Ron Ben Israel not only makes breathtaking cakes, but he is also an amazing conversationalist. From a falafel stand in his backyard in Israel to working with Martha Stewart and having his own television show, with a fifteen year career in dance in between, Ron has had a long and fascinating career. Sitting down with him was like catching up with an old friend and we could have talked for hours.
The Chef’s Connection: Did you go to culinary school?
Ron Ben Israel: No, I started in my mother’s kitchen, which she did not really like because kids like mess and they don’t like to clean up after themselves, but I always played in the kitchen and I had a big sweet tooth, which I still do. I was very lucky growing up in Israel, all our neighbors were Polish, Hungarian, Viennese, German, Russian, so I got to taste a lot of those great European baked goods and I would read cookbooks, baking books like a detective novel. Then I went to art school, but I always cooked and baked, mostly baked.
TCC: Art school like art school high school?
RBI: For four years, fine arts, culture, so I learned a lot of the techniques that later on became very helpful for me, including sculpting. We learned how to do molds, so one way to set my cakes apart is to take pieces of the bridal dress and mold them in silicone so we’ll have customized molds to just fit a specific style. And then I became a dancer, so that was 15 years. Then it was time to retire. I was working in showrooms using my background, putting tabletops together, shop windows and so forth and bringing cake for the lunch break. And then the designer said, could you make some display cakes to show off the china and jewelry and that’s how it became my business. You never know.
I hate the term, I don’t believe in the term “self-taught.’ Inspiration is all around us it’s how you grab it. I couldn’t go to culinary school, I really wanted to but I found a teacher to teach me in class and privately and become a mentor. So there were two people. Betty Van Nostrand was a teacher at the CIA in Hyde Park and she took me under her wing and I would clean the classroom and assist and we befriended each other.
TCC: Did you live up there?
RBI: I would go up there three days, absorb, sleep in the basement. I would get a cake order and I would call her hysterically and say I just got a deposit, she says come over here we’ll work on this and then I’ll go back.
And then I also had a baking mentor, Rose Levy Beranbaum, who wrote the baking bible, the cake bible, the bread bible. So I wrote her and befriended her and I would just hang out with her, we’d go to tastings and just discuss the piece of cake, the crumb. So that was great and we still do it, it’s just great. But you have to seek them out. So many people come here and say, oh we learned it on YouTube. You don’t really, you need the hands on, especially when it’s a three dimensional object.
TCC: Did you work for other people?
RBI: I never worked for a cake maker. I worked in some bakeries learning how to make bread, basic cakes and how to ice cakes, but I was very impatient, I wanted to move forward. I did catering, I tried everything, I tried to be a short order cook which was a disaster. I worked for a very short time, for a week, for Brandon Walsh, who was a great, he brought in Southwestern cooking, and I tried to work in the lunch service and he took me aside and he says, look, we cannot have twenty people wait until you finish decorating the plate but it’s perfect so maybe you should go to the area of decorating. So he pushed me in the right direction and of course I resented it at the time.
I also saw a job opening for a cake icer in a bakery, I don’t remember the bakery, but I went and the lady was very kind. She gave me a carrot cake and cream cheese icing and she told me to ice this cake, and I’d never iced a cake but I thought I could. The crumbs went into the frosting, it was just a big mess! She was very gentle and she said maybe you should take some classes, and that’s how it starts.
TCC: So people pushing you in the right directions. Did you think you wanted to do savory?
RBI: No, savory was like ,I did catering but I always wanted desserts, there was no question.
TCC: Did you think you wanted to do it in a restaurant setting?
RBI: No, I needed to pay the rent but a lot of things happened. Even with the cakes, I didn’t think it was going to be a business. I continued doing the shop windows, and then there were cakes of mine that were displayed in Mikimoto, the pearl store on 5th Avenue, so people walked by and started going to the store and instead of buying the pearls they would ask about the cakes. One of those people was Martha Stewart, and she started a wedding magazine and she invited me to make cakes for the magazine and she started saying you really need to do it professionally, so she was very helpful.
TCC: What was the first job you had in food?
RBI: My first job was a falafel stand when I was 9 years old in the backyard. It was very exciting, I was the founder and executive chef.
TCC: In Israel they have falafel stands instead of lemonade stands?
RBI: I made it, I don’t know if other kids did. I took everything from my mother’s kitchen when she was at work and I hired other kids to help me, and then after we made the falafel they would line up, and they would give me a dime and I would sell them the falafel.
But what happened is the whole thing was based on an oil burner, it’s really a true story, so hot oil on an oil burner in the backyard, and one of us kicked the oil burner and the whole shack, which I built, and food burst in flames. My mother was called from work and the fire department was there and the police. I thought it was very dramatic and I couldn’t care but I was forbidden from opening another. I did it for a few days and it was exciting, it was in summer break.
I had to wait until I was 11, and then I took a summer job. An American man came to Israel and started a pizza parlor, but the American Italian style, the round pizzas. So he taught me how to throw the pizza in the air, and it was in an open space, and everybody came to watch the kid who was throwing the pizza in the air. I realized that performing and food are very similar and you just have to have a gimmick.
TCC: Do you still have a good toss?
RBI: I haven’t done it in years, but I’m sure I can try. So people ask me often did you ever drop a cake, it’s relating to the toss, and I did not drop a cake and we never really do. I’m very particular and I always say, here’s what can go wrong let’s avoid it. And that’s a good way, it’s a fanatical obsessive way, but it works in pastry. You know that something will defrost so you look at that, but what I do do, I used to get angry and throw pieces of cake at my employees and always missed because they would duck, so then I would have to clean the mess. That was in the beginning when there were a lot of mistakes and I was fast with it, so I had to set up systems for myself and I took a lot from my mom actually, even though she didn’t make those elaborate cakes. She would make Viennese strudel, like an apple strudel. But I remember the way she made schnitzel. She would have three matching bowls, they had to be the same, one had the eggs, one had the flour and one had the breadcrumbs and she would go from left to right, and she would work like this so you never get the crumbs into the wrong bowl, and there was a nice hand movement.
Same thing with crafts and arts, and when I get to make sugar flowers or ice a cake I use very similar analysis of movement. And by the way, the guy who taught me finally how to ice cake with buttercream used to be a gym teacher and so he had a similar path like me. Then he switched careers, so he would teach us how to ice cakes in a very physical way. Not like I want the goal to be like that, but how are your shoulders raised, are they tense? So I use that to analyze my work with my students. My students become employees. I stopped throwing cakes at them and we just kept developing the techniques together, so there’s always improvement, there’s always new things to discover.
In the last year or two we started doing watercoloring with food dyes on the cakes. So I use the same mix and the same brush as I used to use on canvases but now on the cake, but you cannot use water on the cake because it will melt the fondant so we have to use very high proof alcohol that evaporates immediately, so adjustments like this.
TCC: When you were a kid what did you want to be?
RBI: A trapeze artist.
TCC: Have you done that ever?
RBI: No. I wanted to be so many different things. The reason I was interested in arts was I wanted to do sets and costumes for theater, but I also wanted to perform. I always danced and did folk dancing, modern dance things like that. I needed to be doing something, something physical not just cerebral.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing about being in this industry?
RBI: It’s a funny place because I get to work obsessively, I get to plan, I get to have orders in advance which makes me feel wanted because there’s something about the retail bakery industry which is very difficult. You have to make a stock, make all those pastries and open the doors and wait for people to come. Making custom cakes, people come to me a year in advance. So it makes me feel wanted, of course they have to come in, and then I have a goal and I have a deadline. Having a deadline is really good because then I will figure out how to do it. If I didn’t have a deadline I would not be doing it.
And then it’s getting attention, which is always very important, I’m not going to pretend. We are very lucky to be in a time that pastry chefs started taking the right place in the industry and now cake makers are getting that. Social media is wonderful for that, Food Network. And I also get to make people really satisfied. I’m like their drug dealer for sweets, so it’s very satisfying all around and people, I get to be part of their special days, their special celebrations.
TCC: Did you have an aha moment?
RBI: Absolutely not. It’s just following different things and whenever, you know I tried many different things that didn’t work, not in the food industry but ventures and all that, and you fall, you get up, you brush yourself off and continue. You know I got a lot of rejection, I can’t say that there was one thing. My teachers were wonderful, and I immediately befriended colleagues and students who took the same classes with me and we formed friendships and also associations.
For the longest time we had a group called Baker’s Dozen East, east because there was Baker’s Dozen in San Francisco. We would organize, we would bring experts for lectures, I started doing competitions but serious ones, not televised, but the ones that have a jury. French based so you have a jury and they give you points and they tell you how you can improve yourself. I loved it. And now I get to judge once in a while, which is a big honor. So you just continue doing things, and then I followed hopefully what would work, but there was a big resistance in the industry. When I started people were not necessarily kind
TCC: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
RBI: From Rose Levy Beranbaum, to reduce the amount of sugar in baked goods. I was already measuring in grams, but that’s the advice I would give to people, to weigh, to get a digital scale and weigh everything. In terms of decorating, Betty told me to create my own formulas for the sugar decorating paste, for fondant and all that. So instead of using what was in class, because my hands were strong and experienced and everything was very soft for me and I needed bigger and faster because I was used to clay, she told me to work on a formula to change it to my needs, which really started a lifelong path.
And my advice for people would be very much the same. Learn the classical techniques, adjust the recipes and the formulas, keep adjusting, find mentorship. Don’t ever use the term self-taught, it’s disrespectful and who would want to teach you if you claim later that you’re self-taught. You learn wherever you are, but many times what I see that people post, I learn from in the negative way. I learn what not to do because I know it’s not going to work or sometimes I do get good ideas, but really hands on is the right way to learn, it pays off. And that’s why we hold classes here, so people can learn directly from me and my crew, they get to absorb the whole environment and see the stages.
TCC: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten or put in a cake?
RBI: I had for three seasons a show on Food Network called Sweet Genius. Everything that we used is a favorite of some region, some people, it’s just not my personal favorite. There’s a Mexican fungus that grows on corn, Huitlacoche, to find it in a dessert it wasn’t so bad but we use a lot of fungi. Korean black garlic. I could use it savory, but to put it in dessert… So I never really ate anything disgusting, but to use it in dessert is a challenge. The strangest thing I’ve put in cake, I don’t think I put strange things in.
TCC: You haven’t had anyone request something really weird that they love?
RBI: Not really, nobody has because everything that people bring up I’m actually interested in and like. There’s some things I would not do because I don’t think they are good enough. For instance, there’s the ricotta filling or the so called American buttercream, which is based on powdered sugar, I will not do, it’s not the real Swiss or French or F=Italian buttercream, which melts in your mouth, but that’s a professional decision but nothing is really disgusting. all wonderful, ethereal, delicious stuff.
TCC: What’s your favorite ingredient?
RBI: I love spice in desserts especially ginger. I love candied ginger, ginger juice, ginger bread. But my one favorite ingredient it’s not for flavor, well it does impart flavor, is yeast. So my true passion, which I don’t get to sell commercially is yeast baking, sweet cakes, kugelhopf is my favorite, favorite ever.
TCC: Do you make it at home?
RBI: I make it for myself, for holidays. I make challah, my six braid challah is a two day process.
TCC: What ingredient turns you off the most, what do you dislike?
RBI: Powdered sugar.
RBI: Powdered sugar is, you take granulated sugar, which is produced directly from sugar cane or beets and it’s pure, you get pure sweetness and the crystals dissolve in baking or in syrups or in buttercream, but once you powder the crystals there’s not way to reconstitute them. If you add liquid to them, such as egg yolk, egg whites, you have royal icing, which is cloyingly sweet and pasty, it’s great for decorations, it has its place. If you try to reconstitute it into a buttercream you basically get toothpaste because it’s pasty, it will never melt again. So powdered sugar is my favorite ingredient for decoration because we it to use make our dough, our fondant, but for eating no.
TCC: What’s your favorite tool?
RBI: I have a few very simple ones, you would be surprised, I have a porcupine needle that was given to me that I use a lot for marking in decorating. I have a sharpened wooden dowel that I cut and I use for a lot of flowers. I have metal ball bearings soldered to a nail, crazy simple stuff. And then we have things that are thousands of dollars, like the most sophisticated scales and sheeters that are thousands of dollars.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking?
RBI: Eating? And going to Broadway.
TCC: Have you seen anything great lately?
RBI: Yes, The Band’s Visit. Everybody sounded like me, I loved it. My other favorite show is Off-Broadway, Sweeney Todd. It’s in a converted small theater to look like an English pie shop and you actually eat pies made by Bill Yosses, who used to be the pastry chef for the White House. It’s at the Barrow Street Theater in the Village. Because it’s a small setup, you sit at bakery benches and tables and you eat your pies. No microphones, small band, it’s just amazing. I’m taking twelve bakers, a dozen, to the show on Friday night so we’re going to occupy a whole table. We’re going to see the pies being baked before the show, it’s very interactive, I highly recommend it. I could go on and on.
TCC: What would you like to do before you get too old to do it?
RBI: Be a trapeze star, not really but I want to go to trapeze school.
TCC: Tell me a secret!
RBI: No! A secret, I’m not a secret kind of person, I give too much sometimes. I’m not secretive. But my secret is, I have secret crushes! Well, it’s not a secret because everybody knows I like to be on stage. So I don’t have secrets.
TCC: How do you deal with the stress?
RBI: I work out three times a week with a trainer for an hour and a half. I really get transported when I watch performances. I set up deadlines that continuously I don’t always meet. And I vent. I complain!
TCC: Who would you like to meet?
RBI: Well actually, I met people that are very important for me. I met Chita Rivera, who’s a legend, and Tommy Tune. So I had opportunities to meet people I admire like Barack Obama, but I didn’t want to because there were hundreds of people and I brought the cake two weeks ago, and it wasn’t the right opportunity. I don’t necessarily hunt celebrities so I have to think, I mean, I like people who perform, these are the people who are the most fun to meet. And also I get to serve a lot of people through cake, politicians.
TCC: I also want to ask who would you like to cook for so I guess for you they kind of go hand in hand.
RBI: Well I already cooked for the Obamas, in terms of politicians, let’s see who are up and coming. You know what, I feel very satisfied and many times I say no if they’re unrealistic in their expectations. I wouldn’t jump, I would jump for a colleague and it’s happened many times when a restaurant, a location needs a last minute thing I will jump, a chef friend, Dominique Ansel needed to have a big cake made and there was no space in his kitchen so we did it for him which was fun, but I would not do it for somebody who’s a celebrity
TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn or is there something you’re still trying to get right?
RBI: Handling employees, it’s the hardest thing, it’s true!
TCC: How many employees do you have?
RBI: Eight or nine including me because I’m an employee so nine, and then we have three or four interns on a rotating basis from the culinary school the pastry program, some international, so every three months we have to incorporate new people and audition them and so forth. I teach here, if you can imagine that. We do occasional mini master classes for three days, four or five times a year, and then I teach at the International Culinary Center for many years now. I also travel, I used to teach before I got this place, but now I mostly lecture for large crowds, hundreds of thousands of people. Both motivational, mostly Jewish ladies and the federation, they’re wonderful.
I want to tell you that there were some things that were very meaningful for me. I got to meet the children, now they are adults, who played the kids in Willy Wonka the movie, the original, but I did not get to meet Willy Wonka himself Gene Wilder because he was a recluse, he lived in Connecticut, but I didn’t want to burden myself, but because I did the tv show and the kids were invited. To meet Charlie, who’s now an adult, and he hugged me, that was really special because the movie influenced me a lot. I got to meet the kids who played in the Sound of Music. I got to meet Belle from the original Beauty and the Beast. so I get to meet significant people, which is nice.
TCC: Is there something you do with family and friends to make up for the time that you’re busy making cakes?
RBI: No, I really don’t. I do Passover, Rosh Hashanah, I do the big holidays.
TCC: Do you have family here?
RBI: I have like an adopted family that we became. So I do the holidays, some at my house, but yeah, we definitely commemorate year after year.
TCC: How did getting into this industry change your life direction?
RBI: Well it gave me direction, which was lacking after I stopped dancing. The discipline, the direction, the technique.
TCC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
RBI: There isn’t one, because the great thing is to know that I look ahead to the spring and fall season 2018, and we are getting booked, and people are expecting our cakes, and we’re designing it, so the fact that it’s not one highlight but that it continues, and I always say my favorite cake is the one we’re gonna do next season because it’s still exciting. There’s a base, so it’s not out of the blue, but you don’t really know exactly how it’s going to happen.
TCC: Do you have future goals like books or anything like that?
RBI: I would just like to continue doing what I do. I would love to have another TV show that would feel authentic and incorporate things that I believe in.
TCC: How did your tv show come to be?
RBI: They sought me out.
TCC: With the idea already?
RBI: Well the base idea of inspiration, and then we talked it through, but you know when you do a show the network, there are executives, producers, so my voice was very small in the beginning, basically none. I just chose my outfit. And then little by little I was able to give more ideas, but I had to play nice. I didn’t know much about the medium. I knew how to demonstrate to the camera because I did things with Martha Stewart but, I didn’t know how to interact, and that’s something that takes time, so I was respectful and I obeyed.
TCC: Was it a good experience?
RBI: Oh yeah. I mean it was difficult, very difficult.
TCC: What’s a tip that bakers should know?
RBI: Well, in baking, I am a strong believer not in the creaming method that most books do, but in the commercially inspired one bowl method where you cream the butter with the drys, cream the fat with the drys. You get better crumb. Use salt in every baked good. Many times it’s what is lacking. I will try chocolate cake by a colleague and you just don’t get the full chocolate flavor. I also believe in reducing the dairy next to chocolate, so we have a lot to learn from vegan baking when they don’t use milk, cream or butter but they get amazing intense chocolate flavor. We’ve been using alternative liquid with chocolates such as soy milk, coconut milk, to get ganaches, fruit purees.
TCC: Do you have a lot of people coming in with dietary restrictions?
RBI: They come in with dietary restrictions but not necessarily vegan. Gluten free…
TCC: Have you been doing that?
RBI: The results are amazing. They’re very costly because you have to use a complex mixture of flour. They are organic, hard to source and they become rancid much quicker because they are not processed, so they are better for you but commercially it’s more of a cost.
TCC: Did you have a long development process to get your gluten free cake?
RBI: No, I think there was a lot of information and enough chefs have experimented. It’s harder to do kosher certified cakes.
TCC: But you do them?
RBI: We did it for many years and we’re actually seriously thinking for the first time to drop them because the restrictions on ingredients are so high. I have to say, it was always a privilege to do it and we have a wonderful supervisor and we invested a lot in it, but fewer and fewer of Orthodox parties are interested in investing in a grad cake. It was the opposite when I started. The biggest cakes were the kosher cakes. Now, I hear things like, let me have a small serving cake, so it’s sort of the market.
TCC: What do you use that’s not kosher usually?
RBI: Everything we use is actually Kosher. Everything that comes into the bakery, and it’s going to continue, I don’t want to use gelatin that is not, we would use fish gelatin for instance or agar agar. I’m not going to change my own rules. The thing with the Kosher is that the market is changing into gourmet cooking with Kosher, which I appreciate, but in terms of cakes we’ve noticed a big decrease and it’s a market that has to sustain itself because it’s so expensive to have the supervision.
TCC: What’s the typical timeline for a cake?
RBI: Most people start investigating half a year to a year in advance. We want them to come in when they have made some decisions about colors and numbers, but the crunch time is three to four months before, so it’s pre-season. But of course, we will do last minute. Brides generally come to us three months, half a year, even a year in advance.
TCC: Like the dress.
RBI: Right, it’s a process. They do their own research on Pinterest and Instagram, which is nice, then they come in and we try to get to know them and customize. For instance, people go on our website, and a bride brings a picture of a grand cake with a peacock. I love doing peacocks, but what’s the relationship? She’s getting married in a barn and everything is about eucalyptus and ferns and twigs. We try to bring back the process of customization of everything and making an original cake and it’s a process. Some people insist that they know what they want, but just like a wedding dress or a tuxedo, you come in and you change your mind. And then we have to sketch, then the whole process of making sugar flowers, and wood parts and structure to support the cake, it’s a process. You can’t do it at the last minute.
There was a bride whose aunt was a famous designer and the bride married a Greek prince. So the whole wedding dress was supposed to look like a Grecian fantasy and we worked on the cake with that. So she comes from Greece for the last fitting two weeks before and she changes, she didn’t like the dress, so a new dress had to be made which meant a new cake design to match the dress
TCC: And the making of it?
RBI: The process of completing the cake really starts months in advance with the planning, It’s just like the Israeli army, you make plans and a lot of lists and sketches. We would sketch in a mechanical way, not for the clients to see, but with measurements, and there’s a few things that can be made in advance: the poles and all that can be made in advance, we have a separate workshop for non edibles, and then sugar decorations are better made weeks and weeks in advance when you’re calm and you can do a quantity.
TCC: How long do they last?
RBI: They last forever, with us they last for a few weeks but you can, we save things. I used to save my teacher’s flowers but we shuffle them around, but some of them are really old. We see from our clients that most of them like to save the top tier for their first anniversary, so they keep all the sugar flowers and they send us videos and photos a year later and they’re perfect, so it’s quite amazing. But sugar is a natural preservative so when it’s dry, unless there’s moisture, it will last technically forever.
So we do all those things in advance, then in the beginning of the week we will do things that can last for weeks and weeks as long as they’re refrigerated: buttercream, reduce the fruit purees until the raspberry is like a compound, it’s really thick. We would make syrups, we would toast nuts, chop things. Then you can start baking the cake. If you have a good, professional formula, you can start baking the cake layers in advance if necessary, we don’t really need to. And then the assembly takes about two days with the idea that we have a 24 hour window, so towards Thursday and Friday is the crunch time. We refrigerate everything, so all the stages in different refrigerations. You have moist refrigeration for the cake layers, and then when the cake is covered in buttercream, fondant and decorated it goes to a dry walk in refrigerator so it doesn’t sweat. Then it gets crated, labeled and goes out.
TCC: What are your favorite flavors that you guys do or what are the best sellers?
RBI: My favorite flavors are totally different than what are the best sellers. So my favorite cake is green tea cake with candied ginger buttercream. Nobody likes it, but they allow themselves to, they do it for me for my birthday. The most popular cake flavors are chocolate and vanilla cake, split down the middle, a lot of people combine the two. For buttercream, the most popular flavors are salted caramel and just chocolate. We use Valrohna dark chocolate. We actually get a very specific and we have collaborations. Our classes are also in collaborations with Valrhona and they bring their chefs here and they teach the inside of the cake.
TCC: So how many flavors do you show at a tasting?
RBI: At a tasting, I think we have 16 or 18 different things. Here’s the issue: we have a huge range but we learned not to give a list to the clients because they would choose a hundred and fifty to taste, which is impossible, it’s like an ice cream parlor, we have to narrow it down. And then they would taste things that they love but, too bad that I cannot serve it. Why are vanilla and chocolate the most popular? Because they’re recognizable. For years, I did a lot of cakes with nuts, almond and pistachio. Everybody who tastes them loves them, but recently they haven’t ordered because they’re afraid of allergies. Then we have seasonal things also, like a spice cake for the fall, a citrus cake for the summer, but you’d be amazed, even though people devoured them they’re still apprehensive because they have to serve a large number of people.