South Jersey pair find success a piece of cake

Manny Agigian and Al DiBartolo are known for the delicious and colorful confections they whip up at DiBartolo Bakeryin Collingswood. "We were the fist-bumping Jersey guys" on "Next Great Baker," Agigian said.
Manny Agigian and Al DiBartolo are known for the delicious and colorful confections they whip up at DiBartolo Bakeryin Collingswood. "We were the fist-bumping Jersey guys" on "Next Great Baker," Agigian said. (VIVIANA PERNOT/Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 18, 2014

For the customers of family-owned DiBartolo Bakery in Collingswood, it's no secret that Al DiBartolo and pastry chef Manny Agigian are artists in aprons.

Think fanciful cake sculptures, freehand buttercream blossoms, to-die-for towers of fudge and chocolate mousse. Great baking, for sure.

But do these Jersey guys have what it takes to be the Next Great Baker?

Tune in next Tuesday at 9 p.m. Season Four of the TLC cooking competition show starts with 10 baking teams from around the country, including Agigian, 33, and DiBartolo, 39, a cake artist.

The stakes are high. The winners will land a grand prize of $100,000 and the offer of a year's gig working for judge and "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro at his new Carlo's Bakery at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

If they win, they will not be the area's first cooks to get a boost from food-reality television. Jose Garces, who now has his own culinary empire, won the title of Iron Chef. Acing the show Top Chef gave Burlington County native Kevin Sbraga the money and profile to open his namesake Philadelphia restaurant. He has since opened a second, the Fat Ham. Nicholas Elmi of Laurel, formerly of Le Bec-Fin, won Top Chef earlier this year.

Agigian and DiBartolo, both married with young families, know how they fared, but, like everyone else connected to the show, they are sworn to secrecy.

But this much they can say: They had a blast.

"It was the most exciting stress of our lives. It was so much work, but it was fun," said DiBartolo, who grew up around the bakery run by his father and uncle. "Imagine doing your job out on the highest stage available. We loved it."

Most of their competition had at least some professional baking experience and brought along local color from Hawaii, Texas, Tennessee, Nevada, Missouri, Florida, and New York.

Agigian and DiBartolo had their own vibe working.

"We were the fist-bumping Jersey guys," said Agigian, who worked at an uncle's Wildwood bakery summers during high school, studied culinary arts at Camden County Technical School and community college, and has worked at Bally's in Atlantic City and the Naked Chocolate Cafe in Philadelphia.

"We were very daring," DiBartolo said. "You're given free rein, so go with it. We really pushed the envelope."

But lots of times, the envelope pushed back. They had to think on their feet.

Like when they arrived at the Lackawanna Center in Jersey City, where Valastro has his commercial kitchen. It seemed like a vast arena. There was culinary equipment neither of them had ever used before. And they were on unfamiliar terrain.

One of the contestants' first challenges was designing and making a cake inspired by an assigned New York City landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge for one.

The Jersey guys pulled Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side.

" 'You got Katz's Deli?,' " DiBartolo said Valastro's 10-year-old son, Buddy Jr., asked him. " ' Good luck.' " As in, they were going to need it.

But first they had to get there. Neither knew North Jersey or the city. They were not allowed a GPS or their phones.

"We got lost going around the corner," Agigian said.

"I hollered the whole time," DiBartolo said, trying to find out how to get to the deli.

When they finally got to Katz's, each was tasked with eating a two-pound pastrami sandwich.

"I was suffering," DiBartolo said.

But they said the cake they came up with - it's a surprise - was worth it.

"The New York-inspired cake is going to blow everyone away," Agigian said.

Their work already has had locals blown away.

Since coming to work at DiBartolo's about four years ago, Agigian has expanded the bakery's offerings to such fine items as designer cupcakes, custard fruit puffs, mousse bombs, and layer cakes, and his signature Manny's Mighty Mousse Towers. He loves the artistry of tempered chocolate and sugar work.

DiBartolo, by all accounts a talented draftsman and sketcher, is a cake sculptor who doesn't shy away from big scale. He's done a Ninja Turtle, Emmet from The Lego Movie, a zombie - gore and all. For a recent event at Camden's Adventure Aquarium, he created a 5-foot-long hippo and a 11/2-foot-tall penguin.

High-energy guys who know their way around a weight bench like they do around the kitchen, they say they have got a working relationship that works.

"We complete each other's sentences," Agigian said.

Soon the world will get to follow how far their talents take them. They have planned a premiere-night party at P.J. Whelihan's in Cherry Hill; they, of course, will bring the cake. Tortilla Press Cantina in Pennsauken also will show the program weekly.

Even if they don't go the distance, there's no telling what impact national exposure could have on their careers. Ask Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, David Archuleta, and Kellie Pickler. Any tears they may have shed over losing on American Idol dried a long time ago.

"We're hoping something awesome comes out of this," DiBartolo said. "We're ready. We're so ready."



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