For Wedding Week, who better to interview than wedding-cake guru Ron Ben-Israel? He magically transforms sugar and spice and everything nice into elaborate cakes coveted by brides (and maybe a bridezilla or two) around town. We called him up and asked about trends in wedding-cake design, and about his transformation from dancer to baker.
So you were formerly a dancer. What attracted you to pastry arts?
I was always involved with it because as a child I always baked with my mom and was interested in the magic of it. The action of baking was just fascinating and I had always felt comfortable in the kitchen. I had to retire at 36 from dancing and needed a new career. I had also gone to art school before that. I was doing many jobs: styling, dressing models in Bryant Park, photographing, catering, baking, and everything. It fell into place.
Do you see parallels between the two forms of expression, that is, dancing and cake making?
With dancing you have the repetitiveness and daily dedication. The coordination of body and eyes. With cakes you need hand-eye coordination. And you ultimately self-train, and I was able to take some [cake] classes and found people who became my mentors. I wasn’t spoon-fed. At the French Culinary Institute, where I now teach, I spoon-feed the kids, and that’s a luxury. I learned in the trenches.
Where did you cultivate your aesthetic?
I didn’t learn cake design. I learned that in art school. What happened was that I realized what could be done in sugar. At that time, it was very static. The colors … there was lots of pink and peach and the sugar flowers were not attractive. But I started looking at fashion, and nature, the seasons. I was in the right place at the right time, and people responded to my fresh look.
And how would you describe your cakes?
The overall aesthetic is that you have collections as opposed to cake A, B, and C. They have a certain logic. I wouldn’t do a cake I did years ago again. I really like the cakes to relate to something, whether it’s a feeling or something the bride wears. The cakes I made for Martha Stewart wouldn’t work well for the Plaza Hotel. And the neatness. I hate mess! For me, every crumb, every smear of buttercream, every petal flowing with movement has to be neat.
How much does an average cake cost?
Fifteen dollars per slice and up. So for 100 people, $1,500. Sometimes more, sometimes less. People know what they get for that price.
What is the most popular type of cake to order?
Flavor-wise, there are no limitations. We’re seeing a return to larger cakes. People in the past three years have been scaling down and so the cakes became smaller. But last spring people wanted eight-tier cakes. And I’ll do it if it makes sense. If it’s a tiny wedding a large cake is inappropriate. And I’ll make a cake that doesn’t taste like a wedding cake. If someone says a cake tastes like wedding cake, it’s wrong. I’ve created new techniques like using Swiss meringue buttercream. Each season we have the classics and we do something new. I like cake fillings that have texture. I did chocolate pearls inside icing; it’s Belgian chocolate that enrobes a little cookie and adds crunch. [My cakes are also] very seasonal; for the fall, people responded really well to our light spice cake with green apple filling. Who would have thought of that! And now we’ll do a brown sugar cake. We have no limit.
So is plain old vanilla cake the most boring thing in the world to you?
A good vanilla cake is so unappreciated. It can be poetry in your mouth. But we’ll do contrasting flavors so each cake will have a different taste. Really, my cake is a plated dessert and not a cake.
Do you ever get sick of cake?
No, I love doing them! I love making sugar flowers! What tires me is the grind of the business: paperwork, swatches, invitations. I love the connections with the other vendors and the florist and the tablecloth maker. I could do with more help in the paperwork department. There’s no substitute for the personality and time, though. I started humbly and [my business] grew and grew and grew, and it’s still growing. And now with my teaching, I get revived all the time because I’m introducing new people [to the craft] and they’re growing and it’s a very positive experience.
Tell me how to make a beautiful sugar flower.
Oh, you need to have good instructors. You can’t learn from books. You need a good mentor. Seek out teachers. But a good sugar flower will have extremely thin petals and I like to follow the movement of nature. It’s not as important if you don’t have the right number of stamens, but follow the poetic sense of nature. Either you have it or you don’t.
Check back in tomorrow, when Ron reveals the weirdest cake he ever made.