(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
For over 25 years, Ron Ben-Israel has been breaking new ground in the decorated cake world, where his work resides at the intersection of fashion, edible art and a service business. With numerous stints as a judge on a variety of television food shows (Sweet Genius and Cake Wars, among others) and multiple appearances on other lifestyle programs, Ben-Israel finds himself most at home in his NYC-based cake studio immersing himself in a creative milieu and producing, by his own estimate, about 400 cakes per year, serving thousands of guests per season.
Catching up with him during his relatively quiet season (his peak times run from spring through early fall, when he and his staff of nine can produce upwards of 15 cakes per week), he took time to answer a few questions.
The Q&A with Ron Ben-Israel
What are you excited about at the moment in the world of cutting-edge cake design?
I am excited about many things. For instance, I am always in anticipation of the next high season, but am focused now on holiday-themed cakes. This stage of development and evolution is a little like having stage fright. Until we find solutions for the challenges we set for ourselves, it can be a bit unnerving. In particular, at this time of year, I focus on advancing and perfecting new techniques. I am always developing silicone molds, sourcing swatches of lace and other materials to add to our fabric treatments for the cakes, looking at marble for ideas about swirling color. Out of this process emerged a source of pride for me, a knitted cake where the texture of wool informed the visuals on the cake.
Where do you find inspiration for your cakes?
Inspiration is all around us; we just have to be open to it. I look to many different art forms, including dance [Ben-Israel was a professional dancer early in his adult life] and music (“my cakes should have a sense of rhythm and not be too static, needing to be visually dynamic but structurally solid”). I maintain a nice library of books on historical periods, fashion, furniture, French jewelry, all of which lead me to ideas I can apply to the cakes. I find inspiration in the draping of classical sculpture from Greek antiquity, as well as the patterns in Indian and Italian fabrics. Textural variety on a cake is everything to me. I dialogue with the stationery producers and calligraphers when the invitations for a wedding are being designed to create a cake that is congruent with their styles and ideas.
What about color?
I’m not a fan of super-white wedding cakes. I tone down the starkness by adding a bit of espresso to the Swiss buttercream. For non-Western clients, red and wine colors are appealing. Metallics spell luxury on a cake. Rose gold is popular now. You see this tone in rosé wine. Our goal is to please the customer no matter what.
What are your thoughts about the use of fondant in your cakes?
Fondant is the only thing we don’t make in-house. We use Satin Ice brand. But the key is to use very thin layers of it placed on very well chilled cakes (34° F), which are swathed in Swiss meringue buttercream. One-sixteenth of an inch or even less is my goal. It’s been fun to collaborate with Satin Ice, a company in New York state, to develop black and navy-blue colored fondants.
Inspiration is all around us; we just have to be open to it. I look to many different art forms, including dance and music.
What are the hot flavors for cakes and fillings nowadays?
The recent royal wedding cake featured elderflower, which spurred interest in a flavor that was previously unexplored. But dulce de leche is commonly requested. I always look to fellow pastry chefs to gain inspiration on flavor combinations. But when clients are ordering a wedding cake, they need to feel comfortable about the familiarity and accessibility of the flavors featured in the cake. Recently I had a customer who wished to use blueberry as a filling. My response: Why not? It’s perfect in a pie. Why not in a cake?
What about customers who have dietary restrictions?
In a service business, inevitably you must deal with allergies, whether real or imagined. Gluten, nut and dairy free are possible. But when it comes to sugar-free, I draw the line. I refuse. Sugar and I are codependent.
Speaking about customers, what are the challenges of dealing with the public?
Planning weddings can be stressful, and sometimes customers are just not being realistic when it comes to budget. I have learned to say ‘No” when a customer wishes me to miniaturize a cake to serve fifty guests that was originally conceived as a cake for 700. I don’t like people to be disappointed and need to be totally transparent about what their cake entails. I take the customer relationship very seriously – working with families, discussing their lives to gain insight as to their deepest wishes for what the cake means to them. As humans we are fallible, and we know that there can be conflicts. I have learned that you just have to step lightly, even where couples fight in front of me.
I’m not a fan of super-white wedding cakes. I tone down the starkness by adding a bit of espresso to the Swiss buttercream.
Any advice for new people entering the field?
Go to school. I could never afford to go to culinary school and therefore sought out mentors who welcomed me into their bakeshops and allowed me to practice my craft. I favor the old school mentorship or apprenticeship system. I disagree with anyone saying that they are self-taught. No one is self-taught. Everyone in the field has someone or many people who have influenced them, molded them, taught them. As someone who has learned much from others, it is my responsibility to continue that tradition of mentoring to move the art forward and to transmit what I have learned to others. I am really thrilled that pastry arts are continuing strongly. I love to hang out with other pastry chefs and help to build a sense of community. None of us works in a vacuum. We compete, which makes all of us better.