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2012 October 16

From The Daily Brides: Cake King Ron Ben-Israel

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(NEW YORK) Reigning pastry king Ron Ben-Israel has been whipping up sugar flower gâteaux since the late eighties. How does he manage to stay on top? By pumping out 400 couture confections per year, maintaining a pool of industry besties (Vera, Reem, and Martha), and securing a top secret collaboration with a buzzy handbag designer, for starters. BY MARIA DENARDO

Were you really a dancer for 15 years?
Yes! I worked steadily and I loved it, but I wasn’t really a big star. I had to leave due to my age. If I could, I would still be dancing! After I left, I was struggling in New York, so in the late eighties I did a lot of different jobs, like dressing models backstage at New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park for $15 an hour or walking dogs.

How did you land in cake design?
One of my odd jobs was working in catering services and bakeries, but nothing really stuck. One day, we were catering a wedding, and I didn’t like the wedding cake. It was all peach—very late eighties. I got a little drunk, and I said, ‘I can do a better one!’ When I went home, I designed my first cake. It was lopsided and I didn’t know how to structure it, but it was delicious. That’s when I decided to study.

When did your cake business take off?
While I was still working at the catering kitchen, I’d pull double shifts to design cakes. Nearby, there was a lamp store; I displayed some of my cakes in their window. I also had a couple cakes  on display at Mikimoto on 5th Avenue. People started seeking me out and ordering them. Low and behold, Martha Stewart saw one of my cakes in the window and called me. That was how I was discovered.

How did you react when Martha called?
I thought it was a joke! Once I met her, I forgot to be nervous because she’s obsessive about working. She said, ‘You have the talent to do this. You should open a business! Call this guy in Rhode Island and tell him I sent you. He’ll give you a good price on an oven.’ Then she invited me to her home and showed me her own!

The New York Times once called you the Manolo Blahnik of cakes.
I showed the article to my dad in Israel and said, ‘Dad, look! The New York Times!’ He said, ‘They should have said that Manolo Blahnik is the Ron Ben-Israel of shoes.’

How have you impacted the industry?
The insistence of always looking for inspiration that fit the wedding became my trademark.

What’s your earliest cake memory?
I always liked cakes, and I had the best ones growing up! My mother was from Vienna, and she’d make an Austria-Hungary torte. It doesn’t rise like a butter cake, but it just disappears on your tongue because it’s all egg whites. You know how you always search for that lost memory? As I was studying cakes, I was able to recapture it.

What’s the secret to your longevity?
For many years I was the new man on the block, and the industry was dominated by women. I was the guy who delivered the cakes and wouldn’t stop talking to the florist and the waiters and getting feedback from the chefs. I also visited the design ateliers, from Reem Acra to Amsale, because we’d often share clients. I’d watch how they made gowns, how they cut the fabric, what happened during fittings. Naeem Khan would send us a piece of fabric to study, and we’d send it back. There have been a lot of cross references. I’m crazy like that, and I crave it.

Do you ever attend your clients’ weddings?
Less and less. But when same-sex marriage became legal in New York, I attended a couple, since they were so groundbreaking. It’s easy to bond with people when you’re eating sweets. I always go to set up the cake though. When I’m done, I tend to eat or go to the movies.

Do you eat cake every day?
Yes! My team and I also cook for each other and have lunch together.

Thoughts on groom cakes?
I love groom cakes! It’s the bride’s time to roast the groom, but it’s also the first gift he gets as a husband. New York weddings are usually not big enough to have a groom’s cake, so it’s something extra that’s served at the rehearsal dinner or at the brunch the next morning. There are lots of sports themes and tongue-in-cheek designs, like a pair of dirty sneakers with fake chewing gum on the bottom. I’m working on a wedding now with two grooms. They have two grooms cakes, a wedding cake, and a massive champagne-shaped cake for the brunch the day after. Wedding vendors love same-sex marriages and are looking to them to revive the wedding industry.

What’s the weirdest cake you’ve ever made?
We have a wonderful client whose birthday is on Halloween, so every year, we get worse and worse. At first it was ghouls, witches, and pumpkins. But I was running out of ideas, so one year, we created severed body parts made of cake. Another year, I designed a cake with a tombstone that said ‘Rest In Peace, Your Youth.’ That was received less kindly.

What about the largest cake?
We’ve made wedding cakes that are seven feet tall over the table. We have cakes that descend from the ceiling in theaters. The cake I designed for the 100th anniversary of The Plaza Hotel was huge! Martha Stewart directed a documentary about it. It was 12 feet tall and eight feet wide. It cost $60,000.

How many pounds of butter do you go through per week?
We ordered $1,069.99 worth last week; that’s about 288 pounds. And we went through 111 pounds of chocolate last week. We haven’t even spoken about eggs yet!

How do you stay so fit?
Gyrotonics three times a week, and I eat a lot of vegetables and salads. Then, I have a piece of cake!

Is it difficult to transport your cakes?
Driving cakes to the Hamptons is always a challenge. Some clients will send helicopters for them. But we fly cakes all over the world successfully, even as far as Sri Lanka.

Do brides ask you for cupcake cakes?
Yes, and I refuse! If you’re a kid and you’re going on a picnic, you have a cupcake. I want something complicated and composed.

How did the recession affect your business?
We still maintained the same number of orders per year, an average of 400, but the scope of the weddings went down. A wedding for 300 people would downsize to 100. That meant the size of the cake—and the profit—declined, too. Luckily, the demand for me as a culinary teacher grew during that time, because people who lost their jobs on Wall Street would enroll in classes. That’s also when I started appearing on The Food Network’s Sweet Genius.

Do you get recognized?
All the time! I love it.

What has been your biggest lesson?
I was here, in my Soho studio, on 9/11, and I watched it from the roof. We had nine orders that week. Except for one wedding, which was supposed to be down around Wall Street, we delivered all the cakes. It taught me that anything can happen, but ultimately, it’s important to continue to celebrate life. I don’t ever want a cake of mine to fail, but it gave me perspective that no matter what happens, we’ll manage.

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