The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 17, 2012

He’s one sweet genius

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— ...A show with everything but Yul Brynner.

Well, at least there’s the pastry equivalent to accomplished Yul, shaven look included, inside master chef Ron Ben-Israel, the recognizable host of Food Network’s Sweet Genius.

A rush to judgment is to blame for the misperception that Chef Ron, whose lifelike sugar bouquets and intricate cake towers exploded in popularity when discovered by Martha Stewart in New York City, is mean-spirited by nature. Dr. Evil of desserts? Really? His first season, the misunderstood genius appeared to host his show like he runs his couture Manhattan bakery— demanding of creativity, inspiration and excellence.

His exacting standards echoed in the catch-phrase “You are no sweet genius” quickly rendered him the most feared reality television judge since Simon Cowell.

Now relaxing into his third season, sole critic and theatrical host Chef Ron evinces a mildly sweeter version of the Sweet Genius, closer to the true mettle of a master as committed to pulling for his protégés as he is cutting off those daring few who dismiss his inspirations as optional.

“I don’t mind a mistake. I know what happens in real kitchens.” Translation: If you don’t pay heed to the rules of the game, you get the horns: no $10,000 cash and a documented walk of shame.

“Most of (the contestants) are fantastic,” the host admits. “Every show we can only have one true sweet genius standing.”

Would it help the jilted to know he was silently rooting for them?

“I hate to send them home,” he states. “But there have been times when people have tried to pull a fast one (with their desserts) and I will reprimand them.”

Four contestants. Three rounds. Unpredictable ingredients, an inspiration (say, origami?) that must reflect in the finished desserts and precious little time to complete each masterpiece. Where desserts are denouement to other competitions, they are climax and complexity to wild, wonderfully wicked Sweet Genius.

“I think it took a while for people to get used to the concept. Here’s a giant kitchen studio with only four chefs and myself — no panel of judges, no separate host. It sounds pretentious, but that means we have more time for the actual cooking,” explains Chef Ron. “It puts the focus on the chefs rather than the judges.”  

Still, though many talented pastry chefs rotate off the Sweet Genius set, the most memorable role is that of the Sweet Genius himself.

 For his commanding presence, credit the military. Chef Ron served as a soldier in the Israel defense forces.

For his poise and creativity, credit his broad-based classical fine arts training and his career as a professional modern dancer, having toured extensively and internationally. Pastry is simply another medium expressing his innate artistic bend.

Like Chef Ron, the people working for him arrive from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. “We have some who were in competitive sports or who used to be on Broadway. They are great in the kitchen. It’s always nice to have people from a variety of backgrounds and who ended up doing something they love.”

Ron Ben-Israel Cakes are world-renowned and among the most sought-after wedding cakes on the planet. But as show consumer and king judging other chefs, how does his deep-seated need to create manifest?

“We have a large crew of producers and food experts, but I have to put myself into the show because my name is on it. (As a viewer) you can’t smell and taste the desserts. We still want you to have an experience,” relates Chef Ron.

Over the last 15 years of wedding cakes, he has learned not only pastry techniques but how to communicate with clients. His desire to connect to his viewers and fans is no different, and he uses them as his personal inspiration for developing the show.

A letter from a child asking if he would have a holiday-themed episode served as inspiration (there’s that word again) for the forthcoming Dec. 6 mistletoe and merriment-laced Holiday Genius.

With a growing Facebook following, recipes and expert how-tos on FoodNetwork.com along with tons of fan-mail, Chef Ron considers and incorporates many viewer ideas into his finished product.

A Wonka-esque kitchen. A dessert-only showdown. Mandatory ingredient ambushes at mid-preparation. A few post-taste seconds of sheer terror waiting for Chef Ron’s face to tip toward a smile. Hands-down, Sweet Genius is the most satisfying low-carb way to enjoy dessert this television season.

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As Chef-Owner of Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, one of the country’s finest couture cake studios, Ron Ben-Israel’s cakes have been hand-delivered to destinations throughout the continental U.S and abroad.

Ron started his confectionery adventures after a 15-year career as a professional modern dancer. Upon retiring from performing with companies spanning three continents, he utilized his art training, military background and ballet regime into the discipline of pastry arts.

After arriving in New York City, Ron’s cakes were discovered by Martha Stewart while on display in the windows of Mikimoto on Fifth Avenue. In 1999 he established his flagship design studio and bakery in Manhattan’s fashionable SoHo neighborhood. He is a Visiting Master Pastry Instructor at the International Culinary Center in New York City, and has been awarded prestigious gold medals for his confectionery achievements.

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com