From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
He's the Cake Boss today, but back in 1988, when Buddy Valastro was drafted by his dad to join the family business, Carlo's Bakery, he wasn't even allowed in the kitchen. "I started in the basement, washing the sink," he says of the Hoboken, N.J., bakery. "My dad wanted me to know what it was like to be everybody in the bakery. The thing is, everything they made me do, I was good at."

Especially the art of baking and decorating cakes. "I was a kid, but I was the best," says Valastro, who was decorating the company's grand wedding cakes at 15. Now 33, his traditional Italian recipes and modern designs helped land him spots on Food Network Challenge and his own hit show, TLC's Cake Boss. Among his virtuosic endeavors? Speed-decorating, making a wedding cake blindfolded and correcting other's confectionary catastrophes. "If there was ever a problem with a cake, my dad would get me out of school so I could fix it," he says. "I got a real sense of satisfaction from baking once I got over the fact that people were going to cut up my masterpiece."

Things took a serious turn when his dad, Buddy Sr., died of lung cancer at 54, forcing Valastro, then just 17, to drop out of high school and take over the business. "You lost your best friend, your mentor, your everything," he says. "Then you have 30 employees, and you're trying to step into your father's shoes. It was hard."

These days Carlo's Bakery turns out almost 1,000 cakes a week (Valastro's specialty designs fetch up to $40,000); and Cake Boss, which has 1.9 million viewers, shows Buddy and his three brothers-in-law creating crazy confections while his mother, four sisters and wife Lisa (with whom he has three kids, Sofia, 5, Buddy Jr., 4, and Marco, 2) run the business. "I always told my dad, 'I'm gonna turn this place into a household name,'" Valastro says wistfully. "I just wish he were here to enjoy it."