One-on-One with Master Pastry Chef Ron Ben-Israel
At his New York City studio, Ron Ben-Israel imagines, creates and designs towering, expertly adorned cakes for all occasions. But on the all-new series Cake Wars, this master pastry chef won't be in the kitchen, baking against the clock; rather, he'll be overseeing the contest as a lead judge. Each week it's up to him, fellow pastry chef Waylynn Lucas and special guests to dole out themed baking challenges that test the competitors' time management and on-the-spot ingenuity, as well as their baking prowess.
Recently FN Dish caught up with Ron at a special screening of Cake Wars at Manhattan's International Culinary Center, where he's an instructor, to chat with the judge about all things to do with sweet competition. From his favorite cake-frosting flavor combination to what he looks for in a well-designed creation, read on below to hear from Ron in an exclusive interview.
What can fans expect from the season? What are you most looking forward to?
Ron Ben-Israel: It’s a new show, actually. Even though it’s similar to Cupcake Wars, it’s bigger and better. You know, cupcakes look nice and cute, but they are small. Even when we talk about cake — four, five, six, seven tiers. In the main challenge, they get four hours to build a cake, and … the themes are so crazy, from The Simpsons to Hello Kitty to Girl Scouts. So we don’t want to see miniature; we want to see over-the-top.
Your cakes take hours — days, even — to make. Could you imagine having to turn out something spectacular in such a short amount of time?
RBI: The hardship is not so much the four hours; it's not being able to divide the task to a few days, because normally you bake the cake, then you chill [it] and you make the fillings … Here, everything comes together. But the reality is, if you have [the right] state of mind and organize, you can achieve what you want, and that was the hardest thing for me — not being able to go to the kitchens, because everybody has their own set kitchen, and say "Clean up, guys. It’s a mess."
What elements do you look for in an expertly designed cake?
RBI: Nobody wants messy food. … With cakes, if the cake is messy, especially a designed cake, which is what we spend so much time on here at the International Culinary Center … Another thing that bothered me is if you go a certain way and it doesn’t work, then you change the direction. The people sort of run over the cliff, insisting that that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Did you see any techniques or finished designs that truly impressed you?
RBI: I saw some amazing stuff that I want to actually incorporate in my own work. … It was just some people who were incredible. … A lot of the work spoke for itself and it was impressive. I just saw how they were growing, it was just eye-opening. And then, of course, you know, some people have to go home.
What's your favorite cake/frosting flavor combination?
RBI: I like, for myself, to do some unusual combinations. … A few years ago, actually here in the school, I introduced yuzu, which is a citrus fruit, so that was very interesting, but when I tried to sell it as a wedding cake, nobody would go for it. … But, personally, what I love to eat is ginger. Ginger has been always one of those fillings: ginger and citrus, ginger and coconut. So I like to experiment, and I’ve done things with lemongrass, but it never took off as a cake. Candied-ginger buttercream is one of my favorites.
Is there something — be it a flavor, ingredient or technique — that you think should never be presented on a cake? Something that just would not work?
RBI: Personally, I would not want to see bacon in a wedding cake, but it’s definitely doable. I like the herbs; I think herbs are a great thing that can be added.
What's it like working with Waylynn? Did you two have time to talk shop at all on set?
RBI: Of course, yes. Of course, she has a business in Los Angeles, Fonuts. So she would bring us the doughnuts for our review, and we pretended we were reviewing, but really we were just guzzling them. We talked about our history [of] running a shop.
What advice do you have for someone who's just starting out in the pastry world?
RBI: Well, ideally, they would come to school … at least come to tour [the] school. Like here [at the ICC] you can have a tour of the school and you can come and even monitor a class and see. That is the most-wonderful investment, but not everyone can do that. So the illusion that you can learn online, it's a fallacy. Most recipes and sources you find online are just [from] people who uploaded them. There are very few sites that you can trust. One is FoodNetwork.com.
RBI: So Dorothy Cann Hamilton [the founder and CEO of the ICC] called me here, and she tried to convince me to teach, and I really resisted, because I felt I don’t have enough time to leave the bakery. She was very adamant, and it’s important in this industry to take a position that is mentorship. And it’s not enough just to be in front of the students. So she convinced me, and I wrote a curriculum for the pastry classes, how to make sugar flowers. And that was really interesting, because it was the idea that you can bring specialty into the pastry. Pastry is so special, you know, and then you feel it and you also brought a lot of other things, like pulling sugar. … So that lasted for few years, and then I really thought that it was time to create a program that would be just about cake. But I couldn’t have done it alone, so I joined the other instructors here and we wrote very intensive course work, nothing like what exists anywhere else, in terms of the breadth of it. And it’s a 300-hours [course], so if you do it every day, it will take three months, but if you do it at nighttime three times a week, it will be a little longer.
Do you see a lot of crossover between pastry and savory cooking classes?
RBI: It depends on the students. Some people go for both, and they complete the savory and then go to pastry and then to cakes. Our restaurant manager actually did the cake. So in his free time he makes cakes commercially, and he also works as the restaurant manager, so, you know, there’s a lot of crossover, but I think few people would go to pastry and not cooking [school]. I always loved cooking and entertaining — it’s something I grew up on.