On the program, which recently began for a second season, Ben-Israel judges a competition wherein pastry chefs seeking to make a name for themselves prepare original desserts within an allotted amount of time. The winner of the contest gets $10,000 and the prestigious title of ‘Sweet Genius.’ Achieving a victory on the show is not that easy, as the host often requests that the competitors add particular ingredients to their confectionary creations that are not ordinarily used.
The select few contestants who are declared winners by Ben-Israel are likely to find their careers suddenly taking a major leap forward. Amos Hayon had left Israel to find his fortune as a pastry chef in America, but success was eluding him. Getting the coveted chance to compete on “Sweet Genius,” Hayon’s impressive baking skills earned him the top prize, and he has been reaping the professional benefits ever since. He has been displaying his talents at food festivals around the country, and he is working as a pastry chef at a Long Island restaurant. “He’s my guru,” Hayon says of Ben-Israel. “He gave me a lot of energy, power to do this. Somebody came before me, and I know I can do this also.”
“When you talk about a level of skill and craftsmanship, the other cake purveyors in the city are in awe of Ron’s work,” commented Ashlea Halpern, strategist editor of New York Magazine. “He’s one of the best in New York. He’s perfected the model.” The master pastry chef’s baked wonders have been presented in such top magazines as Vogue, People, New York, Modern Bride and Martha Stewart Living, and have been praised by Oprah Winfrey. They are also regularly served at such elite venues as the Waldorf-Astoria, the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. Ben-Israel himself has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Today Show, and he has been the focus of articles in the New York Times and the Zagat Survey.
Ben-Israel’s luxurious cakes are tasty artistic masterpieces, made to order for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other special occasions. They come in a wide range of styles, from grand configurations with delicate, realistic-looking sugar flowers cascading around the cake to elegant, abstract shapes stacked askew. Every single cake is fully customized to the specific customer’s desires.
According to Ben-Israel, while cakes have always been a favorite dessert item, television has enabled bakers to raise their status even higher in the public consciousness. “In a bar mitzvah, you do the candle-lighting ceremony with the cake. Every birthday, the cake is the big moment,” the 54-year-old wonder baker says. “With the advent of shows such as ‘Sweet Genius,” every cake-maker knows how important they are. I always knew it.”
Ben-Israel’s career started out on a decidedly different path, however. Following up on his attendance at an arts-based high school, he became a member of the Israeli dance group Bat Dor, which inspired him to study dance techniques across Europe, Canada and the United States. While continuing to pursue dance studies, Ben-Israel took on such miscellaneous jobs as designing store window displays and working in bakeries. “I was able to come in [to bakeries] and observe — and with my ego, tell them how to do it better,” says the man who grew up watching his Viennese mother bake mouth-watering desserts.
After fifteen years, Ben-Israel made the switch from dancing to baking, and – with the help of a window display at Fifth Avenue’s Mikimoto – his cakes began receiving national acclaim. Before long, Ben-Israel was getting assignments from De Beers, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf-Goodman, and the New York Times was calling him “the Manolo Blahnik of cakes.” In 1999, the budding superstar of pastry creation founded Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York’s SoHo section, and gradually expanded the fledgling business into a first-class operation.
As a secular Israeli, Ben-Israel was not naturally inclined to focus on kosher food production, but he soon realized it made good market sense to do so. The decision to recruit the OK Laboratories to certify his pareve cakes turned out to have a long-term personal impact on Ben-Israel, as he became inspired by the supervisory organization’s Lubavitcher rabbis to revisit some aspects of traditional Judaism. The baker extraordinaire now owns separate Passover dishes, 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 sentiment has had some influence on Ben-Israel’s baking style as well, particularly with his fondness for baking challah. “My version has olive oil, semolina flour, honey, and I make six braids,” he says. “It takes the whole day.” On a deeper level, the master baker has been affected by his status as the son of Holocaust survivors. “I’m a textbook second-generation survivor,” Ben-Israel states. “I remember listening to my parents’ Holocaust stories and realizing an emptiness within them that has trickled down to me.” He feels that the creativity of his specialty baking allows him to fill that emptiness. “My parents were artists, so my salvation was to make pretty things — and ultimately delicious things at the same time,” he muses.
In 2007, Ben-Israel designed a cake that commemorated the 100th anniversary of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, which the Israeli-owned Elad Properties had bought several years earlier. That assignment generated more attention for Ben-Israel in his native land, leading him to speculate about possibly hosting an Israeli version of ‘Sweet Genius.’ While the celebrated pastry chef has ceased voting in Israeli elections – believing it would be wrong for him to do so as a full-time United States resident – he continues to take great pride in Israel and its accomplishments.
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