Ron Ben-Israel treats all of his clients like they are celebrities. And although the cake designer has earned the rank of celebrity baker, he never calls himself one. “I think that the reality of daily life working in a bakery is humbling because the cake either rises or not,” he said.
More than 20 years ago, the Israeli native, who pursued modern dance professionally, moved to New York to perform. After retiring, he began to create designs for shop windows, one being the Japanese pearl mecca Mikimoto on Fifth Avenue. His sweet tooth led him to bake during lunch breaks, and soon he was asked to create cakes to decorate the windows. “And lo and behold, people would walk into the store and ask about the cakes, not so much about the jewels,” he explained. One of those people was Martha Stewart, who admired his work so much that she not only featured it in her wedding magazine and on her television show, but encouraged him to start his own business.
Ben-Israel’s resume now includes a stint as the host of the Food Network show “Sweet Genius,” teaching pastry at the International Culinary Center (ICC) and contributing to City Harvest. On March 28, Ben-Israel will join more than 100 wedding service providers at New York magazine’s annual New York Weddings Event, which will be held at 180 Maiden Lane this year.
How did your foray into cake design come about? I was a modern dancer for 15 years, so worked here and performed all over the world. And then, towards my retirement, I needed to find new sources for income. And, actually, I went to fine arts school, so was doing designs for showrooms and shop windows in the tabletop industry. And the designer asked me if I could create cakes to enhance the china platters. The reason it came about is because for lunchtime, I would always bake something. So I made some display cakes and also did cakes for the window of Mikimoto, the Japanese pearl store on Fifth Avenue. And lo and behold, people would walk into the store and ask about the cakes, not so much about the jewels in the window. And that was very funny because I knew that I had to find new ways of reinventing myself, but didn’t have a clear direction. And then, because people kept asking me for cakes, I figured, “Let me give them cakes.”
How did Martha Stewart change the course of your career?One person who called me was Martha Stewart, and she was starting the wedding magazine. And we had a wonderful rapport and she actually suggested that I start a business. She’s very industrious and we got along fabulously because she likes to make things. And I found that she was really good. The interesting thing with Martha, every chef can tell you, is she likes to learn. She’s very inquisitive. So if you know what you are doing, she will totally become like a sponge and will learn. And she’s very respectful to people who know what they are doing. So I really didn’t know that much, but she saw something. But I also think, for me, the flavor of the cake was very important. And at that point, wedding cakes were not that attractive; they were pretty boring. So, she responded to the fact that I was looking for new flavors and combinations. Like, I remember I made her a carrot cake, but mine had white chocolate frosting, which I brought from my travels. She featured me in the magazine, on her TV show. She took my cakes to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Tell us about your wedding cakes. We have a look; we start with classic. But very contemporary classic, meaning everything has to be neat, clean and refined, like a garment coming from a fashion house. But the idea is in the colors. Years ago, for instance, we started doing cakes that were iced in black. Last year, we did navy blue wedding cakes. And a popular color is grey.
How do you stay focused while creating such intricate designs?Actually, the cake work is very calming for me. The stress is with the clients and the deadlines. But the cakes themselves don’t talk back to me. It’s very relaxing and meditative. But I do meditate. I go to a place in the Village on East Eighth Street called MNDFL. And I also work out; I do a system called gyrotonic three times a week with a trainer.
The largest cake you ever made was a replica of The Plaza Hotel. How long did that take?The cake portions had to be baked that morning, because we fed over 1,500 people. So the street surrounding the cake, what looked like the sidewalk, was fresh cake that was made that day. The cake itself was empty inside, just like The Plaza Hotel, it’s really built around a courtyard. But the process of making the sugar shell, that took months with a crew of 17 people. I hired everybody I knew. All my past students and interns cooperated.
You also made a cake for the movie “Sex and the City 2.”That was a very interesting project because it was sponsored by Swarovski. I was brought into their headquarters here and could pick whatever I wanted to adorn the cake. So I felt like I was escaping with a pirate treasure. That was a very, very expensive cake. It’s one of my most copied cakes around the world. I remember the cost of the crystals was over $28,000. Most people cannot afford it for a wedding cake, so buy cheaper, plastic jewelry. But we used the chandelier crystals and I still have them, by the way. I saved them for a rainy day.
In an interview, you said in New York people won’t stop you, but in airports around the country, fans ask for your autograph. What happened was in “Sweet Genius,” the Food Network insisted, especially in the first season, to make me into a scary character. It’s true, in New York, people are most respectful of your privacy and they don’t bother you so much. But in the past few years, I’ve done a show called “Cake Wars” and it’s much more friendly. People in the subway ask for selfies. Also, when I did “Sweet Genius,” we didn’t have Instagram, only Facebook and Twitter. Now with Instagram, people do quick selfies. But definitely much more in airports. If I ever felt depressed, I could go to an airport and get photographed all the time.
What advice do you give your students at ICC about pursuing the craft professionally?It’s very seductive because of the Food Network and the internet. Some people call themselves celebrity bakers or chefs. I think that the reality of daily life working in a bakery is humbling because the cake either rises or not. So what we teach in school besides giving the information, is actually discipline. And that discipline I got through my arts training, dance training and through the army as well. And that is invaluable ... This is the advice I concentrate on, how to develop and enjoy the discipline. It’s very comforting to be able to do something repetitively and be successful in it.
To learn more, visit www.weddingcakes.com and weddings.nymag.com