The judge has spoken … and eaten
Famous for his elaborate wedding concoctions, pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel joins the fray on Food Network’s 'Cake Wars.' Plus: The surprising arena he wants to tackle next.
One of the world’s pre-eminent special occasion cake designers, New York City-based Ron-Ben Israel creates edible showstoppers for weddings and other events. But on the Monday night Food Network competition show “Cake Wars,” it’s up to the contestants to come up with the cake concoctions that he judges for creativity, presentation and flavor.
Given a theme and specific, often unusual ingredients to incorporate, the competitors “have everything they need to make a magnificent, fantastic creation,” says Ben-Israel, who was impressed by the use of hot Sriracha in the Mexican-wedding episode but less so with a cola and cherry combination.
“If the cake is magnificent and you’re disappointed with the flavor, it’s worse than being disappointed with the look. The flavor is more important,” the Israeli-born baker told From The Grapevine in an interview.
Sitting at the “Cake Wars” table with pastry chef Waylynn Lucas and the guest judge of the week has been a fun learning experience for Ben-Israel, who enjoys watching the contestants work. He finds it relaxing compared to his previous Food Network show “Sweet Genius,” which he hosted and judged. “As exciting as it was, it was very difficult,” he says.
A frequent guest on Food Network shows over the years such as “Sugar Rush” and “Top Five,” Ben-Israel gained a new appreciation for the contestants who face a ticking clock when he was talked into competing on “Chopped” after he judged an episode. He found it so tough that he vowed not to compete again, but relented, agreeing to participate in a celebrity chef edition of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” airing Sept. 6. “I’m so glad I did it,” he says. “I was much more relaxed, and I had the best time.”
He loves the fact that families can watch and learn from shows like “Cake Wars.” And as a big supporter of the nonprofit City Harvest, he’s thrilled that Food Network supports hunger charities in New York and Miami and donates leftover food items to the hungry, as he does in his custom bakery, Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in Manhattan.
Juggling TV appearances, the cake design classes he teaches at the International Culinary Center, and his 15-year-old bakery business is, well… a piece of cake. “I like to work, and I like discipline and repetitiveness. I stick to a schedule,” he says, noting that he learned about commitment and scheduling from his mentor, Martha Stewart. She discovered him when he was designing window displays and invited him on her TV show many times.
As a boy in Tel Aviv, Ben-Israel “was exposed to baking growing up, playing in the kitchen” as his mother baked, but didn’t make it a career until 1993. First he studied art and set design, became a dancer, and traveled the world. He vowed to return to New York to live – a promise he fulfilled, though he goes back to visit family in Israel a couple of times a year.
“I’m very happy to be both an Israeli and an American citizen,” Ben-Israel says. “What l love about America is people can always change careers, go to school, reinvent and redeem yourself. The American dream really exists.”
These days, he’s best known for elaborate special occasion cakes that he adorns with sugar paste flowers, lace and jewels, dusted in edible gold. He also makes cakes for special events, like the 12-foot-high edible edifice he created for the Plaza Hotel’s 100th birthday, a project that took 17 people more than a month to complete. It was his most elaborate and expensive assignment yet, but he could top it if he gets to make the buildings he’d like to attempt: the White House and Versailles.
Ben-Israel’s fantasy to-do list also includes a live theater show “that has to do with cakes” and continuing to teach and learn. Besides Instructing at the Culinary Center, he takes classes himself, learning from experts in molecular gastronomy and other techniques. But he’s most enamored of the TV milieu, which he finds interesting, interactive and very theatrical. “There’s a lot going on and it’s very exciting for me,” he says. “I would like to continue with it."
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:
Related Topics: TV