Interviewing Ron Ben-Israel

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It’s not everyday that you get to interview one of the legends of the cake world. Being as socially awkward as I am, I was pretty sure that somewhere in this interview I’d say or do something awkward…and of course, I did. It’s not entirely my fault though. In real life, thanks to my years of chef training, I tend to swear a lot. When meeting someone new, I can control it – but as soon as I feel comfortable with you, my swear words start to fly around like little word missiles. I was terrified of meeting “THE” Ron Ben-Israel, so at first I was all formal and official and grown up. All I really knew of Ron was what I’d seen on television, and in that medium you would not say he comes across as warm and fuzzy. Frankly, I was just not expecting to meet this friendly, funny, open and relaxed guy who was smiling that huge smile at me and with whom I felt immediately comfortable enough to start dropping f-bombs.

Long story short: Ron Ben-Israel told me I need to clean up my language. *face palm*

Yeah. Not exactly the kind of impression I wanted to make on the guy that’s been referred to as “the cake god,” “King of cakes,” “The Manolo Blahnik of cakes,” and “a living legend.”  Ah well, I never claimed to be anything other than uniquely myself – foul mouth and all.

All swearing aside, this was one of the most interesting, open and enlightening interviews I’ve ever conducted with someone in this industry. It came about because I’d recently learned that Ron has opened his new cake studio and included a teaching space. Yes – you can go and hang out at Ron’s place in the heart of Manhattan, work alongside his team and learn to make stuff as amazing as this:

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Over the course of an hour chatting, we talked about everything from how to deal with brides who want champagne on a Coca-Cola budget to the importance of finding a mentor in the industry. I learned a whole lot of new things from and about Ron including:

  • He considers himself more of a baker than a decorator, and if he HAD to, he’d give up decorating in favour of baking – because “there’s nothing nicer than a well baked loaf of bread or simple cake.”
  • He truly loves to teach, and feels it’s part of his duty to the industry to train the next generation.
  • He still has involvement in EVERY SINGLE CAKE which leaves his studio – sometimes it’s the design, other times it’s putting it all together, it might be making specific details – there’s definitely the Ron touch in all of them. He’s also gets put on the delivery runs like everyone else, so it’s entirely possible that on a Saturday morning you’ll find him driving around NYC doing deliveries.

So – what does Ron Ben-Israel think about the things us “mere mortal” cake decorators have to deal with?

Brides with unrealistic budgets – do they come to Ron too?!:

“We’re in a service industry. First of all, we’re merchants and people have the right to come and shop. People shop, and when they are under pressure – there is a lot of pressure when you get married, family and finance come into play. They don’t always behave well, so I try to understand and be as patient as possible. It’s like in a clothing store, you still have to fold the shirts after people came and picked them up and unfolded them. Whether you sell a luxury item or you work in a chain store, it’s the same.  Nobody is beyond that. However, people know about our prices before they come in. Not everybody can afford it, but everybody has the right to come in to the most expensive salon and then not order. Brides do that because they want to and they can. I can go to a store and drive salesperson crazy and not buy a single thing. It’s no different.”

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On the influx of decorators in the industry (mostly as a result of food and cake TV shows):

“Cake is the new craft. People used to do macrame and crochet, now they do cake. It’s a wonderful positive thing, but we are dealing with food. You need to be certified. You can’t do cakes in the same area as you raise children and have dogs. That’s my only concern, the fact that people are interested in it and doing it is wonderful.”

On the artistic integrity of our craft being lost due to the incredible array of tools, molds and other “quick” solutions to things:

“Because the entry level to cakes is so low, and people are making cakes and selling them, the market is saturated. The question is really how can you make a difference. The whole world has the same things available to them, so then it becomes a question of how to use those things differently. We’ve got to work harder as teachers to show students how special it is and how to make a difference. When I do Cake Wars, I often ask people about where they get their recipes. Many of them say they got the recipe from the Internet. What about buying a good old fashioned trusted cookbook that took years to research and comes with a name that we actually appreciate?”

If he met someone today who said they wanted to go into the cake business, here’s what he’d tell them:

“Well, of course, first I’d say Congratulations and Welcome! Then I’d say, find a mentor. Find a teacher. Whether it’s Wilton or modern designs, you need to find hands on learning. You can’t really learn how to ice a cake from video on YouTube. You need physically to stand in front of the turntable. You can’t learn in a vacuum. You’ve got to actually be learning how to do it. Find a mentor and go to the source. If you were in fashion or millinery, in building theatre sets or painting…all those things  – you go to the museums, you learn from the Masters. There is more involved to the cake you saw on Instagram.”

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What’s the difference between a good cake decorator and a great one?

“How can you define “great”…? I think you learn skills in classes and then keep learning. The reason I wanted to be a teacher in a professional faculty was so that I can attend classes. So I myself go to other teachers and there’s still so much to learn! You’ve got to be exposed to many different things. In part I learned how to be a good teacher myself because I continue to be a student.” (Ron teaches – and learns – at the International Culinary Center in NYC)

What do you wish someone had told you about being in business BEFORE you started?

“It comes up all the time in my classes or in emails. People just want to know, “How much is that cake?” That question is not a good way to start a business. If it’s a custom cake, you need to find a way to calculate the price according to the needs of the event. It’s like people ask me what size my cakes that are on Facebook. It’s an irrelevant question because you can adjust to the needs of the client. You need to do learn how to proportion cakes, how to price cakes, and do your market research! If my prices are New York prices, what people forget is that they never want to know how much we pay for rent per month, they don’t want to know the insurance, what it costs to pay for things in New York City. If you live somewhere else, it’s totally different. So let’s go back – A, they need to break down the product. B, you need to know your business and it’s expenses, and then find out the kind of market you’re working in. If you operate in a neighbourhood which is not very chi-chi, you’ll pay less to be there but also your customers are going to pay less for your product. Nobody listens to this. You need to tell everyone to subscribe to the Business of Baking to learn business!”

(haha, thanks for that one Ron!)

Why can I charge more than others? It’s not just the name. What’s BEYOND the name? You need to consider how long you’ve been in the business. Longevity in the industry creates customer loyalty. You need to consider where you are working, if it’s from home or not. Nobody will pay a seamstress working from home, even if she makes beautiful embroidery, the same as one working in a fashion house. And finally – are you creating something brand new original or are you making variations of somebody else. People will pay dearly for brand new designs.”

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Honestly, talking to Ron was an absolute pleasure. We agree on many points as they relate to cake and business, we come from a similar cultural background, and his honesty and clear pride in his work is refreshing. I was fortunate enough to get to visit his studio while I was there as well – and it’s as amazing as you might imagine, from the infamous “wall of sugar flowers” down to the absolute perfection of the dummy cakes on display.

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And yes, the cake is delicious too:

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So, Ron, what does the future of the cake industry look like?

“I think there will be a big return to handwork. The use of royal icing and sugarpaste will never end. There is a real return to small batch making – beer, wine, cheese, silk screening, dying fabrics – and this will be true in our industry too – the real artisanal skills will come back and be more valued.”

Honestly, I expected to be totally intimidated by meeting with Ron, the “Cake Diva” (even if he calls himself, “just a humble baker.”) Instead, I spent my morning with Ron the really nice guy – who even took the time later to email me a bread recipe (which I then tried. Of course I did. It was as good as you might think.) Above all, I learned that the issues many of us struggle with are the same, whether you are a small bakery in a small town, or a big bakery in a big city. There’s something wonderfully comforting in that, isn’t there?

…and by the way, I actually DO think he’s a diva, where the definition of diva is, “A usually glamorous and successful performer or personality.” In many ways, Ron Ben Israel changed the face of the cake industry – he brought high fashion and couture to the industry long before the word “couture” appeared in the names of every wedding cake business name. His commitment to his craft, honouring his own style and artistic integrity are incredibly admirable, especially in an industry that seems flooded with people who are “inspired by” one another to a huge degree.

Ron – I look forward to breaking bread with you sometime soon – but I fully expect that bread will be a loaf you’ve baked yourself. (Feel free to put a sugar flower or two on top.) 

If you’re interested in taking a class with Ron personally – visit the website of Ron Ben Israel Cakes and click on the “teaching” tab for more information. He often releases information about his classes on his Facebook page first – as well as on Instagram.

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One thought on “Interviewing Ron Ben-Israel

  1. I have often struggled with the notion that one might not be ready to pay the same price for my cake ( I bake out of my home kitchen) as they would from a commercial bakery. I think Ron answered that question !!

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