Ron Ben-Israel dishes on his career, weddings and tomorrow's Park Meadows appearance
If you don't know who Ron Ben-Israel is, then we're going to make the wild guess that you aren't getting married anytime soon. Or didn't get married anytime in the recent past. Or don't follow celebrity weddings at all. Or never watch Wedding Central, the cable television network devoted to all weddings, all the time, 24/7.
At any rate: Ron Ben-Israel designs wedding cakes for the rich and famous. He was discovered by Martha Stewart. And tomorrow, he'll be at Park Meadows Shopping Center, 8401 Park Meadows Center Drive in Lone Tree, to host a demonstration on how brides-to-be can create their own celebrity wedding (without spending celebrity dollars).
The presentation starts with a "mocktail" hour, sponsored by SoBe, at noon, followed by Ben-Israel's presentation from 1 to 2 p.m.; he'll answer questions after the presentation.
We recently caught up with Ben-Israel to ask him about how he started designing wedding cakes, what the wedding industry is really like and what he imagines his own wedding cake will be when that happy day arrives:
Westword: How did you get started in the wedding industry?
Ron Ben-Israel: I never made this decision! That's the thing. I had, like a cat with nine lives, I've had so many different careers and tried so many different things. For years, I survived as an artist on grants and touring as a dancer with dance companies, and I was living underground like so many artists, hand-to-mouth and so forth. And I never had the power to make decisions. And I crossed the threshold of forty and needed to rely on other resources to make a living, because I wasn't making enough as a dancer. So I relied on my art training and started doing, among other things, working for caterers and working with a friend who would do store windows. I would always bake and could always rely on that. There was a combination of my visual and baking skills, where the store designer who was doing the windows came over to me, the Mikimoto Japanese pearl company on Fifth Avenue across from Tiffany's, and he said, "Why don't you do two display cakes for the window?" And people told us instead of stopping for pearls, crowds would gather around the windows and look at the cakes and ask who did the cakes.
And one day Martha Stewart stopped by, walking down Fifth Avenue, and she asked about me and called me in person and said she was starting a wedding magazine and would I like to be a part of it. I thought it was a joke, but she invited me for breakfast and gave me an assignment to create two cakes for that. And I was in! But I'll tell you, I also changed as a person. For years I struggled with rejection and then I found out it wasn't affecting me so much anymore, so I could audition for each client without taking it so personally. I just wanted to keep experimenting, and I had no business plan, so each time I would get a deposit, I would use it to buy cake pans and tools and supplies. It was a very positive time for me because instead of being afraid of rejection, I was able to take private classes and explore more and more. Now it's much more difficult because I have a reputation.
Martha Stewart convinced me to have a business. She sometimes takes a very personal interest, and she kept saying, "You have to open your own business," and gave me chances. She took my cakes on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I met a lot of people through her. So it was really good. I could never really bake at home, because I lived in a sixth floor walk-up, so I rented space at night from caterers, would bake from 11 o' clock at night to 6 in the morning, and would meet clients at a friend's bakery and get one commission at a time. And shortly after that, I was very interested in getting to know people, and met a woman who became my mentor, learned about repair, entered culinary competitions, was invited to lecture at the French Culinary Institute. I'm very much interested in being part of the community, so teaching and traveling has been a great joy for me.
WW: What are some of the challenges in this particular career?
Ron: Before I was performing for an audience. Now, every cake is a performance. You rehearse, so to speak, you're planning for months and months, but ultimately each cake is like opening night. I also had to deal with the psychology of people who celebrate. There's a lot of tension before weddings, so to learn to deal with the different personalities that come up. And I always had discipline, but the patience to deal with people, because you have to get the budget with the client. So I've learned how to work with people to design for them and please them, it's not just about me. It's been a growth experience.
WW: Tell me about what will be happening at your appearance on Saturday.
Ron: It's a whole new experience for me because I live in downtown New York City, and we really don't have malls. We have shops and we have boutiques. So first of all, I always arrive early and take a nice tour of each mall itself, each mall is different, and get acquainted with the different shops, and I purchase things for myself. Because I do it all over, I learn different markets. And I talk to the shop owners. And then I actually select -- specifically, because people who come to the presentation are interested in weddings, either getting married or thinking about it, parents and friends -- so I select items from different merchants that relate to registry and setting up the wedding, this is from cameras and everything to do with wedding and wedding style. I don't personally select dresses, but we usually have wedding merchants that will do a mini-wedding show, so there will be a whole display for people when they come for the mocktails.
I talk about registering for the wedding registry, picking up the table, everything to do, not just with cakes -- which, of course, is a main part of the conversation, show photos of cake -- but everything to do with the wedding reception and also ceremonies and so forth. The best part is I get so many gifts from so many sponsors, and it's wonderful, because people go home with great stuff. Cameras and luggage and dinnerwares. It's very interesting, to hear people's questions, because the questions are very relevant, and they make me think, and it's a challenge to answer. But generally, people want to find a bridge between what personally they like and how to please the guest, how to make the celebration very memorable and personal, but also to make the guest happy. So we talk about all that. What happens if you have a particular taste you like, but you want to make sure all your guests are happy? Really, a wedding is the first and biggest party people throw in their lifetime, so there's a lot of challenges and a lot of pressure. They read about celebrity weddings and ask me about celebrities I've done cakes for, compare themselves to magazines and other social pressure. There are always questions that take me by surprise, but it's a nice chance to meet people locally and see what their interests are.
Of course, behind all that is the idea that people watch TV. We want them to make sure their local cable operator carries the Wedding Central shows and just create interest that there's going to be 24 hours a day wedding programming, and also the wonderful Wedding Central website. People can go see photos of cakes, we have live chat with me and other experts. The nice thing is the experts became friends, so we all hang out. It's a unique experience, and it's just interesting that TV today is not just about watching, but also about social media, website interaction, the actual broadcast. People can submit questions. It's very interesting for me, and I tell people about resources because not everyone could afford to get a private plane and fly my cake out. We talk about local vendors if I know them, and how to create and utilize a relationship with a local vendor. Most people are not going to get my cake, but they can use my experience to create their own good experience with a local vendor. I ask people to visit our own Facebook, I'm totally enamored of social media. I was very resistant in the beginning, but then I realized, on Monday I can place photos of the cake I did this weekend. It's a very dynamic way to interact. So I'm very pleased with how my horizons have expanded and not just in the bakery, interacting with family and colleagues and the public.
WW: Are you married? What do you imagine your wedding cake looking like?
Carmelo Anthony and Lala Vasquez's wedding cake, designed by Ron Ben-Israel.
Ron: I'm gay, single and looking -- and if anybody is interested, please come to the mall! What I like to do on these occasions is draw a sketch and send it to my staff and create an in-house challenge and see how they're going to deal with it. But it's an impossible thing to say, because like fashion, things change all the time. I don't like to do the same cake twice, and I like to do variations from season to season. So when the time comes, I may have different needs. And the other interesting thing is, my philosophy of cakes is they don't stand alone. Now the cake is very fashionable statement, part of everything else. So we may get inspiration from the invitations and from the bridal dress and the colors of the bridal party and the florist, location and time of the year. So not knowing when I'll get married, it's impossible to design a cake, because each cake is unique for each couple. I did a cake recently for a basketball player in Colorado, Carmelo Anthony. The inside was red velvet and chocolate. But the interesting thing is, his favorite color is bright red, so there was an interesting influence, from the centerpieces to the canopy, red became a theme, and we of course did a very red cake (pictured above). And that's interesting because I'm sure if you asked him years ago, he wouldn't know that's what he wanted, but it's something we worked out together. So a cake nowadays, it's not like going and picking up a ready-made cake, you work on getting your own.
The first 150 attendees at tomorrow's free presentation will receive a gift bag; there will also be drawings to win an array of prizes. To see more of Ron Ben-Israel's amazing cakes, visit the Ron Ben-Israel cakes page on Facebook.
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