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PUBLISHED APRIL 2023


STORY

Lisa Cavanaugh

PHOTOS

Lauren Volvo

LOCATION

New Jersey

The life Buddy Valastro has crafted for himself is much like one of his delectable dessert creations—satisfying, multi-layered, and overflowing with flavor. Busy in his sleek and spacious home kitchen in northeastern New Jersey, Valastro, the owner of Carlo’s Bakery and popular star of TLC and Discovery Family’s Cake Boss, appears to have the same demeanor and passion as the earnest, hard-working young man who was compelled to take over the family business after the untimely death of his father.

“My parents were born in Italy but met here in the U.S.,” says Valastro. “My father worked at the original Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken and bought it in 1963 from Mr. Carlo himself.” Valastro was 11 when he started at the bakery and was decorating cakes a few years later. “Every Saturday and Sunday, my dad and I would go to the bakery at six a.m., set the store up, and then do all the birthday cakes,” he says. “I was always artistic and ahead of my years.” Valastro will never forget that it was on his seventeenth birthday when the family learned his father had stage three cancer. “We all decided I would drop out of high school to help until he got a little better. But he died three weeks later.”

Although he says he didn’t feel ready to take over the business, Valastro forged ahead. “I had veteran bakers who had been baking for 30 years, so I had to earn their respect, not just as my dad’s son,” he says. “I was determined to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.”

When the Valastros renovated their kitchen, they filled it with Sub-Zero, Wolf, and Cove appliances.

When the Valastros renovated their kitchen, they filled it with Sub-Zero, Wolf, and Cove appliances. "There is history there and a great partnership with the company."

After a few years, Valastro felt he had a good handle on the business and began to take a broader look at the bakery landscape. “The supermarket bakeries were getting better, and they were putting bakeries like mine out of business,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t compete on price with items they could mass produce.” Valastro knew he needed a point of difference, and he found it with fondant.

“I started teaching myself how to work with it”, says Valastro, whose cakes had usually been covered with buttercream frosting or royal icing. Now, he realized that one towering fondant-covered cake was as lucrative as many dozens of pastries. “I could put a three-tiered cake out front and get a thousand dollars for it. I thought to myself, how many donuts do we have to make to get that amount of money? There was our new business model right there.”

With his mother’s encouragement, Valastro started to focus on elaborate wedding cakes. “We had this beautiful window that faced the street, so I would come up with themes and design these gorgeous cakes and put them in the window to showcase.” As luck would have it, one appreciative passerby worked at Modern Bride magazine. “She said, ‘We’d love to feature you,’ and it was like a dream come true!” says Valastro.

The chance stroll-by led to an explosion of celebrity. Valastro immediately made friends with the editors. “They loved me and loved my cakes.” His work then began appearing in all the major wedding publications. “At that time, in the 1990s, brides-to-be were getting all their ideas from magazines,” says Valastro, who became the creative inspiration for thousands of wedding-day dreams.

A young Valastro and his father working together at Carlo's Bakery.

A young Valastro and his father working together at Carlo's Bakery.

As one of the premier wedding cake designers in the tri-state area, Valastro was happy to give his customers what they wanted. “I’m a very good listener, and I was very receptive to what customers, art designers, and magazine editors asked of me. “You want me to write on the cake? You want me to put flowers on it or have a log cabin on the top? If I could do it, they were happy with it, it was no problem.”

Along with multiple magazine shoots and the busy bakery business, Valastro started doing cake consulting appointments on weekends, every half-hour from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night. “There was a two-month wait to get an appointment with me.”

Somehow, he found the time and passion to make his own wedding cake when he married his wife, Lisa, in 2001. “I spent three weeks making little sugar flowers for our cake,” says Valastro, “and then I went in the morning of my wedding to finish and make it perfect.”

'I'm all about the functionality and layout of the kitchen,' Valastro says, 'while Lisa has the creative vision and great eye for colors and finishes.'

"I'm all about the functionality and layout of the kitchen," Valastro says, "while Lisa has the creative vision and great eye for colors and finishes."

While starting his family with Lisa (which now includes four children, Sofia, 20, Buddy Jr., 18, Marco, 16, and Carlo, 12), Valastro was contacted by the Food Network. “They were hosting baking competitions,” he says. “So I went on the show, and the third round was wedding cakes.” Surprisingly, Valastro didn’t win (“I should have definitely won,” he laughs), but while packing up, one of the camera operators approached him. “He said I had a great personality for television and should have a show.”

The idea began percolating in Valastro’s mind, and he went home and pitched it to his wife: a hundred-year-old bakery, a crazy big Italian family, and lots of cakes. “I thought she was going to tell me I was out of my mind, but instead, she told me she had never met a more determined person, and anything I set my mind to, I always figured out.” Food Network was not as receptive and told Valastro they preferred he stay part of their baking challenges, so he put his TV plans on the back burner.

Flash forward to 2008. “I’m upstairs at the bakery, making cakes when my sister Mary says TLC is on the phone. I’m like, who, the band? Do they need a cake?” It turned out that The Learning Channel was thinking of doing a baking show, and they wanted Valastro to star in it.

The resulting show, Cake Boss, proved to be one of TLC’s most-watched lifestyle programs, with over 300 episodes seen in 220 countries around the world and several spin-off specials. The assertive moniker was the network’s idea. Valastro thinks of himself more as an artist and collaborator than a typical boss type, even though Carlo’s Bakery has turned into a large-scale operation with dozens of locations across the U.S. and a 100,000-square-foot factory in Jersey City. “I’m not really an arrogant guy,” says Valastro,” but I’m passionate and emotional. What you see is what you get.”

Carlo's Bakery is still going strong more than 100 years after it first opened.

Carlo's Bakery is still going strong more than 100 years after it first opened.

“I think back to that kid who had to stand on a bucket to ice the top of a wedding cake, and I could never have imagined that I would have come this far.”


At this point in his life, it would be understandable if Valastro wanted to take a step back, but that is not how he was raised. Most mornings find him heading to the factory, his TV production company, or one of his bakeries to envision new dessert ideas.

For most of his life, creativity has come easily to the celebrity baker, who says he gets “design inspiration from the drape of a fabric or taking walks with my wife and looking at nature.” But he also has worked incredibly hard to emulate his father’s example ever since he took the reins of Carlo’s at a tender age. “I think back to that kid who had to stand on a bucket to ice the top of a wedding cake, and I could never have imagined that I would have come this far.”

Above all else, he is dedicated to his family, and his children enjoy coming to the bakeries to decorate cakes with him. They are each poised to follow in his footsteps in varying ways and Valastro welcomes the continued family closeness that Carlo’s Bakery first engendered decades ago. “If my dad could see all this, he would be amazed,” he says. “He would be incredibly proud too."

Frost Like A Boss

Tips from Buddy Balastro for icing the perfect cake:

Buttercream frosting

Decorator Buttercream Frosting

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