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The decorating room on the second floor of Carlo’s Bakery, my family’s business in Hoboken, New Jersey, is like heaven on earth to me. It’s where we turn out cakes for every occasion imaginable. On Monday, the big challenge might be a ten-tier wedding cake showered with delicate sugar flowers; on Tuesday, it could be a birthday cake shaped like a soccer field, complete with figurines of the players; on Wednesday, we might replicate a pop star’s new CD cover in icing and gum paste; and Thursday and Friday … well, we’ll cross those bridges when we get to them.
I used to spend all my time in that grown-up playpen back when my father ran the bakery, but now I’m not just a decorator—I’m the Boss. A portion of each day is spent in my office down the hall, and there’s always a line of people waiting to see me, including couples planning their wedding. The look in the eyes of a bride-to-be as she describes her ideal cake is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Our customers entrust their dreams to us, and we have the power to make or break memories. That might not be the same as being a surgeon or a firefighter, but you feel the weight of expectations every time somebody new walks through that door.
If I’m not immersed in a consultation, I might be meeting with one of my four older sisters—Grace, Madeline, Mary, and Lisa—talking through a problem that’s cropped up with the retail counters they manage on the first floor, or discussing a bookkeeping issue with my mother, Mary.
Somebody might need me to sign off on, say, the design and baking of a cake for 50 people by tomorrow, even though our production schedule is maxed out. Billing issues, vendor screwups, website glitches … they all come to my door.
We’re a family business, and sometimes there are squabbles. When I hear “Mary and Grace are fighting again,” I drop whatever I’m doing and hustle downstairs because breaking up those arguments is part of my job too.
My right-hand man, Mauro Castano, who works in the decorating room, is married to my sister Madeline. Joey Faugno, who’s married to my sister Grace, is one of our top bakers and a fine decorator. Others have been around our family for years.
In 2004, Stephanie “Sunshine” Fernandez became our first woman cake designer. That’s no small thing, because it can get to be like a frat house back there. She and the other designers can make anything out of fondant, modeling chocolate, and gum paste: people, animals, palm trees, cars, boats, footballs—you name it.
Whether we’re related by blood or by marriage or not at all, these people are my family. They are also my costars because in 2009, our bakery became the subject of a reality-TV show, Cake Boss. The show has made things crazier than ever: A team of producers, directors, camera people, and sound technicians have practically moved in with us. There’s an overhead camera aimed down at my desk, and my every move and conversation in the bakery is recorded.
When I visit the retail floor, the customers burst into applause, and I pose for pictures. Most days, there’s a line out the door. It’s been quite a ride.
My only regret: Sometimes things move so quickly, we don’t have time to stop and take them in. But at the end of the day, before I change into my street clothes, I like to pause and savor the silence. I look out the window and remember all the things that brought my family and me to this moment.
My father, Buddy Sr., died when he was 54 and I was 17. We buried him on a Friday, and on Saturday, we all went to the bakery and worked. We were wrecked, but we poured every ounce of ourselves into keeping the business going, aware that people around Hoboken were whispering that without my father at the helm, there was no way we’d make it. It was tough: We were baking and selling cakes and pastries—happy foods—with tears welling up in our eyes.
My mother, too, went to work that day, but she didn’t get anything done. She sat in her bookkeeper’s office at the back of the bakery and sobbed. The only person who took it as hard as my mother was Grandma Grace. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose your child. “I’m mad at God,” she’d tell us in those days.
I was mad too. Mad at the universe for taking my father away. My anger came out sporadically. I’d hold it together for days on end, then go out and party too hard, showing up for work at ten the next morning, which in a bakery is like showing up after lunch. When that happened, I’d get the silent treatment from my brother-in-law Joey, or if it happened on a weekend, from my uncle Frankie. Finally, one Sunday morning, we had it out.
“You’re a disgrace,” Uncle Frankie said to me.
“What do you know about what I’m going through!” I yelled. “I lost my father! My best friend!”
“Hey!” Uncle Frankie said. “Your father was like a brother to me. I miss him too. But he would have wanted you to do the right thing!”
He was right. It was like Dad always said: The boss’s son had to be a little better than everybody else.
Still, I was a mess—and despite the responsibility that had been heaped on my shoulders, I was a kid. I had tons of energy, raging hormones, and a new driver’s license. How better to honor all of that than by going out? Driving down the highway, I’d crank up the stereo to earsplitting levels and screech up to one of my favorite clubs, where the sensory overload was just what the doctor ordered. I spent loads of money on clothes, lavished gifts on a series of girlfriends, and tipped doormen and bartenders as though I were a millionaire.
My mother might have been grief stricken, but she was present enough to notice all this spending. One day I picked up my pay in her office and immediately noticed that there wasn’t enough money in the envelope.
“Mama,” I said. “There’s a mistake. The envelope is light.”
“You’re not getting all your pay,” she told me. “I put some of it in the bank for you.”
“Give me my money!” I bellowed.
I was furious, even though deep down I knew that I would have spent every last cent. I relented, and with her socking it away for me, by the time I was 21, I had enough for a down payment on a house.
I was leading a double life. At night I was a kid, but by day I was a stress case. Everybody knew that my father intended for me to take over the business, but eventually, not when I was barely old enough to drive and still too young to vote. I didn’t know anything about leadership. I had never managed anything, not even myself.
Luckily, we had a good team, so the work was getting done. But everybody on the team thought he could run the show, which led to daily dustups. It was up to me to take the reins. Despite being surrounded by people who loved me, it was the first time in my life that I felt afraid to act, and the fear embarrassed me.
I could sense everybody wondering when I was going to rip off my shirt, turn into Superman, and save the day. The stress would come to a head on Friday nights. After doing my part to run the shop all week, I would line up a dozen cakes to decorate. It was tough, but it was something I knew how to do, and decorating provided me with a sense of accomplishment. I’d get as lost as I could in the work until, hours later, I’d look down and see that my supply of buttercream was depleted. Stretching my back, I’d glance out the windows and see my friends in the street, on their way from one bar to another. My right arm would be swollen and throbbing as I trudged down the hall, put the cakes in the refrigerator, locked up the bakery, and drove home, feeling years older than my actual age.
Sometimes, after nights like that, I’d feel despair. The truth is that a few times I thought about running my car right off the side of the road. Of course, I never did. Too many people were counting on me, even if they couldn’t depend on me yet.
Once I got home, I’d just sit there, in my father’s old recliner, finally understanding what he’d had on his mind all those times I’d watched him when I was a little kid—how much there could be to operating a bakery.
Time worked its magic, and week by week, we got back on our feet. There was still a leadership void, but the bakery was cranking out what it needed to.
The one problem, from a production standpoint, was the sfogliatelle dough used to make lobster-tail pastries, which were a signature item. I can’t tell you how many customers would take one bite and positively swoon with delight at the airiness of the pastry and the richness of the filling. My dad had been the master at pulling that dough; no one else had the same finesse. Every so often, he’d set aside a good chunk of a day and pull 90 to 120 pounds of it. After refrigerating it overnight, the rest of us would cut the “salami” into discs, open them up, fill them with cream puff dough (which provided crucial support and kept those fragile layers from collapsing), bake them, and freeze them until they were ready to be thawed, piped full of cream, and dusted with powdered sugar.
I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and take a crack at that dough. I made up a huge batch in one of the mixers, ran it through the sheeter to flatten it out, and then went to work on it with a rolling pin until it was about 16 feet long and three feet wide. Periodically, I’d get under the dough, which seemed as big as a tent by then, sticking my fingers up against the surface from below and massaging it out wider and thinner, stretching and pulling until it was just about see-through. That’s how thin sfogliatelle dough needs to be.
I couldn’t do it. No matter how hard I tried, I’d either rip huge holes or fail to pull it evenly, so the roll would be bunched up on one end or in the center, or too loose. I kept at it, trying batch after batch, until I was huffing and puffing, my T-shirt soaked.
“Damn it!” I yelled.
Everybody looked up but then turned away after seeing how upset I was.
“I’m going home,” I said.
More frustrated than I’d ever been, I went home, pulled the covers over my head, and fell into a deep sleep.
Out of the darkness came white, the white of heaven, or a bakery, or both. It was the most vivid dream I’d ever had. I was standing in the basement of our bakeshop, awash in white: the walls, the table, the flour that’s always hanging in the air. Suddenly, my father was standing there. We always look like ghosts, we bakers, because we’re in cook’s whites and aprons, dusted with flour. That’s how we looked in my dream. I couldn’t tell which of us was alive and which was visiting from the hereafter.
I threw my arms around him. “Dad! Wow! I miss you.”
He gently removed my arms and fixed me with a serious look.
“Listen,” he said. “I am not here to kid around with you. I am here to show you how to pull sfogliatelle one more time.”
I nodded, shifting gears.
We moved to the table, wordlessly, the way you sometimes do in dreams.
“Now, watch what I do,” he said.
We started working, with me mimicking his every move, just as I’d done in real life. As he massaged the dough, I massaged the dough. As he pulled, I pulled. As he stretched, I stretched. Somewhere along the way, something changed, and instead of him standing there, two of me were there, two Buddy Juniors working in harmony. And then those two Buddys came together, and I was looking at my hands, my father’s hands, one and the same. I was alone in the bakery, a perfect roll of dough stretched out before me.
I woke with a shock. I’m not going to lie to you: I was spooked.
On my drive to the bakery, I held the wheel with one hand, and with the other, I squeezed the Saint Anthony medallion I wore.
By the time I got to work, I felt a sense of peace, which led to a sense of excitement. I pushed open the doors of the shop and called out, “C’mon guys, we’re going to do this today.”
“Do what?” they said in unison.
I started shoveling flour into the mixer and then gallons of water and some salt. I turned it on and let the ingredients come together into a thick wad of sfogliatelle dough. It takes a good 15 minutes for that to happen, and it seemed like the longest 15 minutes of my life. People were stealing glances at one another. I could read their thoughts: Buddy’s lost it.
Finally, the dough was ready. I sent it back and forth through the sheeter, narrowing the settings on each pass. Then I went to work on it with a confidence that had eluded me on previous attempts. At first, I felt disconnected from my fingers, just watching them dance under that dough, and then I felt disconnected from the entire room, as though I were watching myself from above, as I knew my father surely was.
When it was all over, I couldn’t believe how depleted I was. I looked down at the table, at the perfect roll of dough. That’s right, I thought. Now you know who the boss is!
Normally, the dough is refrigerated overnight, but I didn’t want to wait. We cut it right then, pushed it into little cones, stuffed them with the cream puff dough, and baked them. I waited for the verdict, but I didn’t need to. I knew they’d come out right. And sure enough, when they emerged from the oven, they looked light enough to float away. The room burst into applause. I had my mojo back, and so did the bakery. Things were looking up.
CAKE BOSS: STORIES AND RECIPES FROM MIA FAMIGLIA, BY BUDDY VALASTRO, COPYRIGHT © 2010 BY DISCOVERY LICENSING, INC., PUBLISHED AT $25.99 BY FREE PRESS, A DIVISION OF SIMON & SCHUSTER, INC., 1230 AVE. OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10020