Baker’s cakes are gravity-defying, just like his life

[media-credit name=”Photo by Lily Rothman” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Ron Ben-Israel in his Greene St. bakery.

BY LILY ROTHMAN  |  Ron Ben-Israel, a big macher in the world of wedding cakes, had a question for Martha Stewart. The Soho-based baker already enjoyed a longstanding professional relationship with her, so, when he ran into her a few months ago, Ben-Israel took the chance to ask: How does she do it all at once?

“She rolled her eyes,” he recalled, “and she said, ‘I have a schedule, we put everything on the schedule, and then I stick to it.’ ”

Sticking to a schedule is nothing new to Ron Ben-Israel, 54, whose life and gravity-defying cakes have always required expert balance. He runs his eponymous bakery, at 42 Greene St., that produced a wedding cake for “Sex and the City 2” and a 100th-birthday cake for the Plaza Hotel. But the chef’s toque is far from Ben-Israel’s only hat. He has been a soldier, a dancer, a window dresser, a dog walker, a caterer, a teacher, an entrepreneur and a self-taught IT expert.

This year he added a new duty to his list, the reason he sought Stewart’s advice: “Sweet Genius,” a Food Network dessert-making competition that will tape its second season this winter. The first season finished its run this fall, and Ben-Israel is the show’s solo host and judge.

Not that he’s complaining about the extra work.

“I thrive on it,” he said. “I can’t afford to be bored.”

On the morning after the airing of the final episode of the first season, a Friday, the busiest day of the week for a wedding-cake company, the atmosphere at Ron Ben-Israel Cakes was calm. The studio is an airy, top-floor space, where almost everything is white save for silver appliances, the blue shining through the skylight, and the rainbow of sugar that covers the cakes displayed around the room. Although he still shudders when he thinks of seeing himself on television, Ben-Israel was pleased with the way the episode turned out.

Each episode, during which four chefs compete for a $10,000 prize, took one full day to film. Ben-Israel was up at 5 a.m. and the last to leave the set, he said.

While the show was filming he had to clear his schedule. That was no small feat. He couldn’t teach his classes at the nearby French Culinary Institute, at Broadway and Grand St., or work on the custom-designed cakes for which he is famous. That’s where his eight-person staff came in — and, of course, the schedule. His teaching agenda was planned a full year in advance and cakes are, preferably, booked a half-year ahead of the wedding.

The Israel-born baker has long had to maintain a complicated calendar, since his many roles have had a tendency to overlap. He discovered dance while he was in the army, when a friend took him to a ballet class.

“I was wearing my uniform for the whole thing,” he said.

Then, while traveling the world with dance troupes, he took on cooking work to pay his bills between performances. He was in New York and 36 when a slew of injuries forced him to retire from dance and pick up odd jobs, including cake decoration.

“People started offering me money for my cakes and that was a total revelation,” he said. “If I were to plan what would be the best for me, I wouldn’t be doing cakes. What I planned was to continue dancing and teaching.”

At the beginning, he would get an order and then, after the design was confirmed, learn how to make the elements needed for the cake. He would work in the middle of the night in rented caterers’ kitchens. Even after he got a space of his own, he had to bake while wearing a phone headset, taking calls and making appointments. Although the business has since expanded, he still fills many roles — for example, on that particular Friday morning, two of his chefs were out sick and he played “understudy” for both.

Not that he’s a dilettante. He takes each of his many roles seriously, or else he wouldn’t do them.

“It’s hard for me to do anything casual,” he said. “A few years ago I did gay tango class and it was so amazing that I immediately registered that night to do every night a tango class, and I had to withdraw because I can’t just do it as amateur.”

Between his many responsibilities, “Sweet Genius” was a bit of a break. He likened taping the show to going to a play or teaching a class: a time to leave the cakes behind for a moment.

“It was a relief,” he said. “To turn off the phone. To be.”

Kathleen Collins, the author of “Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows,” noted that shows like “Sweet Genius” promise to be popular well into the future.

“You can just tell that the popularity is seeming not to sate at all,” she said of cooking competitions.

Given that, even Ron Ben-Israel realizes that he can’t do everything.

“It’s just lots of little details that kind of pile up, pile up, pile up, pile up, pile up,” said Rebecca Taylor, the operations manager for Ben-Israel’s business and brand, with a laugh. “So we’re like, we need help. So we’re bringing that extra help in. We’ve admitted it and now the next step is getting it.”

He’s still a master of multitasking, but heading into this winter’s television tapings, and for the first time in his life, Ron Ben-Israel said he would hire an assistant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *