You could say Buddy Valastro was hungry for more.
On the outside looking in for the, perhaps, first time since his dad gave a 6-year-old Buddy an apron and a bucket to stand on inside the family's New Jersey bakery, he wanted nothing more than to get hands-on with his brand's signature towering cakes.
"I'm not the kind of guy who wants to just design it and engineer it," he explained in a clip from TLC's December special Buddy Valastro: Road to Recovery. "I want to touch it. I want to feel it. I wanna be in the game, I don't wanna be on the sidelines watching."
And yet with only 15 percent of the strength back in his right hand after a September incident he dubbed a "freak accident" left him with nerve, tendon and muscle damage, he was struggling to even carve through the cake. Though it was something he'd done hundreds of thousands of times since taking over Carlo's Bakery at age 17. "I can't hold the knife," he admitted. "I can't squeeze my thumb to keep the knife in place."
Just months earlier, he continued, "I was like a ninja with that freaking knife the way I could cut things. You know, it's different." Still, he was determined to remaster the skills that had turned him into a household name, the Cake Boss star trusted to create spectacular desserts for the likes of Gigi Hadid, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and John Legend.
"It's kinda like an old boxer who still thinks he can fight," he noted. "You know, like you got that will, you got the heart, but you don't got the tools right now." He'd begun flirting with the idea of trying it southpaw. "There's part of me that wants to train lefty," he revealed. "That's plan B. First thing I got to do is heal."
For the past five months, he's approached plan A with the same tenacity he once applied to mastering his dad's signature sfogliatelle treats.
After four surgeries and seemingly endless physical therapy, Buddy still has numbness and limited mobility in two of the fingers in his right hand. But as he blows out the candles on another birthday cake Mar. 4, the 44-year-old is trying to appreciate the sweetness of each small victory.
While buttoning his pants and cutting food remain a struggle, "I can hold a fork like a little kid would," he told People in November. "So I've been trying to use it a little bit more, but just in different settings and different times."
Up until now, he hasn't had to put too much thought into, say, how he washes his face or deftly spreads buttercream on one of his confections. But these days, he's singularly focused on regaining his unique abilities. "You don't realize how much you can really move your hands in different directions," he noted. "You take for granted certain things."
That blissful ignorance came to a sharp and painful end on Sept. 20.
An avid bowler with his own alley inside the Montville, N.J., home he shares with wife Lisa Valastro and kids Sofia, 17, Buddy III, 16, Marco, 14, and Carlo, 10, Buddy was fixing a malfunctioning pinsetter when his right hand got lodged inside the machine.
"I've reset it a hundred times," Buddy explained to People eight days after the incident. But this time, "I guess I looked away, and then my hand got pinned." His dominant palm compressed inside the apparatus, he said he watched in horror as a one-and-a-half-inch metal barb "pushed right through the middle of my ring finger and my middle finger" several times.
As blood started gushing ("It looked like a Halloween movie"), he froze, realizing there was little he could do. "I thought I was going to faint," he later admitted on Today. But after five minutes of pure shock, "something kicked in and told me to be calm," he told People, "because at that point I knew I was stuck. I was stuck in the machine. This rod was through my hand and I knew that I had to get out of there."
Calling out to his two older sons and brother-in-law Joe Faugno, he directed them to retrieve a set of pliers and a saw to cut him out of the machine. Within 10 minutes, he was in the back of his car speeding off to Morristown Memorial hospital, afraid to waste time even waiting on an ambulance.
"I really am so proud of my sons and my brother-in-laws, who were here and really helped jump into action to help set me free," he relayed on Today. But as the car raced toward the ER, the agony of Buddy's injury began to overwhelm him. His hand swelling around the piece of rod still lodged inside, he told People, "It was the worst pain that I've ever encountered in my life."
At the New Jersey medical center, Buddy underwent what would turn out to be the first of several surgeries, doctors working swiftly to remove the rod.
That night, he and Lisa cooked up a game plan, placing a call to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michelle Carlson at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery and sending over videos of the injury for her to review. "She was already sleeping," Lisa shared with People. But early the next morning, they received a harsh wake-up. "She called and said, 'You need to get here now,'" Lisa continued. "She was afraid because there was so much swelling in his hand that it was strangling his muscles and the muscles could die."
Bottom line, added Buddy, "Dr. Carlson thought I could have lost my hand. She was petrified."
There were fears all around, really, because even with a second emergency surgery, Buddy was left with massive nerve, tendon and muscle damage. "It's going to definitely be an uphill battle," he acknowledged on Today Sept. 28.
Five months on, he's still climbing, committing himself to what he called "intense physical therapy", undergoing subsequent surgeries in October and February and relying on the use of splint he likened to Marvel villain Thanos.
And yet, it's the emotional challenges that have required him to summon other-worldly strength.
"I was in a really bad place mentally in the beginning," he admitted to People in November. "I kept waking up to night sweats of the nightmare of it happening, and the pain." While he's been trying to lean into the power of positive thinking, "I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to ice a cake the same way or be as fast as I used to be," he continued. "That's still to be discovered, and not knowing kind of sucks."
On bad days, he struggles not to beat himself up, wondering if he's iced his last cakes. Viewers watched that inner battle play out in his December TLC special. "I'm so so mad at myself," the Food Network personality admitted in one scene, reflecting on the life-changing incident. "My hand is everything to me."
The most important tools of his trade, "I have a thing with my hands," he stressed to People. "If I get a paper cut on my hand, I'm pissed off. My hands to me are my lifeline of everything I do." And now, he continued, "I wonder, 'Am I ever going to do what I used to be able to do?' "
Worse yet, he worries that he won't be able to fully immerse his kids in the family business like his dad had once done for him: "It's kind of like, 'Hey, guys, does anybody want to do this? How am I going to teach you? I want to teach you from my own two hands, and how much can I still do?'"
He knows he's in for a prolonged battle. "They say this healing process could take up to nine months to a year because they reconnected nerves and stuff and you just don't know how they're going to grow," he told E! News in December. "I think they're starting to work, but I just won't know until we're further down the road." Though he can definitely tell he's making progress, "I don't know if I'm going to be 60 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent, hopefully 100 percent."
In better moments, though, he's able to appreciate how much worse it could have been.
"It went through my hand and through my two fingers, but if it was four inches lower, it would have hit my wrist and forget it, I could have bled out," he detailed to People. "You don't realize how close you were—or it could have ripped my fingers off. So much could have happened."
With a renewed appreciation for life, he finds himself grateful for the extra time with his family, despite the circumstances.
"My wife has been amazing. She's been a trooper," he told the mag, he and his bride set to celebrate their 20th anniversary this October. "I think that we kind of checked all the boxes. But after you have an injury like this, and your wife helps you dry you out of the shower, that crosses another level."
His entire brood has stepped up to the plate ("My family is nursing me back to health," he shared after his most recent procedure in mid-February), but it's not just their support that has proven invaluable. With well wishes pouring in from every corner of the internet, his four million-plus Instagram fans flooding his feed with prayers, "I've been really optimistic," he told E! News. "The fans and my family have been so good, cheering me on and supporting me. Giving me the love that they've been giving me. It's made me want to do more. It's pushing me to get better."
Even if that means batting, er, baking lefty.