SALT LAKE CITY — Buddy “Cake Boss” Valastro was 11 years old when he first went to work with his father at Carlo’s Bakery in New Jersey.
He was excited, even though it was kind of a punishment for playing with matches, he said. But he didn’t bake anything that morning.
His father put him to work cleaning the toilets, he said.
“My father told me, ‘You have to take the same pride in cleaning a toilet bowl as making a wedding cake,’” Valastro said at the RootsTech general session Saturday morning at the Salt Palace.
He shared several stories about his family, including his grandfathers, who immigrated to the United States, as well as the challenges he faced after the death of his father.
His father never told Valastro that he had to be a baker, but a young Valastro learned to work hard.
“I grew up really blessed,” he said. His father insisted that there was no television during family meals, he said.
“I tell my kids no television and no cellphones at the table," he said.
It was around the table and in the kitchen where he had some of his best memories growing up.
As an 11-year-old, Valastro's father was showing there wasn’t preferential treatment for the owner's son, and also teaching him respect for those who do clean the toilets and do other less-favorable work.
“I go to work and I love it,” he said. “It’s so important to find what you love. If you love it, you’ll excel at it.”
And he found he had a talent for baking and cake decorating and was decorating cakes when he was a teenager.
When Valastro was 17, his father was diagnosed with cancer and died at 54.
In the months following, Valastro found he had a drive that “no matter what, I’m not going to fail," he said. “What I didn’t know, I was going to learn.
He was determined to humble himself and learn everything he could from those who had more experience.
From there, he continued to grow the business. It was when fondant was first coming out that he decided to get some and learn how to use it.
“As soon as I figured it out, I put a cake in the window,” he said. An editor from Modern Bride walked by and wanted to put it in the magazine, fulfilling a dream he and his father had.
He brought extra cake to the magazine and from there, he was in several magazines. That’s where Food Network saw his work and invited him to be in its baking competitions. He was on his third competition, which he lost, when a cameraman told him that he could get his own show. He had a 100-year-old bakery, a large Italian family and he’s “laughing every day” at work.
He pitched it and it was turned down, but he tried again later. It was TLC that approached him about a show and since then, it’s been shown in 220 countries and territories and dubbed in 45 languages. He’s the CEO of a company that has 18 bakeries, two restaurants and a production company and 1,200 employees.
“Sometimes, I pinch myself,” he said. “Through everything, it’s about hard work believing in yourself and in the American dream. Believe that you can make something out of yourself.”
All the while, he said he doesn’t want to forget his past.
His great-grandfathers came to the U.S. from Italy and his grandfathers were born in the United States before the families moved back to their home countries.
His grandfathers and their families each made their way to the United States. Valastro’s dad was 13 when their family came to the U.S., and he has memories of how hard it had been in Sicily. His grandfather, who worked at a bakery, encouraged his son to work at a cake shop and brought him to Carlo’s Bakery. Valastro’s father later bought the bakery when the owner’s son, who was a scientist, decided to close it, Valastro said.
His mother’s father had name and address of a cousin, whom he’d never met, and when to him for help. He worked as a longshoreman to earn money for his family to come, Valastro said. He couldn’t read or write and wanted to save the money from taking the bus, so he marked his route on the telephone poles, Valastro said.
As he worked, he was frustrated with how long it was taking to earn money and shared that with his barber one day. His barber, a Baptist, asked his church members for help. After his family arrived, Valastro’s grandfather attended the church while his grandmother continued at the Catholic church, Valastro said.
“I feel like our history and our roots make us who we are,” Valastro said in an interview with the Deseret News before his presentation.
Valastro, whose flight was delayed getting into Salt Lake City Friday, judged the cake-decorating event Saturday morning.
“I was floored by the talent,” he said. “I’ve got to up my game.”
There were two of the four competition categories where the top ones were close. He said he looked at the cakes and narrowed down the ones he wanted to taste. He was looking for a moist sponge with good flavors.
Valastro also had a reunion with Kimmie Hansen, 18, who has a severe form of epilepsy, and the Make-A-Wish foundation granted her wish to meet Valastro in 2012.
As they discussed her latest cakes and using fondant, gave her a few tips.
“Remember what I told you? You can do anything,” Valastro told her.
Several sessions of RootsTech, a family history and technology conference, end Saturday and will be available online at RootsTech.org.