Feast Portland, one of the country's most original food festivals, lands in the Rose City September 20–23. To count down to the event, read Eat Beat's daily interviews with seven of the great food thinkers coming to participate in this illustrious culinary throw-down—and where to catch them.
Q: With tools straight from Goodfellas, a staff of rocker-turned-artist bakers, and a joker’s heart, you’ve risen in the past 10 years from a Baltimore cake maker to the king of outrageous, wildly decorated cakes. What is the craziest cake request you’ve fielded—and did you make it?
A: The crazier the idea, the more we want to do it. We’ve done life-size elephants and working, to-scale Ducati motorcycles. Doctors and nurses have the weirdest, most graphic requests. We did this one for a nursing convention—it was a 3-D cake of someone with festering bedsores—and another one for a gastroenterologist: midsurgery with guts hanging out. They loved it. Technically, we’ve never been stumped by a request.
Why highly architectural cakes?
We actually do make some pretty simple stuff. Eighty percent of the cakes we make are for normal weddings, birthdays, and bar mitzvahs. We like doing the crazy ones because it’s a challenge, and no one else can do them … basically just because we can. It’s all about people’s reactions. You’ll see—we are bringing one to Portland, and it’s gonna blow your mind.
You recently moved from being a Food Network star to a program consultant on HUNGRY, YouTube’s experimental online food channel, launching soon. What’s wrong with the network television model?
I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with it. If I make a TV show, I have advertisers that need to be happy, and they rely on this archaic system of ratings. Also, you have to appeal to the broadest population possible, meaning you have to water things down. People’s tastes are changing (no pun intended): they want to see the real personalities of chefs—stuff they wouldn’t ever see on a network, like Chris Cosentino butcher a whole pig. I used to love old Food Network shows, like Taste with David Rosengarten, before they figured out that having a whole program about something like butchery wouldn’t work.
How will HUNGRY juggle original programming with user-generated content? Are we about to witness the Yelping of food television?
First of all, I think Yelp is a broken model—it’s not going to be like Yelp. As a sort of “mini-network,” people can send us short videos—what’s called “snackable” content— which could just be five minutes of something cool. If we like it, we might ask for five three-minute episodes. It’s the Wild West; there are no rules. We are taking a network model and making it whatever we want it to be. It gives people—the geniuses out there with $10 budgets—access to network-quality production. It’s impossible to get a show on a network. I don’t even know how I did it. The real trick is to not alienate the YouTube audience. For example, one of the best YouTube videos is a 13-second clip of “Boris the cat” puking. It’s a hilarious moment, and millions and millions of people watched it. We can’t alienate the people who appreciate that kind of media scene by putting up something too slick or too well edited. If people don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world … Nike isn’t going to pull their sponsorship or anything like that.
Give us a taste of your new HUNGRY show, Duff’s Food World. When can we see it?
I enjoy laughter. I enjoy being a little on the edge. I would much rather watch Jackass than Sandra Lee. That being the case, what I’m really focusing on is doing funny things with food and taking food entertainment to a place it hasn’t been before. The first episode comes out at the end of the month. It’s essentially some random people I find on the street and myself doing really funny stuff with food. What we are doing is very lowbrow, stupid food humor. We’re not winning any Webbys or Pulitzer Prizes. There is no cake involved … maybe just a little. For me, the whole concept is a reaction to the world right now. Everyone is so uptight, especially when it comes to foodies with food. We are taking food in weird directions. Everyone needs to lighten up a little bit.
At age 4, you were caught swinging a meat cleaver while watching the jolly, mustachioed television pioneer “Chef Tell.” If you were a culinary action figure, what would your weapon be?
My big mouth? Just kidding. Actually I already have an action figure: a “Mini-Me” with hairy arms and everything. We made, like, 5,000 of them, and they came with chain saws, because I was a professional ice carver before getting into cakes.
You’re a graffiti artist and a musician in the Elvis tribute band Danger Ace and the indie band Sand Ox. Are you sure you’re not from Portland?
Ha-ha. That goes for everyone who works for me. My staff is such a weird skill set of musicians and artists in one way, shape, or form. But I think I’d fit in very well. I enjoy hanging out in Portland. I love all the food trucks. Although the last time I was in Portland, I almost beat up some “occupier” who wouldn’t stop asking me for a cigarette. It’s funny because I’m sort of the anti-hipster … maybe that makes me an even more authentic Portlander.
As you vie for the “best sandwich” trophy at Feast Portland, what is the ace up your sleeve? What’s the secret to crushing the competition?
I am making an “Egg McDuffin.” It’s an English muffin with fried egg, cheese, and three types of pig: bacon, sausage, and speck! If the pork trifecta doesn’t win me the award, then my insane skills as a breakfast cook will. I’m a beast when it comes to cooking eggs. A BEAST. I’m the Ace of Cakes and the Breakfast Beast.
Catch Duff Goldman at the Portland Monthly Sandwich Invitational. From po’ boys to banh mis, local and national chefs will bring their sandwich A-game for Feast Portland’s kickoff tasting event. Thursday, Sept 20, 5:30 pm in downtown Portland’s Director Park
Bon Appétit Presents Feast Portland (feastportland.com) is a region-defining celebration of everything that makes Portland awesome, Sept 20–23. All proceeds benefit hunger relief organizations Share Our Strength and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.
Tomorrow: Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying dishes on his radical journal of food thought and underground art.