Known for his lavish sugar-art flowers and lush designs, Ron Ben-Israel has set the industry standard for wedding cakes. In our Q and A, he shares his opinions on icing roses, smart budgeting, and what he eats when not at work.
Q: What do you tell people who ask what you do for a living?
I tell them I'm a baker. The term cake designer sounds too froufy for me. If I were a fashion designer, I'd say I make jeans. I'm proud that I'm a baker. When I'm walking home on the street, people tell me, "You smell like a cookie!"
Q: How many cakes have you baked?
Thousands. I average between five and seven cakes a week. Any experienced baker will think, "What? I make a million cookies every week!" But I think creating a wedding cake is like a conductor leading the woodwinds, the horns...A wedding cake is really a score because there are so many different elements and you need to control them.
Q: Have you noticed any new trends in flavors?
When I started making passionfruit a few years ago, people were afraid of it. Everyone wanted strawberries and cream. But pastry chefs were adamant that it was a great flavor and now, lo and behold, it's one of our most popular flavors.
Q: Do you consult with the brides yourself?
Absolutely. Most brides I meet in person. In the initial appointment, I serve them cakes, icings, fillings. I also like to walk clients through the facilities so they get a sense of how we work.
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Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how your style has evolved?
I actually started making wedding cakes as a reaction to what I was seeing and not liking. The early 90's were an exciting time, culinarily speaking, but what I was seeing in wedding cakes was very disappointing. There was a lot of peach going on, and a lot of icing festoons on the cake. In classes you'd learn basket weaves, or those horrible icing roses. Very 80's. I was a little bit of a rebel, and I said, "I'm not going to do plastic elements, like columns, flowers, or anything that's not edible." And it's funny–now the media calls me a trendsetter.
Q: What's the most common misperception about wedding cakes?
More and more people are realizing that cakes can and should be delicious. Brides now insist on tasting the cakes. I tell the brides to trust their instincts, both about the cake and also about the baker, because creating a custom cake is all about communication. I don't want them to come to me just because of the name. I want them to come to me because of the product and their relationship to me.
Q: What do you tell brides who hope to make a wedding cake on their own?
I would salute to anybody who wants to take the chance, but I think it's a big risk! But you know, people ask me for bridal shower ideas all the time, and I say, go have it in a bakery if you can get the space. That way, everyone can decorate cakes, but there's no stress.
Q: Any advice for brides on a budget?
You have to choose something that will work. I would rather see something cleaner and refined, rather than something over-the-top that doesn't work because the baker is experimenting on the bride. It's also a little unfair to impose on a local baker by asking for a cake out of a magazine–they might not have the experience or equipment to execute it properly.
Q: Is there a common mistake brides make when trying to save money?
Ordering a smaller cake and telling the caterer to cut smaller pieces is disastrous. It can be a big visual mistake, but also people usually love the cake and then there isn't enough! You're not going to use less fabric to make a mini-dress for your wedding gown, so why do it for a cake?
Q: You're around sugar all day long, but when you head home after work, is there any dessert that you crave?
I actually like yeast baking. That's what I do for myself. I don't eat much buttercream–as delicious as it is–but I'll always have a kugelhopf or a Danish or something on hand. And I love candied ginger.