Just Desserts
Tue, 04/05/2011
Editorial Assistant
Dutch treat: Ron Ben-Israel and some of his towering creations. Courtesy Ron Ben-Israel
Dutch treat: Ron Ben-Israel and some of his towering creations. Courtesy Ron Ben-Israel

Ron Ben-Israel wants you to know that he “is still a schlepper.” The cake decorator to the stars, who rocketed to wedding cake fame after being discovered by Martha Stewart, is still happy to pitch in with his small team and deliver his confectionary creations himself.

Ben-Israel, 53, is the face behind Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, a specialty bakery in Manhattan that creates towering desserts and intricate sugar decorations for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, birthdays and corporate events. He can whip up a 10-tiered cake decorated with his signature sugar flowers, create an adorable edible teddy bear and even recreate a skyscraper in his Manhattan studio.

Though he will spin you a tale about a burning bush in the desert and a camel named Shmulik that led him to creating cakes, Ben-Israel was always a passionate baker. As a child he watched his mother conjure up desserts and avidly read cookbooks. The Israeli native worked as a professional dancer for years, touring with dance teams and troupes and performing around the world. But when he realized that he could only keep up with the performer’s Gypsy lifestyle for so long, Ben-Israel turned to his other love: cakes.

“I’ve always been hooked on baking,” said Ben-Israel, who was dubbed “the Manolo Blahnik of cakes” by The New York Times. He started baking and decorating cakes as a side gig while he was still dancing, and eventually began collaborating with a friend to create window displays. One of his elaborate cake designs ended up in the window of the Mikimoto, the jewelry store on Fifth Avenue, where it caught the eye of Martha Stewart as she walked by. Soon after, Ben-Israel began to appear in Stewart’s magazines and on her show and his creations were sought after by celebrities like New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, actress Uma Thurman and reporter Geraldo Rivera. Just last month, Ben-Israel created an intricate, 40-inch masterpiece for architect Frank Gehry’s 82nd birthday.

Though he creates striking conversation starters that take days or weeks to complete, Ben-Israel doesn’t consider himself an artist. “I’m an artisan,” he said. “The best moment is not when everybody sees it, but when they cut it – then it’s a full circle.”

Ben-Israel never attended culinary school himself, but he leads classes of eager students in the methods of cake decorating at the French Culinary Institute, and at events and seminars around the country.

In addition to creating cakes for celebrities and huge corporations, (in 2007 he made a replica of the Plaza hotel that took a month to complete, was 12 feet tall, and cost $120,000), Ben-Israel has created relationships with many families around New York. He has made wedding cakes for couples and then made cakes for their kids, and recently he even created a wedding cake for a woman who also had a Ron Ben-Israel confection at her bat mitzvah.

After building cakes that are four feet high and cost thousands of dollars, Ben-Israel often convinces clients to share the wealth — donating leftover cake to City Harvest. “Many times people want a bigger cake than necessary,” said Ben-Israel, and when the evening is over, there is often enough left to feed hundreds of people. By donating it, he said, “everyone is happy.” He is especially pleased when he can donate kosher leftovers, as that is “the hardest thing to come by.”

Though Ben-Israel grew up secular in Tel Aviv, “I have a very strong sense of who I am as a Jew and a strong sense of belonging,” he said. So when he sought out kosher certification for his bakery, he wanted the best. “Just like I am a food snob, I am also a rabbinical snob,” he said. After being dissatisfied with two kosher certifying agencies, Ben-Israel landed with OK Kosher Certification, “and I just fell in love.” The organization only certifies pareve cakes from Ben-Israel’s bakery.

The relationship between Ben-Israel and the agency developed, and “they really influenced me to change the way I was eating, the way my life is,” he said. The secular Israeli no longer eats shellfish or pork, or mixes meat and milk. Plus, he said, “I make big celebrations for the holidays, at home and with friends.”

And while Ben-Israel creates hundreds of wedding cakes a year, the master cake decorator says he is still single. “I’m just looking for a nice mensch,” he said, “someone who shares an appreciation for our heritage.”

E-mail: amy@jewishweek.org