Ron Ben-Israel on Changing the Course of Wedding Cakes
"When I was younger it was about a reaction to what was of the age... Now I don't have to rebel, I just have to do fun stuff."
It's hard to peg pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel when you watch him on Sweet Genius, the competition show where he throws absurd savory ingredients into the dessert mix or proclaims with the clock ticking, "Your pastry must be inspired by this clown!" Is his smile genuine and warm, or sort of spooky?
In person, though, Ben-Israel radiates joy, which seeps into both the towering wedding cakes he makes in his Soho shop and when out congratulating other chefs for their own achievements. A veteran of the Israeli army and then a successful ballet and modern dancer, he landed in the States, where decorating cakes for shop windows brought him to Martha Stewart and a fruitful new career. To this day he seems a bit taken back that his success in the pastry arts led him so far, even to his obtaining his American citizenship. But surrounded by layers of dense cake enrobed in sugar and bedecked in flowers and ribbons, it's pretty clear that Ben-Israel may just be a genius, and is definitely very sweet.
You lived a very full life before you stepped into a kitchen, having been in the military and then the ballet... But they weren't that different. If you survive a dance company you can work in a professional kitchen. If you worked on the stock exchange floor you can work in a kitchen.
Because of the constant pressure, the physicality? Yes, and the idea that you have deadlines.
What did that teach you that aided you in pastry? It taught me to practice, and not to give up, and to do it again and again. Everybody here likes to repeat. It's like Broadway people who do eight shows a week—you do the same thing over and over again and then do variations and look at things in a different way to try a different approach. But it's the repetition that makes it.
Do you get the same thrill presenting a cake as taking a bow? The performer tries for the same thing every night but it's always new for an audience. And so are my cakes! Every cake is like an opening night. I'll never get the exact same rush as performing, but I definitely get the same satisfaction. I get to interact with the celebrants, the people that do the flowers, the tablecloths, the chef's menu; so many people are involved in those events, so it feels like a company. Everyone makes it together.
Did you recognize this connection when you started in pastry or did it develop? What many don't realize is you need to have some life experience to deal with customers. Usually people are excited or stressed about their event, so I love to have people converse with me, and be easy to relax them. Brides tell me everything, things that I blush to hear! You're pregnant? Tell me! But it's fun. When I was younger I wouldn't have been able to do it because I was too self-centered. Now I really realize that we work in a village.
Brides and grooms can be a bit demanding for the particulars of their big day. Did you have to set up parameters, even for yourself, of things you will or will not make? Yes, from the beginning. When I was younger it was about a reaction to what was of the age. I would say, "I don't want to do wedding cakes with those plastic columns!" If I was going to do an Acropolis, I would make Greek columns out of sugar or chocolate. I also don't put anything inedible on the cake. We'll only put a bride and groom on top if it's an heirloom, and other than that we make everything from scratch. I worked a lot with sugar ribbons to replace the satin ones that were put around cakes—I took something classical and updated it. Just by opening your eyes, you make something different.
Did not providing certain elements stall your career in the beginning or project it? To reject those traditional pieces gave me five years of work just figuring out how to do them in my own way And setting up those parameters was very good, because I could recommend other people who did the things I don't, and other people could recommend me as a specialist. Now I don't have to rebel, I just have to do fun stuff.
You also reinvented sugar flowers. Where was the source of that rebellion? The only reason I was fascinated by the flowers was because they're made out of sugar dough, and so I don't do botanically correct flowers and nature is just the inspiration. I care less about how many stamen there are, but I do care about the movement. I did folk dancing in Israel, so when I look at the cakes I like a cake that is very tall and symmetrical and serene, but then the decorations—the flowers, the ribbons—will have movement. So there's a sense of horah!
How do you keep reinventing in a genuine nature, versus aiming to establish or follow trends? I think being genuine is a necessity—if something doesn't come from my nature or inside myself, then I won't do it. I have an internal need to do something different; not "new" all the time, but variations. And I need to be hands-on; if I end up having a full day in the office I am truly miserable, and I make Elizabeth promise the next day that I can be in there with the cakes. I need to make things.
Do you feel like you're a very patient person? Ach, no!
But here you have a team spending hours folding tiny flowers out of sugar in very particular ways, and one cake takes months of planning. I have discipline, but my nature is not patient. I've learned to postpone immediate gratification. It's a practice, it's zen-like, so maybe that's what this kind of work is good for me. It teaches me to be patient—there are so many variables and a science to it. Then again there are people who, no matter how much they learn or try, their cakes don't rise. I don't have an explanation, it's just true. But the people who just have to bake, do.
You have a very genuine and joyful energy about you, every time I've met you, actually. Where does that start from? The chefs that I hang out with have similar qualities—there's a want to give and feed people. Where does it come as a person, who knows? Partially though, maybe it's survival. You have to have some gratitude and inner peace in order to live in this town, right? To enjoy it? I'm older now, maybe that's it. It takes time to mature and come to things. But thank you for that energy, because I don't always feel it—I just always work.