03 Aug Ron Ben-Israel Master of Cakes
Ron Ben-Israel is truly a master of his medium: cake. Some might say (understandably) that his creations are too beautiful to eat, but they’d be missing out, because this dancer-turned-pastry virtuoso creates cakes as delectable as they are visually stunning. Declared the “Manolo Blahnik of wedding cakes” by The New York Times, Ben-Israel is known for his shop’s breathtaking and sculptural sugar flowers. Ron was recently featured in the paper of record, which captured him shipping an oversized commission to Palm Beach, Florida.
When he’s not crafting the perfect custom cake for a client’s special occasion, he’s training the next generation of confectioners as Guest Master Pastry Chef at the International Culinary Center in New York, or donating his time and efforts as a member of the non-profit City Harvest’s Food Council. You’ll also find him hosting his sugar smackdown show, “Sweet Genius,” on the Food Network.
Clearly, he’s busy. But Ron was generous enough to chat with me about his work, his influences, trends in weddings today, and so much more. Enjoy!
When did you realize you wanted to be a pastry chef? And what did you do about it?
Honestly, I didn’t. I never made a conscious decision. I was always involved in baking and pastry. I started in my mother’s kitchen and I was always fascinated by the process. I loved watching. My first passion was Jell-O; it was miraculous to me…My mother is from Vienna and a lot of our family and friends are from Hungary, Germany, Eastern Europe, and they all used to make those amazing tortes and cakes. But I didn’t pursue it; I went to art school then I became a dancer. But over the years I always made cakes and people where so excited and said to me, “Could we hire you to do that?”
Whose work has had an influence on you?
When people started asking me [to make cakes for them] I realized I needed to put some thought and direction into it so I sought a mentor. I didn’t go to pastry school but I found a wonderful woman named Betty Von Norstrand. She teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and I met her in a cake shop when I went to buy some cake pans. I started taking classes with her in a little shop in New York and later I would travel and study with her privately. [We would] discuss all the possibilities and the history of decorating cakes. It happened very organically.
One of my other mentors was Rose Levy Beranbaum…I never thought of making cakes as a profession partially because the cakes I would eat at catering events and weddings tasted so vile. It’s a little bit better now but there was conflict between “pastry chefs” and “cake decorators.”…So-called “cake decorators” would make cakes that were practically hard on the outside, that would sit at room temperature and were not edible at all. Meanwhile, you had [pastry chef] people who made good cakes, but those had to be refrigerated and didn’t have all the decorations. There was a big conflict between them and I to accomplish in my cake [both] the inside — the flavor — and the look. So the person who influenced me a lot [in that respect] was Rose Levy Beranbaum, who wrote a few best sellers, among them is The Cake Bible…I had Betty [influencing me] on the decorating side and my work was really to put together those two worlds.
How do you know when a project is a success?
Because I am an artisan, I do work for hire. It’s not like an artist who decides to make something — it’s a different process. I serve a purpose. I am a servant in a way, and I humbly accept the title, so the success is the client being happy. Ultimately it’s about the celebration. It’s also a relief because my work is not hung in a museum; it’s not designed to reflect my inner soul… I also work in a community. All the venders that work on an event — the florists, the people who bring the tables and chairs, the lighting, the fashion, the other food — all these are part of what you would call a “good event.” I realise that I am part of a bigger whole and it’s not all about me. People have suggested that I should sign the cakes or have a logo on them. I want the style to speak for itself.
How long does it take to make one of your cakes?
It’s an interesting question because on the one hand, we have to complete everything within 24 hours for a cake to be fresh and delivered on time and so forth, and we are working to deadlines that come one after the other, so there is no way for us to make a cake too long in advance. But on the other hand, it takes a long time. For instance, the process really starts when we meet the client and we start to discuss the initial project, that happens a month in advance, sometimes it’s years.
When we start the design process there may be sketches back and forth, a process which I call “collecting the evidence.” We will get swatches of the lace and the beading from the dress designer. I will speak to the floral person. [We may look at] textures of the furniture, invitations, stationery, any special lighting. We recently did a wedding cake which was inspired by the streams of light over the dance floor…Once we have all that we also internally have to work on scheduling and figure out how to do it…A lot of the stuff can be made in advance because it’s not that perishable. All the cakes have an internal architectural structure that we can start working on: cutting boards, shaping cake stands. In the confectionary room we can start making flowers, leaves, decorations, ribbons, and bows — things that will last for months and actually take a long time to shape — which then allows us to approach the baking and assembling of the cake while it’s still fresh.
How big is your staff? Does it expand and contract according to the seasonal work?
I wish. But because the staff is so valuable, it really takes years to develop. We have eight people including me right now. Everybody went to pastry school. After school they come to me as interns and the internship can last between three to five months. If they do well as an intern and there’s an opening then they will be hired and work their way up.
What does it take for someone to have the stuff to work in your shop? What do you look for?
It has a lot to do with personality…When [applicants] send in their resume they go on about their passion. The requirement is much simpler: we need to see if the person really wants to learn and has the ability to do that and to adapt. So amazingly enough, the people who work best have no previous background. We’ve found that people who were athletes are really good in the kitchen. People who were dancers or performers, because they have the natural ability and need to rehearse and do things again and again. People who look for perfection…You can’t be so cocky that you would drop a cake because of over-confidence, but you can’t be so scared that you will never attempt to lift it. So it’s really about personality and of course talent…Sometimes you have talented people who can maybe draw but they’re not necessarily going to have a sense of urgency which is required [when working] with perishable media like cake…The reality is in order to get to the fun part — which is decorating the cake — there’s so much more going on and it’s very hard to get there by yourself.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your field now and what are some of the most exciting developments?
You can buy so many different tools online now and there are so many companies that produce tools that make cake design more accessible. I want to say it’s wonderful and it is, but on the other hand it’s less challenging…Everybody can make the same work at home, but that’s what happens — it all looks the same because people are not making their own tools…That’s a big pitfall. It’s wonderful that the industry is developing but you see a lot of copycats…Even when I find a recipe in a book I still work and develop it to make it my own; I won’t just keep repeating the same recipe…But there is a strong tendency with Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to just see something and then do it exactly the same way.
What are some of the big trends you’re seeing in cakes now?
Our trends are organically grown in collaboration with all the other vendors. For instance…a few years ago Vera Wang did a wedding dress that had a black satin ribbon around the waist of the bride. It was a big scandal on the runway to see a bride with black but it was the hottest thing, so we started doing cakes with trims of black and they were very successful. Then I had one bride [who asked us] to do her cake in black icing with white details. The wedding was in the Gramercy Park Hotel and the dance floor there is all black and white and it was the perfect setting for the cake. So now doing cakes in black is almost a signature for us. They’re still very delicate and very bridal, they just have a strong contrast.
Then last season I started working a lot with grey…I started seeing bridal dresses that are grey, more and more grooms were wearing grey suits…It’s definitely a trend.
Swiss dots never go away — that’s little dots on a grid — but usually it gives you a very cute feeling, like an apron. But if we are doing the wedding in a very contemporary location such as the Mandarin Oriental, I would suggest we increase the size of the dots to be like buttons, and then the whole thing becomes super contemporary.
The past couple of years: metallics. The movie The Great Gatsby was a great example, so everybody had more metallics in the decor, in the outfits, and definitely in the stationery and registry, so that was a natural thing to bring to the cake.
How has reality TV impacted what you do?
I think it helps tremendously…People realise that it takes a lot to make a cake. I’m very happy about that….It gives people a glimpse into our industry. Some of my colleagues believe that maybe those shows make people believe things are easy but I don’t see it like that. I think it exposes the drama.
Scroll down to see more of Ron’s amazing work, and check back here soon for Part Two of my interview him!
All photos courtesy of Ron Ben-Israel Cakes