Buddy Valastro talks about his family business and bringing his bakery to the Middle East

The Cake Boss - one of American Reality TV's biggest stars - is in the capital and he's putting on a show for his fans in Abu Dhabi this Saturday. But just who is this master of cakes?

The Valastro family.  George Lange / Discovery Communications
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When Buddy Valastro started working in his father’s bakery, he couldn’t have known that it would be the first step in a journey that would make him – and the bakery – a household name. Twenty-six years after joining the family business at the age of 11, Valastro is the star of Cake Boss, one of the American network TLC’s top-rated reality shows.

Now in its seventh season, Cake Boss has propelled Valastro and Carlo's Bakery to international stardom. On Saturday, Valastro will host a cake-decorating demonstration at Emirates Palace, along with a cake-decorating competition among both amateur and professional bakers in the region. Buddy also revealed his plan to open his first international bakeries in the Gulf region. He's already in talks to open bakeries in Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He says: "I would partner with a local baker here because I don't want to exclude the flavours and the sweets of the region. Whenever we go somewhere, we embrace the culture and respect it." As for his involvement in his future Gulf bakeries, he says: "They'll be my bakeries. I'll be running them. I'll be back and forth. I'll make sure things are running right."

The legacy

Valastro credits much of his success to his father, who immigrated to the United States from Italy at the age of 13. His father came from a long line of bakers and, with encouragement from his father, landed a job in a pastry shop at a young age. That pastry shop was Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. Valastro bought the bakery in 1964 and today it has become the site of one of the most popular reality shows on American TV.

When Valastro started working in his dad’s bakery, it wasn’t as a baker but as a dishwasher.

“My dad had me work from the bottom up,” says Valastro. “It was important to him that I learn every aspect of the business from dishwashing to decorating. I started out helping him and learning from the way he did things.” In 1994, Valastro, Sr died at the age of 54, three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. As the only boy in the family (he has four older sisters), Valastro suddenly found himself the man of the house. He dropped out of high school and took over the bakery. He was only 17.

The work was hard. Valastro put in up to 18 hours a day, six days a week. He was set on making it work, perhaps as a way to keep his beloved father’s memory alive. “This is truly a family business,” says Valastro. “This is where we grew up and it’s what we love to do. Very early on, my mum and dad instilled a very strict work ethic in me and my sisters. We work hard to keep the bakery successful.”

The show

Valastro's show Cake Boss premiered on TLC in April 2009. It has consistently been one of the network's highest-rated shows. The series captures the ins and outs of the daily operations at Carlo's Bakery – but it's not just about decorating cakes. The show also focuses on the relationships among Valastro's family members and the shop's employees (most of whom are Valastro's sisters and their husbands).

The family

Valastro’s mother Mary was a regular on the show in its early days, but she appears less frequently now. Mary is known as Valastro’s biggest fan – and his biggest critic. In season five, fans of the show learnt that Mary has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, news that was devastating for the Valastro family. In the episode where he reveals the news to his viewers, Valastro could barely get out the words: “Mama got diagnosed with ALS. And it’s a horrible, horrible disease.” He stops talking and puts his head in his hands, visibly overwhelmed. In an emotional exchange later in the episode, Valastro tells his mother: “You helped me become who I am and I’ll never forget that.”

The first cake he ever made as a child was for his mother. He says, “It was a strawberry shortcake and I knew it had to be perfect for her,” he says.

Valastro’s heart is in his baking, but it’s clear that family will always come first. Valastro, who is married with four kids, wants the bakery to stay in the family. He says, “I would love for my kids to take over the bakery someday, but I’m not going to force them. I want them to love what they do and hopefully it involves the bakery. My daughter and two of my sons, Marco and Carlo, love to decorate, and my son Buddy loves being in the baking room with me,” Valastro says.

The bakery

Valastro says he's proud of his bakery's success. He has opened four additional branches in New Jersey and one in Las Vegas. He's also started three more baking shows on the same network that brought him fame: The Next Great Baker, Kitchen Boss and Buddy's Bakery Rescue (similar to Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares).

Though his father didn’t live long enough to see his bakery become world-famous, Valastro knows he would be proud: “It was always a dream of mine and my dad’s to make Carlo’s Bakery a household name and I always have that in my mind when I’m working. I didn’t expect it to grow the way it has. It is truly amazing. It’s very important to my family that we keep the tradition of Carlo’s Bakery alive even as we grow and that’s something we know he would be proud of.”