Ron Ben-Israel Interview
(Ron Ben-Israel Cakes)

His cakes have been described as “One of a kind”.
They’ve been featured in such prestigious publications as the New York Times, New York Magazine, Daily News, In Style, and Modern Bride to name just a few.
The man behind these cakes is Ron Ben – Israel, who has been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC News, Fox News, CBS “Eye to Eye”, and CNBC “How to Succeed In Business”.
His clients include some of N.Y.C’s premier hotels such as The St. Regis, The Pierre, The N.Y. Palace, The Waldorf Astoria and The Plaza.
Among the celebrities he created cakes for are Vanessa Williams, Uma Thurman, and Leona Helmsley.
Ron Ben – Israel took some time out from his busy schedule to talk about his business.

Q – Ron, you were a professional ballet modern dancer for 15 years. How did you make the transition from a dancer to a specialty cake-maker?
A – It wasn’t really planned. What happened is, I was getting old enough for retirement as a dancer, which is around age 30. Even though I enjoyed a successful career, I could see the sign on the wall and I was getting too old to do the 12 month tours that give you a regular salary. So, I would do more seasonal work and cameo appearances. It’s a terrible thing to think at age 30 that it’s over after you put in so many years of effort. But, to support myself, because I was always interested in food, I actually fell in love when I was working with a co. in Toronto, with the chocolate business. I watched how they made those bon balls and poured the malt chocolate. It was fascinating. I said what could I do? Could I give a hand? So, somebody needed a replacement for two weeks, so, the chef said, why don’t you come and work with us for two weeks? And since then, I never really left. I would do it seasonally between dance gigs. When they sold the co. I was proficient and had the passion to say if you really want to do that, you have to go to France. So, the first time I went there was an opening in a small co. that of course was non-profit. I didn’t make much money. I was interning in a restaurant in Lyon and that was in the mid 80’s. Everything was very visual. So, I started interning doing the old-style European way to study which is to work with the chef and start your way up, as opposed to going to school. To support myself I think I learned in Canada how to make delicious brownies, which nobody in France had. I started baking and selling to restaurants-----those brownies. And all of a sudden, not only was I an o.k. baker, but, I also had a knack for selling my own wares. On and off for the next few years, that’s what was going on. A few years later, I was also fascinated with the visual presentation of food and desserts. We have those big conventions, trade shows specifically in New York at the Javits Center. There’s an organization that has 700 different exhibits; wedding cakes, ice sculptures, butter, molding and things like that. I met a person who became my mentor. Her name is Betty Van-Norstrand. She was the first woman to break into the culinary field in the United States. In France, you still don’t find women. Her specialty was cake decorating and sugar art. She represented the United States a few times in the culinary Olympics in Europe and brought gold medals for the first time to the team. When I met her I was a baker, and I was fascinated with the visual part and she took me under her wing and really started my career in terms of learning hands-on. So, I always give credit to her. Although I never officially attended a school, I’ve learned from a lot of different people and her in particular. She just encouraged me to find my own way with it. But, it still was a side thing. I toiled away making cookies and all that, I started renting kitchen space because you can’t do that stuff at home after midnight. There’s a variety of catering operations in the city that said o.k. you can bake from midnight to six in the morning. So, I could practice. A lot of stuff went into the garbage. It just wasn’t good enough for my standards. But, I had a lot of frustration because I had a lot of energy and needed to find an outlet. I needed to vent. So, I just worked and worked and worked and set my own goals. Another lucky break was a colleague of mine who does store windows asked me if I could do some display cakes for Mikimoto’s, a famous store on 5th Avenue.

Q – So, Martha Stewart is walking along and saw your cakes in the window. What did she do for you?
A – She said they were launching the wedding magazine and the wedding t.v. show and she wanted me to contribute cake designs to help her operation. She wasn’t as big then, ‘cause she didn’t do anything with weddings. I was really delighted and glad to have a chance to work with her. I found her fascinating. She was very, very sweet and helpful for me, and encouraged me to explore ideas. She also took my cakes to the Oprah Winfrey Show. Just the whole association was wonderful creatively and business wise. She gave me a lot of confidence. She definitely encouraged me and I consider her someone who helped a lot. By the time the cakes were in her magazine, every other magazine wanted to have that. So, the ball started rolling and soon, working at midnight was enough. I had to rent space during the day of course; I didn’t have a regular income from the cakes yet. I had to build up the market. So, I moved to different caterers that would allow me a corner in the kitchen. And still, I was not in business until I was able to build my own facility which is now in the So Ho area of New York City. Downtown-----where all the galleries and designers are. A lot of photographers and fashion designers are in this area which is very inspiring. So, it was a combination of building public recognition thru the media and word of mouth. What I found out is, when you do cake for an event, let’s say there’s 100-200 people who get to sample your work; we don’t have a cake museum, but every event acts as an introduction to what I do. All the different vendors who participate from the florist to the photographer to the event planner could act as your agent if they liked what they see. And I guess people saw things in me that propelled them to recommend me. So, I never really advertised. All I wanted to do was have a place to do my work, very much like a rehearsal studio. The events ends up being the stage where you perform with your cakes. And, where I work, the bakery is the rehearsal studio. I work with different images than the regular baker, but, it seems to work.

Q – When your cakes are featured in the New York Times or In Style , do you see an increase in business?
A – Oh, definitely. But, I need to perform. I need to have attention. So, when a magazine approaches me, I don’t necessarily think about the business. I think great, I’m gonna work with an art director, or a photographer. I’m working with other creative people who are pushing me into another boundary. So, my first impulse is to get something great and new going and sometimes it’s painful because usually when you shoot for a magazine you’re required to come up with something new that nobody has seen before. The magazine then uses it as a trendsetter. So, that’s a great culinary and artistic challenge. But, talking about business is a great way to get your name out there.

Q – Your cakes were featured in a Paramount film-----“In and Out”.
A – This was a great experience that paid really well and (was) a chance to work with Hollywood people. But, the way it works is nobody knew it was my cakes there. It was just fun to be in the movie atmosphere. We actually had to have 12 identical cakes in the wings, in refrigerated trucks, ready to replace the one that is being shot. The experience increased my confidence in my abilities because you work under pressure and very strict deadlines. You just have to do it. There’s no complaining. You’re part of a big machine which is a big production. It was fun to meet some of the stars. It’s a whole different experience.

Q – How did you get the very best hotels in New York to carry your products? Did you go around personally and make the sales pitch?
A – No. (Laughs). Those things don’t work in New York because the doormen wouldn’t let you in. I wouldn’t feel comfortable haggling or pushing any product. Whether it was out of fear or whatever, I never really had to sell my work. You sell it all the time by doing it well and introducing it. People seemed to approach me. People want to find someone they can trust and who is well-trained, but, with a different point of view. So, I always pride myself that the techniques are very solid, but, maybe I introduce a new angle. I guess the hotels are where you want to have the high-end society events, but also they need somebody new or bringing a fresh breath. I basically did not go out and sell, they approach me. After that, I was able to present my work. But, I feel uncomfortable doing a cold sale. I feel the work sort of sells itself. Of course, it’s personality-----and communication is important. I only became conscious of it after 9-11. We are not very far from the Twin Towers. If anywhere I’d want to be, it’s down here. It’s a sense of survival and we have a lot of pride in New York. I noticed after 9-11 people would spend a longer time with me and my crew at the bakery talking about themselves. So, it’s not just the cake it’s the sense of connection. There’s no six degrees of separation in New York anymore. Everybody relates to everybody else. I find I talk about the whole relationship with the family, what they do, where they live, how does it feel. The people who are attracted to work with me and I eventually train and hire are people that are very involved with life. They all may have had other careers. We have somebody who was many years on Broadway. We have people who had an artistic background, culinary background. People from different countries. So, it’s not just the cake, it’s the personality as well.

Q – In the city of New York, would I be correct in saying that only you and Sylvia Weinstock do this type of work?
A – No. It’s not correct. Actually, there are many of them. My personality is to be out there doing a lot of charities with food. I’m very interested in having younger people come and apprentice here like I did in France and Canada and bringing that sense of community to the baking world. So, consequently I’m very involved with other people who are starting on their way. A lot of people are interested in the field and are trying and there are talented people who work in New York.

Q – You cater to pretty much an up-scale crowd don’t you?
A – Because you specialize, it has to be high-end. A normal bakery will do a variety of things from cookies and brownies and a lot of standards. If you want to specialize, it’s basically a commitment I do for myself and for the public. It has to be more expensive because everything we do, if you compare it to fashion, it’s not off the rack. If you compare it to the floral designers, it’s not having a store where you can sell a few roses and then do some events. It’s only committing to do the special events. The prize includes all the specialization, special equipment, special facilities, training special people. It ends up being very high end.

Q – Do you fly your cakes around?
A – Not as much as we used to. We’ve flown in private planes to Jamaica, Paris, Israel, Europe. And, also locally I will charter small planes and fly in the summer to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod. There’s always been the issue of cost. You just can’t ship the cakes. You have to protect them. So, there was always the issue of cost and liability. Now, we also have the issue of security. And, the airlines are not that happy just to receive a package any more. So, I’ve changed the procedure and we do it only if me or one of my designers can accompany the cake which of course contributes to the complexity of the end budget. But, the reports I get from the airlines is that there’s been so much damage if you just send the cake by itself. They don’t want the liability and I want to make sure it will arrive safely. Security many times would want to open the box and we’re talking about fragile, perishable stuff. So, the few times we are planning to do it, it will only be with someone.

Q – You created cakes for Vanessa Williams, Uma Thurman, and Leona Helmsley. Were these all wedding cakes?
A – No. Vanessa Williams was a wedding cake. Then you have childrens cakes and so forth. The thing with celebrities is, I would love to drop some names and we have a large clientele, but, I find that even though it is enticing to drop a name and get some mention, most of those people really prefer their privacy. We’re not just talking about Hollywood celebrities, there’s a whole slew of politicians around New York and Massachusetts that we work with in a regular basis. I want to drop names of famous American political families, but, I can only hint that I work with them. I can’t say who they are. You can imagine for yourself. The issue is, also in New York you don’t have that much celebrity for society events. It’s more the money and political influence. So, Kissinger gets more attention than Brad Pitt in some events that I cater to.

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