Duff Goldman didn’t set out to become a celebrity baker. “I got a degree in history and philosophy,” he tells Closer. “I think the thing about college is that I wasn’t really trying to learn something that I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. I was just trying to figure out how to grow up and how to become an adult.” The future Food Network star eventually found his footing in the culinary world and debuted on TV’s Ace of Cakes in 2006, where his charm, unbridled enthusiasm and ready humor made him a star. “When I’m filming, I really try to connect with the people at home watching,” says Duff, 49, who hosts two holiday competition series on the network, The Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown and Holiday Baking Championship.

Who inspired your culinary career?

“Oh man, lots of people, like my great-grandmother. A lot of her recipes are up on Food Network’s website, like her strudel and her babka. My mom was the one who really taught us that food was important. For all of the holidays, my mom cooked. When you grow up eating good food and then you get out and you go to eat at a friend’s house or you’re eating at school, you realize, ‘Wow, the food at my house is so much better.’ My mom was really instrumental in making sure I knew what good food was.”

When did you start cooking professionally?

“I started cooking when I was ​14-and-a-half, and I got my first job at McDonald’s. I later worked at a bunch of different fast-food restaurants. When I got to college, I wanted to be a chef, so I got a job in a really nice restaurant in Baltimore called Savannah. That’s where I discovered my love of baking. I really enjoyed it, and I could tell this was something I was good at.”

Do you do a lot of baking at home for the holidays?

“I actually start making all my Christmas cookie dough months early and get it in the freezer. If you spread out mixing the cookie dough over several months and keep it in the freezer, the cookies are still fresh when you bake them. I also make my great-grandmother’s Russian tea cakes. They’re traditionally made with pecans, but I make them with walnuts, which is how I make the recipe my own.”

Your daughter, Josephine, is almost 3. Has she started helping you out in the kitchen yet?

“She likes to add the salt, but you have to be careful because sometimes she’ll throw a big handful in there. We made our first ice cream cone at home and that was adorable — she got chocolate ice cream all over her face.”

What else does she enjoy?

“She’s really getting into Legos. She’s enjoying creating and building stuff, which for me is everything. The hardware store also sells these little wood projects. We built a birdhouse, a plane, a car and a castle. She’s very hands-on.”

Do you hope that she’ll follow in your footsteps?

“I think she’s going to be able to do whatever she wants. She’s a smart cookie. My wife is a fiber artist. She’s making a macramé hammock, so Josephine is watching that happen every day. She’s definitely surrounded by craft and creativity, so I have a feeling that she’ll be OK.”

One of your most popular shows is Kids Baking Championship, which you’ve hosted with Valerie Bertinelli. Are you close friends?

“Food Network did me such a massive favor when they paired me up with Valerie because not only has she become a really dear friend, but I’ve become so much better on television just from watching her. One of the things that make Valerie so good is she doesn’t feel fake or forced. She is who she is, and I’ve really taken that to heart. Valerie is always herself, whether you listen to her on Instagram or watch her on TV. She has become such a wonderful and positive person in my life. I am really thankful to have met her.”

What are you proudest of in your career so far?

“This might sound cheesy but it’s true — I do a lot of work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. These kids can literally wish for anything in the world, but they want to come and bake with me. I feel so humbled. When these kids want to come to my house and bake cookies, I feel like I’m really doing something right. There is no better validation.”

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?

“I think the secret to life is kindness and enthusiasm. If you have those two things, you can do anything you want. Kindness — I know it’s cliché — but there’s just a lot of anger and lack of civility right now. I feel like kindness is our only weapon against it. Positive thinking is the only choice because being negative or thinking negatively doesn’t get you anywhere.”

What do you do for fun?

“I play a lot of music. Right now, my father-in-law has a band. He wants me to play some songs with him, so I’m learning ‘Hotel California’ on bass guitar. I’m also on this crazy fitness kick. I lost about 40 pounds. I’m really focused on being healthy. I’ve been in the gym every day. I’ve been eating super clean. I’m not trying to start a fitness brand — I promise — but I have a fitness Instagram account called @beefcakecookie. It’s a really positive community. Everybody is cheering me on and giving me advice, and I give other people advice.”

What’s on your bucket list?

“It’s a big world! [Laughs] We love to travel. I want to go to South Korea. I love Korean ​food, and I love Korean people. It’s just a very warm culture. I’ve also never seen the Northern Lights. I think we want to go see them at some point.”

Do you have any other goals for the future?

“I would really like to write books. I’ve written cookbooks, but I want to try fiction. I have a few stories that I’ve kind of been working on in my head. I think I’d like to be a novelist.”