Food Network star dishes on Martha Stewart and the state of marriage equality in California
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | GSD Reporter
Openly gay pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel is taking the Food Network by storm as he wields his expertise as the sole judge on “Sweet Genius,” a theatrical reality show that has quickly grabbed the imaginations of LGBT and heterosexual audiences alike.
Airing at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, the hour-long episodes spotlight four contestants in confectionary showdowns occurring under the imposing gaze of Ben-Israel, who utilizes a post-modern conveyor belt for sending peculiar ingredients and zany themes that competitors must incorporate into their dishes. Those mandatory elements have ranged from Cheese Puffs and baby formula to wheat grass and taro root.
For contestants who best tailor their creations to the designated inspiration, such as a ballerina or disco roller skates, the reward is $10,000. Conversely, losers are told with a steely stare by Ben-Israel, “You are no sweet genius.”
An advocate for marriage equality, Ben-Israel’s rise to fame began in the late 1990s when Martha Stewart discovered his detailed wedding cakes in the windows of Mikimoto in New York. Soon after, he landed on her show demonstrating his signature life-like sugar flowers while building his “million-dollar empire,” Ron Ben-Israel Cakes. In prior years, he served in the Israeli Army and toured the world as an accomplished dancer.
While dashing between third-season tapings of “Sweet Genius” and creating cakes in his New York studio, Ben-Israel took a breather to reveal a few secrets about the show, his personal life and his support for marriage equality in California.
Frank Sabatini Jr.: At what point in your career did you come out?
Ron Ben-Israel: I was never in. I didn’t know how to hide it. And of course, I suffered because of that. So my solution was to become outrageous. In the Israeli Army, I basically shot my gayness in everyone’s throat. I’m different now. I’ve become comfortable in my professional life.
FSJR: What lead you into pastry making?
RBI: I fell in love with a chocolatier when I was training as a dancer in Toronto and writing dance reviews for the gay magazine, ‘Body Politic.’ He was my inspiration and he showed me that it’s possible. Unfortunately he died after our relationship ended.
FSJR: Is ‘Sweet Genius’ a self-proclaimed title? Or was it given to you by others?
RBI: It came from people running ideas. I’ve known producers at Food Network for years by making guest appearances. It’s a very fun name now that I look at it, since I’m looking for the sweet genius in other people. I prefer to call myself a baker or master pastry chef.
FSJR: In the first season of the show, your persona was austere, if not a little scary. What led to the more playful format we’re seeing now?
RBI: It’s not that I have changed at all. In the first season only one aspect of my personality came through. I’m just myself and I’m enjoying much more as to how involved I am. I always wanted to do something fun, which takes time to develop.
FSJR: Do you choose the mandatory ingredients and themes for your guests?
RBI: It’s a whole teamwork. I’m impressed by how many people actually work on the show: 60 to 70 people on the set. It’s like a huge theater production
FSJR: What are some of the most outrageous ingredients you’ve introduced to your guests?
RBI: Bone marrow, and the results were astounding. Also duck fat, which I use when making matzo balls. It has a wonderful smoky quality to it, but in a chocolate cake, it gives such a different dimension. Who would have thought?
FSJR: Have sales for your wedding cakes spiked significantly within the LGBT community since the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state?
RBI: Remarkable. We’re coming up in July on the first-year anniversary of gay marriage in New York. A lot of couples that wanted to take the time to plan their weddings are deliberating this spring and summer, and we’re also planning for a great fall season.
FSJR: How much do the cakes cost?
RBI: The product I sell is a luxury item and costly. If you have 100 people, they start at $1,500. We also deliver by cold vans to the states around us. Anywhere further, the cakes cannot be shipped by regular methods. They have to be secured in crates, refrigerated and flown in private jets.
FSJR: What are your opinions regarding the state of hold of same-sex marriage in California?
RBI: I think it’s tragic. It’s just horrible. Prop 8 was such a blow. I was very, very upset. Eventually I believe that it will move to full legalization. I’m a supporter of Lambda Legal Defense, donating 10 percent of the cost of every same-sex wedding cake in New York State to Lambda. Every time a same-sex couple gets married, it’s a political action with us, opposed to heterosexuals. Every same-sex couple is a hero here.
FSJR: Have you been to San Diego?
RBI: I have never been, but I would be delighted to go. I hear that you have some great wedding locations.
FSJR: Do you still work with Martha Stewart since she discovered you?
RBI: She’s been a great supporter all along. I’ve been on the set of her show a few times and we mix socially at times. I find her to be delicious. If I tell her to do something fast [or] do it better, she’ll be a good girl. You can’t be wishy-washy with her.
FSJR: Are you single? And if so, would your ideal partner be someone who is savvy in the kitchen?
RBI: Yes, I’m single. Apply through the Food Network. My ideal partner would have to be savvy in a different department.