The New Jersey baker Bartelo “Buddy” Valastro has long been a favourite with the region’s sweet-toothed TV viewers. Cake Boss, the reality show set in Carlo’s Bake Shop, his family’s 100-year-old business in Hoboken, premiered on the American network TLC in April 2009, and has been almost ever-present in the channel’s schedules for the six seasons of the show that have been broadcast since.
Middle Eastern viewers have been able to keep up with the family’s pastry-based tribulations, too – initially on the Discovery Channel and more recently on the Discovery Networks-acquired, Dubai-based food channel Fatafeat. The show has attracted a healthy fan base in the region, as well as across Europe, Asia and Australia through Discovery’s global channels.
Fans will be pleased to hear that Valastro has been in the region looking to open Middle Eastern branches of the bakery, which has already become a tourist hotspot in Hoboken and grown to five outlets in the United States, with another nine due to open this year.
“It’s always been my dream to have people from all over the world eat my cake,” says Valastro, on a scouting trip in Bahrain. “In order to do that, you have to open bakeries.”
Exceptional though Valastro’s cakes may be, it’s probably fair to assume they wouldn’t be travelling as far as Bahrain without the TV show, so I ask how it initially came about.
“I’d been on quite a few cake-making competitions on TV and TLC wanted to do a show about cakes. They approached me and asked if I had any suggestions so I said: ‘Just film my bakery. It’s 100 years old, I have a big crazy family and I do amazing cakes – just follow my life.’ They brought the cameras and filmed, and that was the birth of Cake Boss.”
Having become such an international phenomenon, does Valastro find that different audiences, especially here in the Middle East, react differently to the show compared with his home crowd? “I think at the end of the day, everybody loves cake,” he says. “The reception has been tremendous all over the world. I actually first came to Bahrain about two years ago to make a cake for somebody who saw the show. It’s been really well received in the Middle East, in Australia, South Africa – it’s in about 180 countries all over the world right now.
“I think the one thing all cultures around the world can agree on is family. At its heart, this show is about family and, no matter what religion or culture you are, family is really important. I think that’s the common denominator of the show.”
That’s all very well, but there’s at least one raging cultural debate that surely a man called Cake Boss is ideally placed to solve once and for all. The simple, but oh-so-divisive question: Jaffa Cake – cake or biscuit?
Sadly, it seems this is another argument of global significance that will have to simmer for a little while longer yet: “I don’t think we have them in the US,” says Valastro. “But I’m going to go with cake as they have cake in the name.”
Of course, Jaffa Cakes are widely available across the Middle East, but all is not lost if Valastro doesn’t manage to sample one while he’s here: “I’m going to be in the UK in April, so I’ll definitely try one when I’m there and come back to you with my official opinion.”
We’ll be waiting.