Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cake Boss a real 'Buddy'

Everyone should have a boss like Buddy.

Buddy Valastro, aka The Cake Boss, sweet faced shining star of the TLC thanks to the hit Number One TV series of the same name.

In his early 30s, he seems pretty young to carry such a huge responsibility of a famous bakery — Carlo's Bakery in New Jersey — and TV show. But on meeting him one know instinctively he's an old soul, humble at that — yet someone who can instill order with just a stern look and a couple of choice words.

Valastro lives and breathes a sweet industry that, in his world, is all about La Familigia — My Family.

And, judging from the popularity of the star, don't we all want to be part of his close-knit clan.

In town recently to meet and greet his thousands of adoring fans (I kid you not) at a book signing in Toronto for his book, Cake Boss - Stories and Recipes from Mia Famiglia (Simon & Schuster) - Buddy up close and personal is an absolute gem, a straight shooter with the clearest gaze who thinks nothing of stopping and talking and taking pictures with everyone who comes in his path.

Gracious sums up a young man who had young girls giggling, older women slightly swooning and men jumping over each other just to shake his hand. Valastro went one further and offered hugs, including the manly, touch-the-shoulders-first type of hug guys give each other. He was all Buddy.

Not too tall and much slimmer than on TV, Valastro makes himself at home to talk about his life, his loves - family first all the time - and his book.

Cake Boss is just as bold and colourful as the cast of characters Buddy's at the helm of. It's a delightful read — poignant, articulate, with the story of his family and his life cleanly-written in a style that begs one to finish each page quickly in order to get on to the next.

Sort of like diving into a slice of one of his legendary cakes. The book supplies some pretty fine recipes, too.

"This isn't my story, but my family's," says Buddy over a plate of fresh Italian pastries and a cup of cappuccino. "It's about the relationship I had with my late father, who I lost when I was only 17-years-old.

"It's my parents story and my grandparents story, the immigrant experience and how we all became stronger because of it."

It's also the remarkable story of how the baking experience passed down throughout the generations is not so much about creating beautiful cakes as it is about searching for one's true artistic nature — cake as canvas if you will.

"My father was an artist in the truest sense," says Valastro. "He had big shoes to fill."

These are shoes that Valastro has filled quite nicely, his culinary creations clearly demonstrating a gift definitely passed down from his dad. Valastro admits he still gets excited "taking the cake orders and later seeing the look on customers faces when they see the end product — I get emotional along with them."

In fact, Valastro is emotional in that comforting sense of a family member who genuinely cares for the well-being of those around him. He talks about how he was asked to participate in making a dying child's wish come true when she asked to spend time with Buddy.

"I had no idea how ill this little girl was. She came in and we had a ball — even though she was so weak she had trouble mixing the icing in the bowl. After she left I had to lock myself in my office and just bawl. Later I went home and hugged my kids tighter than ever."

This and other incidences in his life — the soldier on duty in Afghanistan who wrote and told him how his show helped him escape the reality of his life if only for an hour every week — has grounded Valastro, and kept him humble.

"I have nothing to complain about in my life — nothing," says Valastro candidly. "My family, my work — there really is nothing more I need."

Valastro's messaging is simple but powerfully inspiring: "I want to tell people, look if I can do this, you can. If you have a dream, keep it front and centre and go for it. Hard work does pay off. You can achieve what you want — stay focused. And believe in yourself."

Buddy stops for a moment, collects his thought, offers a brilliant smile and a good-bye hug.

"Come visit — don't be a stranger," he says.

Fits right in

The Cake Boss in person is akin to rubbing shoulders with rock-star royalty. And to meet the man everyone is going gaga over can only be considered one sweet assignment. That said — we want Buddy to feel as much at home here in Canada as he does back in Hoboken, New Jersey, the place of his birth, and where his famous Carlo's Bake Shop (which has now become one of the biggest tourist attractions to hit New York state) is situated.

Planning takes on a decided clock and dagger element, much like an episode of the Sopranos. We decide to set up a meeting in a ....local bakery. Messina's in Toronto, family-run and manned by people named Francesco and Sal Sr., and home to one of the finest cannoli desserts in town.

The place is also a tad reminiscent of Buddy's home turf.

Still — we worry about Buddy's reaction. Will he think we're nuts? Flee back into the safety of his limo and hightail it back home?

Well, it sounded like a good idea when I started planning it weeks ago. Day of the event — running out into busy traffic sounded like a better plan, especially when the interview ran late because the book signing was such a success — extra books were being driven in via cabs.

I'm darting around Messina's like a maniac, eyeing everyone with suspicion — was the cat let out of the bag? Why are customers dawdling over the fresh baked bread rack? Why the sudden interest in supresata? It's a wonder the owners didn't throw me out when I furiously started barking out orders for fresh coffee — presto!

And then a black limo pulls up and out pops Buddy, casually folding his jacket into the back seat — and starting the conversation with a big hug. "Hiya doin'?" says Buddy, the Hoboken clearing coming through. "Gawd — this is great!" he says when he sees where he's been taken. I go weak in the knees.

Buddy walks in to the bakery and the excitement kicks into high gear.

People start whispering and pointing and....he stops and has a word here, a smile, there, a handshake, a hug, as he actually makes time for everyone. He casually walks throughout the bakery, even popping into the back to chat amiably with the pastry chef. Cameras are whipped out at Superman speed and pens are offered for signing. A plate of fresh pastries are quickly offered and Buddy takes a bite into each one, nodding thoughtfully, smiling with pleasure, even answering some questions in his American-tinged Italian.

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