Cross-posted from JTA
As the minutes on the clock tick away, the chefs run about their kitchens furiously trying to complete their Taj Mahal-themed desserts.
“What have I got for you now?” booms the thickly accented master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel as he overlooks the chefs’ workstations. “Another mandatory ingredient — tahini paste!”
This is “Sweet Genius,” the hit Food Network show that recently began its second season.
Chefs compete to earn the coveted title, win $10,000 and impress Ben-Israel, the show’s host, judge and original sweet genius, who often asks competitors to include ingredients not typically found in desserts.
“When you talk about a level of skill and craftsmanship, the other cake purveyors in the city are in awe of Ron’s work,” says Ashlea Halpern, New York Magazine’s strategist editor. “He’s one of the best in New York. He’s perfected the model.”
Ben-Israel doesn’t like to focus on the genius moniker, however, and he was even a bit intimidated by the idea when Food Network proposed it, he told JTA in an interview at Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, his New York bake shop. He prefers to concentrate on the “sweet” part of the title and considers himself more like a guide to the show’s contestants.
For the few who impress Ben-Israel enough to also earn the title, the recognition – and prize money – can be a career booster.
When pastry chef Amos Hayon competed on “Sweet Genius” last season, he was on the verge of returning to his native Israel, having failed to make a living in the United States. After Ben-Israel crowned him a sweet genius and awarded him $10,000, things began to pick up.
In addition to traveling to food festivals nationwide, Hayon is a pastry chef at a restaurant on Long Island in suburban New York.
He calls Ben-Israel an inspiration both for his accomplishments as a baker and as a gay Israeli who realized his dream.
“He’s my guru,” Hayon says. “He gave me a lot of energy, power to do this. Somebody came before me, and I know I can do this also.”
Ben-Israel’s confections can be seen on the pages of Martha Stewart Living, People, New York Magazine and Vogue, and they are staples at such establishments as the Waldorf-Astoria, Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton.
Cakes have always been popular, says Ben-Israel, 54, but television has given bakers permission to make them the main attraction.
“In a bar mitzvah you do the candle-lighting ceremony with the cake. Every birthday the cake is the big moment,” he says. Now because of the growing pop-culture spotlight, “every cake-maker knows how important they are. I always knew it.”
The Food Network studios are a long way from Ben-Israel’s beginnings in Tel Aviv, and even further from his original career as a dancer.
He attended a Tel Aviv high school that focused on the arts, and then while he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the late 1970s, a friend got him interested in ballet. After completing his mandatory army service, he joined Bat Dor, an Israeli dance troupe.
Ben-Israel then began studying dance techniques across Europe, Canada and the United States. When he arrived in New York City in the mid-1980s, he says he knew he was there to stay.
“I really feel Tel Aviv has a lot, but everything in New York is just more,” he says.
In between applying for grants to fund his dance studies, Ben-Israel began picking up odd jobs designing store window displays and working in bakeries.
“Toward the end of my career, grants were drying up and I needed to support myself,” recalls Ben-Israel, who had grown up watching his Viennese mother make fantastic desserts. “I was able to come in [to bakeries] and observe – and with my ego, tell them how to do it better.”
At the age of 36, after 15 years as a professional dancer, he began baking full time. In 1996, while on display in the windows of Mikimoto on Fifth Avenue, his cakes began grabbing national attention and Ben-Israel soon started receiving commissions from De Beers, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf-Goodman.
The New York Times dubbed Ben-Israel “the Manolo Blahnik of cakes.”
In 1999 he opened Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York’s SoHo neighborhood with one oven and one mixer. As people fled downtown New York after the 9/11 tragedy, he was able to capitalize on lower rents and expand his operation.
Coming from a secular Israeli upbringing, Ben-Israel wasn’t ideologically interested in making his shop kosher, but for a caterer for some of New York City’s biggest hotels, it was a prudent business decision.
He chose OK Laboratories, the Chabad-affiliated kashrut organization headquartered in Brooklyn, which now certifies his shop’s pareve cakes.
The Chabad rabbis, Ben-Israel says, have a certain spirit that has ignited his own passion for Judaism. He never thought about owning separate Passover dishes while living in Israel, but now he owns a set, as well as a dozen Haggadahs, a shofar and a menorah.
“I became more sentimental,” he says. “It’s a matter of age, but also not being in Israel on a regular basis, I miss a lot of the traditions that are just natural in Israel and you don’t even think about it because you’re surrounded by Jews. So I had to distinguish myself.”
Jewish and Israeli cultures have certainly influenced the master baker. Challah, he says, is one of his favorite things to bake – but he doesn’t do just any challah.
“My version has olive oil, semolina flour, honey, and I make six braids,” he says. “It takes the whole day.”
As the son of Holocaust survivors, being Israeli and Jewish are sources of pride for Ben-Israel.
A “textbook second-generation survivor,” Ben-Israel remembers listening to his parents’ stories and realizing an emptiness within them that has trickled down to him. The creativity of baking helps fill that emptiness, he says.
“My parents were artists, so my salvation was to make pretty things – and ultimately delicious things at the same time,” he says.
In 2007, Ben-Israel designed a cake celebrating the 100th anniversary of New York’s Plaza Hotel, which the Israeli conglomerate Elad Properties had purchased earlier in the decade. The connection quickly raised his profile in his homeland. The chef tries to return to Israel at least once a year, and he would love to do an Israeli version of “Sweet Genius.”
While Ben-Israel no longer votes in Israeli elections – he doesn’t believe it’s right for him to vote if he doesn’t live in the country – he maintains a strong sense of pride in Israel and its accomplishments, especially in women’s and gay rights.
Still, he says, there is a long way to go.
“I always admire people in Israel who come out because it’s such a small place and everybody’s looking at you,” Ben-Israel says, noting that while he himself came out in Israel, being openly gay was common at the art school he attended.
Between running his cake shop, hosting “Sweet Genius,” and teaching at The International Culinary Center, founded as The French Culinary Institute, Ben-Israel appears to have time for little else. Still, he continues to seek new challenges.
“The Palestinians do cakes with the same products,” he says. “I’d be open to bridge the gap with sugar and cake.”