The Italian dishes hit the table at a steady pace: turkey meatballs, lasagna, linguine and clams, spaghetti pomodoro, shrimp scampi with pasta, a beautiful whitefish. This isn’t a feast for many, but rather for two—Buddy Valastro (a.k.a. the Cake Boss) and his wife, Lisa. They’ve come to sample the fare at Buddy V’s, the new restaurant in the Grand Canal Shoppes. On the eve of the October 7 opening, Mr. and Mrs. Cake Boss—who have partnered with Las Vegas restaurateur power couple Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla—are here to ensure everything at Buddy V’s tastes just as the Valastro family recipes intended. Maybe a little more of this, a little less of that …
Why open your first restaurant here instead of back in Jersey?
We’ve been trying to do this for about three years, and we looked at places back home that didn’t work out. I did a couple of [television] shoots out here, and met Mr. [Sheldon] Adelson, and the more we talked, the more it felt like I belonged in the Venetian—the feel, the décor, the style, just even the principles. When you talk to somebody and they’re cut from the same cloth as you—hardworking and self-made—I have a lot of admiration for people like that. So we just instantly hit it off.
The menu is based on old family recipes. So who was in charge of tutoring the chefs?
In my Lackawanna [New Jersey bakery] facility, I have a beautiful state-of-the-art kitchen, because I always knew we’d do something with food. So we flew in all of the chefs from Vegas, and then we had my whole family there: me, my wife, my mother-in-law, my aunt, my sisters—anybody whom I think are my culinary rock stars—and we all cooked with a different chef. We had a two-day extravaganza.
Watching my old Italian aunt yell at the chef (adopts a thick Italian accent), “No, No! You do it like this!” … My family came with their own pans, like, “The only way you can make the manicotti is in this pan!” [Laughs.] Forget about it. It was hilarious.
How long after your dad died and you were thrust to the forefront of the family bakery business did you know you’d be able to successfully carry the torch?
I struggled, man. But about three years in, I started to see that things were on track. And once I got the reins, it was like, “All right, now how do I make this even more successful? I [figured out] what my dad did, and we got that under control. Now what mark do I want to put on the business?” I was probably 21 years old, and that’s when I started moving toward the big, elaborate cakes.
When did you know Cake Boss would be a hit?
I vowed to make it a hit. I’ll never forget the story with my first agent—never forget it. He came into my office, and I said, “I have this TV show that’s coming out, and this show is going to be successful.” And he kind of gave me this look like, “I hear this every day.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand my work ethic, my drive. I don’t fail. I’m going to make this happen.” Now, I didn’t think it was going to get as big as it did. But when I do something … tell him, honey (turns to his wife).
Lisa: Buddy does not fail. He gives it 110 percent, and it’s usually successful. A lot of his friends say that he’s got a four-leaf clover up his butt! [Laughs.]
What’s stronger, your baking skills or your business skills?
I think it’s equal. I’m obsessive-compulsive. The drive to succeed, whether I’m making a cake or making a deal, is the same. I put the same tools at work, just using different skill sets. If I’m making a cake, it’s with my hands; if I’m trying to make a deal, it’s with my mind, seeing how far I can push things.
(Elizabeth Blau interjects): But I know a lot of really good business people, and none of them can bake! [Laughs.]
Valastro: Yeah, well, I didn’t go to Harvard Business School! But my business school was running a small business all those years. And I adapt quick—to business, to learning how to make cakes, to cooking, to making TV shows.
How difficult has it been dealing with fame?
Honestly, remain humble, remain true to who you are, and never forget who’s really important. Like my wife and I, we’re still very much in love. We have a great relationship, and my kids are so important to me.
Am I flattered, and does it feel great when I walk into a room and there are 3,000 people screaming your name? Yeah, it’s a high. But I still remember who I am and where I came from.
How would your father have reacted had he been alive to see you open this restaurant?
He would’ve loved it. If my dad could be here and see me on the Vegas Strip—when I called my wife the other night after seeing the restaurant for the first time, that’s who I thought of: my parents. At the end of the day, I feel like I’m doing this for a lot of people—I’m doing it for my family, I’m doing it for my friends.
I’m just a kid from Hoboken, New Jersey. And now look (gestures to the restaurant). Wow. It’s surreal. I’m living proof that anything is possible.
What are you ordering for your first dinner here?
Honestly, I’ve been eating since yesterday—I was in a food coma. But for an appetizer, the tuna caponata is so good. And my Auntie Anna’s mussels. Oh, and my wife’s eggplant—and I’m not just saying that because she’s sitting here. My entrée is going to be either steak pizzaiola or the bone-in veal parmigiana. Dessert, the lobster-tail [pastry]. We’re actually making a special lobster tail in New Jersey, and we’re going to bake them here. It’s a huge one, and the only place you can get this lobster tail is at my restaurant in Vegas.
As much as this place will be about food, it’s also a lot about family, right?
I’m not going to sit here and say I know everything about the restaurant business; I don’t. But what I do know is good food. And I know what my spin on this place should be. So when you come here and eat my meatball, I want it to remind you of your grandma’s meatball or somebody back home. I want the food to bring you back to—every Sunday, we used to go in my grandma’s basement, and there’d be 20 people, and she’d be cooking at this little stove and put out this great meal. I feel like nothing brings families together like food, and my life has been so food-centric—as you can tell (grabs his stomach).
What’s your specialty in your kitchen at home?
Anything that’s in the fridge! I don’t consider myself a chef. I consider myself an amazing home cook. I feel people are gifted with certain things; my gift is flavor profile. So I can taste something in a restaurant and go home and re-create it. What I also try to do is use what I know in baking versus cooking, because when you’re baking, it’s an exact science. So you can’t say, “Ah, let’s use a little more salt”—don’t work like that in baking. So when I cook, I try to scale it down. If you’re going to make tomato sauce, weigh out your salt, weigh out your sugar and your oregano, whatever, to get consistency.
As a kid, you struggled in art class. If someone had told you then that you’d grow up and become a world-renowned cake sculptor/decorator, how would you have responded?
I want to tell my art teacher, “Na-na-na-na-na-na!” No, I would’ve been like, “Yeah, hello?” If you would’ve seen the stick figures I drew—and I still draw stick figures. It’s not like I’m a great drawer by any means—I can’t draw!
What’s the secret to the show’s success?
It’s hard work, but it’s being real. I think people around the world love me because who you see on TV is who you get here. I am who I am. It is reality. And I care about the fans. How can I see a kid who looks at me and wants me to be Superman for them—how can I not be Superman for that kid? And they’re shaking, and you give them a hug and their heart is racing—it’s like, I’m doing good things. I’m making what I think is good family content that’s bringing families together. And I am inspiring young chefs and bakers.
Look at all these guys in the kitchen here. I had a long conversation with them yesterday. I grabbed them and said, “Look, this is where your dreams start. It’s hard work, it’s grunt.” Look, a lot of people think, “You’re the Cake Boss, you hit the Lotto,” and that’s it. Not so. Even before Cake Boss (looks at his wife), how hard did I work? Ever since you met me?
Lisa: Oh yeah. We used to have date nights at the bakery.
Most memorable cake you ever made?
Probably the replica of my wife; that was pretty good. But the Transformer [cake] was my favorite. That was crazy. It took me three days—three long, 18- to 20-hour days.
What’s your least favorite cake to eat?
[Pause.] I like cake, unfortunately! [Laughs.] I don’t have a cake that I really don’t like.
Oh, come on. German chocolate cake—you’ll eat that, too?
I make a good German chocolate cake. [Laughs.]. She’s the fussy eater (gestures to his wife); she’s the pain in the ass. I’ll eat anything.
Do you ever ponder how long this is all going to last?
I don’t look at it like that. I know that TV shows have a shelf life—Cake Boss has a shelf life. I don’t know if it’s one more year, five more years, 15 more years. What I do know is that I myself can do different things as far as a talent. I’ve done four different TV shows, which have all been pretty successful. And I have four cookbooks. So I’m not worried about keeping myself busy.
I don’t think things are going to go away. I think they’re going to be there as long as I really want to do them—and I don’t mean that in a cocky way. And, you know, you throw a bunch of things at the dartboard, something’s going to stick.