machine mounted underneath the motor and so as the tire was spinning, it looked like it was burning out, so like all of the smoke was shooting out of it.

We took a huge speaker and we mounted it underneath the cake, and then we had a little sound card that played the sound of a race car engine revving so when you turned the cake on, “whoooom,” you know, it would turn on. It was really clever, I have a video on my phone, I guess it’s not going to work. But it was really, really cool, right?

A cake like this weighs about two tons, okay? Now, if you make a cake like that, it’s not going to hold itself together. Cake is like a, cake is like a teenager. It doesn’t support itself. Right? So what you’re gonna need to do is you gotta build like a framework around that. You’ve got to give it like a skeleton, right?

And the people that built this cake, these are people that have a really good working understanding of, say, physics and engineering, right? They don’t teach this in culinary school.

Now, all those little logos on the side of there, big companies pay millions and millions of dollars to get their logos on a cake. And they are very particular about what those logos look like. So when I have to reproduce those logos by hand, they have to be absolutely perfect.

Now, where am I going to find the kind of person that can create a logo just like that that is absolutely exact of what you would see, say, in the grocery store or at the gas station? I need someone that has skills with graphic design or typography or illustration.

Where can I find people that can build huge, complex structures that won’t tear themselves to pieces and that can seamlessly integrate cake and frosting with motors and lights? Where can I find people that have the kind of, where can I find people that have the experience of graphic design, illustration, and color theory? You find these guys at art school. I used to be a graffiti artist, that’s why I was in jail.

See the thing is I needed people that didn’t look at cakes as cakes. I needed people that saw cakes as sculptures. I needed people that had no preconceived notion of what a cake was supposed to be.

Now we use all the materials that cake decorators use. We use the methods, we use the materials, and we use the techniques. We use cake and we use frosting. But we add a lot more stuff to that. We added things like engineering, we added things like 3D design, robotics, carving, painting, sculpture, and even architecture. That cake was sick. You should have seen it, it was so, it was amazing, that cake was really cool.

We use the same things that all cake decorators use. For example, we found a food coloring that we can manipulate and turn it into something that behaved exactly like oil paint. That was all hand-painted. Girl’s got talent.

Now, a lot of times with cake decorators, what they’ll do is instead of trying to sort of come up with an image like this, they’ll use a printer right? And they’ll take a piece of rice paper and they’ll stick it through a printer and they’ll actually print an image and they’ll get something like that. Hey, isn’t that cute? Look at them both… thing.

You know, it’s not very elegant. You know, it kind of is what it is. Look at that, hand-painted. Look at that. You know, you kinda see like, why we do what we do here. Let me see that one more time, that was cute. There we go. Yay, looks good. That kind of is adorable. Not my style.

Now for example, one time we had to get a flat image onto a curved surface of a beer can, right? We didn’t really know how to do it. It was a very, very, very exact image. So one of my guys had experience with screen printing. So we actually created a screen, we wrapped it around a round cake, and we made these we made those, ever see that show Lost? That’s the Dharma beer, and that’s how we created that. We put a flat image on a curved surface.

One time we had a guy call us up and he was like, “Hey, I want you to make me an elephant.” So we’re thinking about the elephant, we’re thinking about the skin, we’re thinking about the texture of the skin and how are we going to make an elephant, because most cakes are really smooth, you know? So how do we make an elephant with all that cool texture?

What I did was I made about 300 pounds of a gray Tootsie Roll, okay? This huge massive Tootsie Roll, colored it gray, we covered the whole elephant with that stuff, and then she’s backed into — well, that’s a bad picture — but she’s… She’s going to be so mad when she sees that, too.

But so what we did was we covered the whole thing with the Tootsie Roll and then we carved in the texture of the elephant skin. It’s really, really amazing. This was a great gig. God, that thing was big. I had to drive that from Baltimore to Arizona, too. That wasn’t fun.

And here’s the thing: there are thousands of incredibly talented cake decorators out there, cake decorators that can do stuff that I couldn’t even dream of. But let me ask you something: is it easier to teach a baker how to make art or to teach an artist how to work with cake and frosting? Right?

Now I can teach anybody how to bake a cake. But I don’t think there’s anyone that I could teach how to make a life-sized working R2-D2, okay? Motors and lights, it was incredible. That thing was cool.

A baker and an artist can both learn how to bake a cake. But it would stand to reason that an artist will make a much more visually impactful cake because an artist doesn’t see a cake as a cake, an artist sees it as a sculpture. Now to innovate, to innovate in any industry you need people with a different line of sight than what’s traditional in that industry.

So I wanna ask you guys, I want everyone in here to ask yourself: what is my cake? My cake, for example, is cake. It’s what I do. We’ve gone over that. But what is your cake? What do you do? What about your cake can you strip away? Can you look at your cake and bare it to absolute truths, and take those truths and then innovate with them?

What I want you to do is take your cake, combine it with new ideas and a fresh perspective, and make something amazing.