My Promise to Dad
My Promise to Dad
How did Buddy Valastro become the Cake Boss? There's definitely an inspirational story behind that.
They call me the boss. Cake Boss, that is.
Maybe you’ve seen my show of the same name on TLC—it’s a slice of life straight from my family’s historic bakery, Carlo’s Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey.
But it was really lobster that got me started—yes, I’ll explain—and an unforgettable dream I had weeks after my father, the true Cake Boss, died, a time in my life of great doubt and grief and confusion.
Carlo’s Bake Shop is a family affair if ever there was one, and a second home for my wife, Lisa, and me and our four children. I work with my four older sisters (Mama just retired after 40 years), two brothers-in-law, cousins and plenty of nonrelatives too.
I consider them all my family—or mia famiglia, as I like to say.
Sure, we get on each other’s nerves sometimes (what family doesn’t?), but we also have a lot of fun.
Together we’ve made everything from a six-foot-high replica of the Empire State Building to a life-sized racecar for NASCAR built from 24,000 cakes (that one took a few years off my life!) and we bake thousands of Italian pastries, cupcakes and wedding cakes each week.
I thank God that we’re so busy and that I get to do what I love. But even though I’m a fourth-generation baker I didn’t always think I had the gift.
There’s a saying about the men in our family, that our hands are blessed by God to do this work. My grandfather and great-grandfather were bread bakers back in Italy.
My father, Buddy, Sr. (Bartolo was his given name, but everyone called him “Buddy”), came to America and he worked in bakeries too, only his specialty was pastries. When he was 25 he bought Carlo’s after the owner retired. A year later he married my mom, Mary.
Together they ran the bakery and went on to have four daughters. Just when they thought they were done, guess who came along? Me.
It wasn’t until I was six I got my first taste of what my father did for a living. One day I stared up at him putting on his crisp white baker’s uniform and announced, “Daddy, I want to come to work with you.” That day he brought me to Carlo’s.
I loved the sweet intoxicating aroma, the whirr of the machines, machines like I’d never seen before! Dad folded up an apron to fit around my waist and propped me up on a bucket so I could watch.
In his hands pastry dough came alive. It hopped up on the rolling pin, unspooled, then lay flat like it was sleeping. It was like magic. I was in awe.
The older I got, the more I went to the bakery with Dad. Not because I thought I was going to become a baker though. In fact, I thought I would not be taking it up. With a few strokes of a pencil, Dad could sketch out the most intricate, beautiful decorations for a wedding cake.
Me? I had no artistic ability. Zero. My school art projects were disasters. (Thank God for today’s computer imaging systems at Carlo’s—if we relied on my sketches to sell our cakes we’d have gone out of business years ago!)
Besides, Dad didn’t want me following in his footsteps. “You are not going to do this for a living,” he’d say in his husky Italian accent. “You are going to college.”
Still, he wanted me to learn responsibility. So he put me to work—and not in the back of the bakery where the action was. No, my job was to scrub floors and clean the bathroom, hard labor for a 12-year-old.
Eventually he let me help with food prep—cracking eggs, even decorating cookies. One day he had me put the cherries on top of our popular sugar cookies.
“Why are you doing it with one hand?” Dad asked. “God gave you two hands, do two at once!” Every task was a chance to teach me how to do things right and then do them better.
Even if I wasn’t planning on being a baker, I loved watching Dad work. His fantastic cakes were legendary in Hoboken: multitiered wedding cakes, sheet cakes, specialty cakes, you name it.
Customers would come in, see what he’d made and throw their arms around him. “Buddy! You’re the greatest! Thank you!” I thought it was pretty neat to do something that made so many people happy.
No matter how successful the bakery was, though, Dad always wanted to take it to the next level. We’d pass a newsstand and he’d blurt out, “Buddy, just imagine what it would do for our business if we got into one of those bridal magazines!” Dad was as much a dreamer as he was a worker.
Oh, yeah. The lobsters. I haven’t forgotten. We’ll get to that.
Dad taught me how to make a few things, just for fun—tea biscuits, éclairs, napoleons. “Watch my hands, Buddy,” he’d say. I picked things up pretty quickly. When I was just 16, Dad actually entrusted me to decorate wedding cakes.
I couldn’t put my design on paper, but I’d take one look at the cake in front of me and go into a zone—a place where my hands took over. It would just come. I’d step back and the cake would look great.
“Your son is unbelievable,” people told Dad. “He’s just like you!” Dad was proud but he insisted, “Buddy will do better than me. He’ll go to college.”
I mastered taralles, fondant icing, pasticiotti, all the specialties people come to Carlo’s for. Well///except for one thing. One impossible thing.
No matter how hard I tried—and I tried and tried and tried—I could not make sfogliatelle, also known as lobster tails—delicious, flaky, cream-filled pastries that are a signature item at Carlo’s.
Learning to massage the dough and form it into layers as thin and delicate as parchment is like getting your Ph.D. in baking. Old school Italians rhapsodized about how feathery and light my father’s sfogliatelle were, how no others compared here or in the old country.
Yet time and time again my lobster tails failed. But I kept hope. With Dad as my teacher, I’d get it. There was plenty of time for me to learn.
Only there wasn’t. Dad got lung cancer. It was my seventeenth birthday and I was standing by his hospital bedside with Mama when he told us the diagnosis. We were all in a state of shock. Beyond shock. Then Mama whispered, “What are we going to do?”
I knew the answer. It was the only answer as far as I was concerned. I looked Dad in the eye. “I’m gonna work full-time at the bakery,” I said. “I’m going to make Carlo’s a household name, like you always dreamed, I promise. I’m going to make you proud, Dad. Just get better.”
Tears trickled down Dad’s cheeks. “Buddy, I want you to graduate.”
“No, I want to run the bakery. We have to keep it going,” I said. That afternoon Mama drove me to school and we filled out the paperwork for me to officially leave high school. Three weeks later Dad died. He was only 54.
No matter how hard I worked—and I had to with Dad gone—I couldn’t escape my grief. Almost every night I’d demand of God, How could you take away my father? How can you expect me to go on without him? How?
The Carlo’s team and I kept up with orders. Except for one thing—lobster tails, and customers kept asking for them. One night, maybe three months after Dad’s death, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to figure it out.
I made a huge batch of the dough, rolled it out till it was thin enough it was almost translucent (that’s how it needs to be to achieve that light-as-air effect). But when I stretched it, it ripped. Other spots bunched up.
My uncle Dominic stood over me, shaking his head. “You should be able to do this,” he said. “You’re Buddy’s son.”
True, I had my father’s name and now his bakery. But maybe I didn’t have his hands. Maybe I wasn’t blessed. Maybe I’d never keep my promise to Dad.
That night I begged God for an answer. Did you really mean for me to be a baker? Am I just being a fool? I fell into an exhausted sleep and dreamed I was back in the basement at Carlo’s, only my father was there!
He looked vibrant and healthy. Strong. I threw my arms around him like I would never let go.
“Dad! I miss you,” I said.
He gently removed my arms and fixed me with a look. A serious look. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not here to play around. I’m here to show you how to make lobster tails one more time.”
I nodded. We moved to the work table. “Now watch,” he said.
We worked side by side, me mimicking his every move like always. He pulled the dough; I pulled it. He stretched it; I stretched it. Then something shifted—Dad was gone and there were two of me working the dough side by side.
All of a sudden those two Buddys came together. My hands and my father’s hands had become one and the same. A perfect roll of lobster tail dough stretched out before me.
I could still picture it when I woke up the next morning. I rushed to the bakery and told Mama about the dream. “Oh, Buddy! God must’ve sent you that dream,” she said, her eyes welling up.
Then I got right to work. I shoveled flour, gallons of water and some salt into the mixer and waited for the dough to form. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life! I paced around that mixer. My family stole glances at me. They probably thought I’d lost my mind.
Finally, the dough was ready. I rolled it out on the counter and let my hands do their thing. Pull, stretch. No rips, no bunched up spots. I was in a zone. Soon a perfect roll of lobster tail dough stretched before me. Just like in my dream.
Those lobster tails came out of the oven looking like Dad’s. I picked one up and took a bite—light enough to float away! I’d mastered the lobster tail! Mama, Uncle Dominic, my sisters, everyone burst into applause.
From then on it was like Dad was an angel on my shoulder helping to guide me. In 1999 we made our first bridal magazine, and more followed, along with appearances on TV shows like Food Network Challenge and Today. Two years ago, Cake Boss was born.
Every day when I walk through those bakery doors, I’m reminded of Dad, the real Cake Boss. I like to think he’d be proud of me, of our family, and proud that with hard work and a lot of faith, I’ve made good on my promise to him.
When car trouble made her late, she found herself right on time for a bigger appointment.