Food & Drink

The Queen Behind the Ace

Duff Goldman’s right-hand woman has a new role at the bakery as her boss heads west.

On a dreary day in late February, Mary Alice Yeskey attends her first Charm City Cakes staff meeting since going on maternity leave. When she officially returns to work this spring (with two-month-old son Spencer in tow), her new office will be in the former equipment storeroom for Ace of Cakes, the Food Network reality show that was filmed at the Remington bakery.

Now that the show has ended its five-year, 10-season run, there’s a car seat, Diaper Genie, and baby toys littering the floor of the small room that once held cameras, electrical cords, and lights.

“From day one, when Duff [Goldman] bought the building, we joked that this would be the nursery,” says Yeskey, who will share the space with administrative assistant Kerry Dillon and her baby (16-month-old Willow). “Now it is.”

Becoming a mom for the first time isn’t the only change for the 34-year-old Yeskey, who has gone from being the show’s beloved commentator and office manager to the marketing director of Charm City Cakes. The bakery is in a state of transition as Goldman—TV star, bakery owner, and one of Yeskey’s best friends—broadens his brand and opens Charm City Cakes West in Los Angeles in the next couple of months. He’ll still be returning to Baltimore once a month, though.

Yeskey knows the Baltimore bakery will be different without Goldman’s regular presence. “I will definitely miss seeing Duff every day. The place does have a different feel when he’s not there,” she says. “It’s quieter and less frenetic but also feels kind of void of energy without him.”

Goldman, who’s at the staff meeting, stresses that he’s not seeking an L.A. bakery per se. “We are opening a Baltimorean embassy,” he says. “We are going to keep our Baltimore spirit as a company and individuals.”

While several of Yeskey’s coworkers— including art director Anna Ellison and cake decorator Katherine Hill—get settled in the City of Angels, her task is to keep the Baltimore home fires burning. “The trick is not to water down what we have,” she says. “The flip side of the fame and notoriety from the show is all the misinformation that has floated about us locally. I have had local wedding planners say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even realize you did cakes in Baltimore,’ and I’m like, ‘We are a local shop. That’s what we’ve always done.’ My goal is to make sure people know that.”

Fiercely articulate and organized, Yeskey is the natural choice to promote the bakery, whose interior is reminiscent of a trip through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass with artists, architects, and engineers wielding electric saws and blowtorches to create edible art.

“She’s really good at translating Charm City Cakes in the real world,” says Goldman. “We have our own language in here. We do something very strange and different, and Mary Alice is really good at translating the strangeness of what goes on in here.”

Geof Manthorne, who is taking over the helm of the Baltimore bakery, says Yeskey is like a secretary of state. “Duff is so much the image of this place, but Mary Alice is putting that out there, and she handles everything with grace,” he says.

In addition to continuing to grow the Baltimore business, Yeskey’s mission is to clear up misconceptions. “The cakes are not a million dollars,” she says. (Although the minimum custom order is $1,000.) “And there isn’t an eight-year waiting list. People think we only do cakes for ‘famous people,’ which breaks my heart. I’ve said no to some pretty famous people, including Oprah, because her production company called on a Monday and wanted us to be in Chicago with a cake on a Wednesday. We bake on a first-come, first-serve basis.” (For the record, eventually a cake was made for Oprah when the bakery was given more notice.)

That’s not to say that Yeskey is unfazed by the luminaries who have appeared on the show. She remembers when the Cakes crew was making a cake for George Lucas about a year ago.

“I am this huge Star Wars fan,” says Yeskey, smiling at the memory. “Even though I couldn’t contribute a lot to cake decorating, Duff said to me, ‘You are coming with us,’ because I think he knew if I hadn’t gone, I would have quit my job! When I met George Lucas, I was shaking—the whole thing was surreal. I told Duff, ‘You never have to take me anywhere again.'”

Goldman and Yeskey have been friends since they met as college students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). When people ask him whether he’s worried about hiring friends, he points to Yeskey. “She knew me when, at two in the morning, we were watching The Lost Boys in the lobby of our college dorm,” he says. “If something is going down, and I’m not there to see it, there’s no question she’s got my back.”

Years ago, it was Goldman who had Yeskey’s back. She was a freshman at UMBC in the fall of 1994, and Goldman was a sophomore, who also worked for the university’s Office of Residential Life. Yeskey had taken her mother’s pearl necklace to school (unbeknownst to her mother) and, one morning, watched in horror as she dropped it down the drain of her dorm-room sink. “It was terrible of me, but I didn’t think she would miss it,” says Yeskey, a Gaithersburg native whose brother Neil is the lead singer for the rock band Clutch. She quickly went to the front desk and filled out a maintenance request.

Ten minutes later, Goldman showed up at her door. “He looked like this college dude with his tool belt and tie-dyed shirt. He was a student, but one of his jobs to pay for his room and board was to be the ‘super’ of Chesapeake Hall,” Yeskey says. “He was like, ‘You’ve got a problem with your sink?’ Two seconds later, he undid the u-pipe and handed me my pearls. . . . Every time I saw him after that, I was like, ‘There’s my hero.'”

By the middle of her sophomore year in 1995, Yeskey had transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park to finish a degree in English and then later pursued a master’s degree in publication design from University of Baltimore. She and Goldman remained friends. “Once I left UMBC, that’s when we started e-mailing each other and became even closer,” says Yeskey. “We would send these giant e-mails to each other.”

By 1998, Yeskey had graduated and was working for nonprofit organizations. But after several years, she was unhappy with her work situation and ready to move on. Serendipitously, Goldman stopped by her office one day in 2005, and Yeskey confided that she hated her job and started crying. Goldman, whose office manager had just left him, recalls the visit. “A girl starts crying, and what are you going to do?” he says. “You need to help, so I was like, ‘Do you want a job?’ I didn’t even know if I could afford to pay her.”

From the start, the duo complemented each other. “We have this relationship that is like brother-sister with a little bit of old married couple thrown in,” says Yeskey. “In my other jobs, I needed work clothes that I had to iron. For one job, I had to take out my nose ring every day and cover up all my tattoos—I felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Duff has created everyone’s fantasy, which is to work doing something you love with all your friends. It’s like Disneyland.”

One unwritten aspect of Yeskey’s job is keeping her sometimes overly ebullient boss in check. “One of the reasons my job is so perfect is that Duff needs someone who isn’t afraid to tell him he’s being a goofball,” says Yeskey, fondly. “Usually, this has to do with his desire to put pyrotechnics into cakes, like the time we were making a cake for a military event, despite the fact that the clients had specifically stated that fireworks were prohibited on the military base, but he wanted to do it anyway. I told him I wouldn’t bail him out of military jail!”

Their on-air relationship is no different off camera. “Because we’ve had such a long relationship, we had a really good rapport with each other and can say anything to each other—on and off television,” says Goldman. “We could do a lot of bickering, and it would come across as really funny. The show wouldn’t have done one-tenth of what it did without her. She added a dimension that made the show complete. She was the one who was like, ‘Look at this room full of crazy I’m stuck in.’ She was the voice of the viewer.”

Yeskey says it was a stroke of good timing that the show was ending just as she was about to give birth to her son. At the three-bedroom Mayfield bungalow she shares with her husband Dave, a network engineer, she’s now surrounded by eco-friendly diapers and is content to serve as a human hammock for Spencer, who slumbers blissfully across her chest. While she’s grateful for the show that took her to the set of Lost in Hawaii (where the crew delivered an island-shaped cake) and to Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch (to present an R2-D2-shaped creation), she’s enjoying the new challenges of motherhood. “It’s what everyone says, but you don’t realize until it happens to you,” she says. “Immediately, so much stuff becomes unimportant. This is the priority.”

She’s learned so much from Goldman, she says, as she reflects on the shooting of the final episode of Ace of Cakes—in which the cast made a Back to the Future DeLorean time-machine cake to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. “Duff was standing there with Michael J. Fox, and pointing out all the stuff on the cake,” says Yeskey. “And I was just standing there watching. I don’t stand in wonder because I didn’t think he was capable. I’m more like, ‘How did this all happen?’ Duff has taught me to follow my gut. He has shown me what can happen if you close your eyes and leap—I love him for showing me what can happen if you really go for it.”

And while Yeskey will miss her face-to-face interaction with Goldman, she knows they will be in constant communication. “We will be keeping in touch like crazy through e-mails and obnoxious text messages,” she says. “We’re already fond of sending each other goofy pictures from our phones, so I can only see that habit getting more frequent once he’s gone.”