The show, a competition between four pastry chefs who must go through three tests (chocolate, candy and cakes) of inspirations and mandated ingredients that come as a surprise when they are put down a conveyer belt, is led by the ultimate Sweet Genius, Chef Ron Ben-Israel.
The world-renowned cake decorator and Chef-Owner of one of the country’s finest couture cake studios, Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, has proven himself the perfect frosting to the whimsy, talent and deliciousness that is Sweet Genius.
Whether he’s dancing around set, wearing a snake around his neck, a wig on his head or a wrestling mask over his face or telling the pastry chefs he’s hungry, the man makes us laugh and want to tune in for more after every single episode. Sometimes it may come off as a bit mad, but as he tells us, such madness is needed “in order to survive.” And we couldn’t agree more!
While the pastry chefs and their creations are reason enough to watch, again, everyone who has seen the show can attest to the fact that it is Chef Ron himself who captivates us all, nearly imploring us not to change the channel. In the first season, okay, he was a little bit frightening with his stern demeanor, but in the second season, we saw him come more into his own skin mixing that sternness with an undeniable playfulness. In season three, his presence is going to be even more contagious.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Chef Ron in anticipation of the start of Season 3 premiering Thursday, October 18 at 10/9c on Food Network. While I expected a fun conversation given the nature of the series, I had no idea what I was in store for.
We ran the gamut of topics in our chat. From getting comfortable in front of the camera, learning the importance of patience, being surprised by the pastry chefs and how he gets roped into certain situations (you know, like having a snake around you), Chef Ron was full of stories and insight to share, proving himself even more imaginative, eloquent, quirky and downright charming than we could have imagined. How can you not love someone who can laugh at themselves?
We also got the scoop on the new season, including the upcoming holidays episodes, his adventure’s at the Farmer’s Market, what he likes to bake around the holidays and plenty more! Read everything he had to say below!
On How the Show Really Found It’s Home in the Second Season…
“What happened in the second season, I really was allowed to be more myself and find my own voice, so in the third season I basically could do whatever I want… and I did really.
The thing is that, you know, I’m not used to being on TV! I’m used to the work myself; to do pastries and cakes, which I specialize in, and it’s a strange position to be up there on a stage, giving the tasks for the pastry chefs and then tasting and judging them. I would rather be working side by side with them, so that was an interesting transition.
Sometimes I watch and it’s very tense in the kitchen studio where the chefs are baking or frosting and I just want to scream to them ‘No, don’t do that! Do something else!’ and I can’t because I have to stay impartial.”
On His Expectations for Each Episode…
“What happens is each ingredient that I give them is mandatory and each inspiration I test on myself. I have to think together with our crew of food producers and art directors, what would I do with it? Is it at all possible? And can we get good results? So only then do I approve all the components. And you can do amazing things with what I give them! But of course there’s the time pressure and the excitement and the clock is ticking [laughs]. It’s a very difficult [test].”
“Well that’s the nice thing with the talent! It keeps surprising me. So I actually think, ‘That’s never going to work. They’re never going to get the food on the plate in time,’ and I scream at them and I say, ‘come on, let’s go! Let’s go! Two minutes! You better do this!’ and then in the last minute, almost like hockey players, they would get the food on the plate [laughs].
So it’s nerve-wracking for me as well and I know how those pastry chefs feel so my heart really goes to them. There’s so much talent and good will, but alas, there can only be one Sweet Genius! [laughs]
So my idea is just to reflect the truth to them. If something really tastes bad, I will say that, but if something is wonderful then I will extol the virtues, because the whole point of the show is inspiration. That was the original idea that we don’t just look at food and desserts, particularly, as pretty; let’s look at it almost like an art form and how the pastry chefs are artists that can get inspired.”
On the Importance of Inspiration in Baking…
“Without inspiration and some kind of almost spiritual investment, the products will never rise. Everybody who bakes a cake knows that you have to put something into it in order to succeed, in order for the batter to rise and the cake to bake evenly. Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood, on my day off I will just bake a cake and then my mood would improve. But you have to channel something.
Of course the classical techniques are extremely important. I expect the chefs who come to compete on the show to have confidence and knowledge, but also they need to let go of what they’ve been doing all along and come up with something new and exciting, so it’s also a game. And I heard from some of the chefs later [laughs] that they felt like they were in a circus. Big compliment!”
On the More Terrifying Inspirations (Like Last Season’s Snake)…
“I don’t know how I agree to do those things. [laughs] They want viewers to be on the edge of their seats, so I guess I have to be as well. Yes, some things were terrifying, some things were fun and comforting and some things were strange to me as well. So we definitely bring friends from different kingdoms. [laughs] But it’s the idea of bringing culture.
And, you know, when I started doing cakes 15 years ago, everybody taught you how to do the cake, to pipe the icing…, the way it used to be and I thought why not go to fashion, why not look at dresses and why not look at flowers in nature and why not look at wallpaper and design cakes based on that. And luckily things have changed and I think today’s chefs know that they are required to open their mind.”
“Yeah [laughs]. Some people I would love to have come and work for me, especially the ones that won the $10,000 prize, but I think when they win it, they want to open their own business [laughs]. It’s very seductive because I guess the feeling of winning is so wonderful for them and they get a lot of courage to move on.
I stay in touch with some of the chefs and it’s wonderful… People say even if they did not win the title of Sweet Genius, they still felt energized. Even people that asked to leave afterwards told us, you know, it was a great experience.
I’m not coming there to humiliate anyone. It’s really we’re all learning.”
On What He’s Learned About Himself Through the Show…
“[laughs] I learned from the very beginning how patient I have to be! Patience is not one of my natural virtues, but I did learn that I can do it. And I’ll tell you what was the most impressive thing for me:
The whole production, and it’s amazing in one year we shot three seasons which means the show is extremely popular with the viewers so that gave us the license to do more. There’s between 60 and 70 people each day on the set working on the show. You don’t see them! All you see is me and the [four] chef. But in reality you have so many cameras and lighting people and special effects and art directors and food producers. The set has a huge kitchen behind that nobody sees, so everything has to be cleaned for every test.
So what happens is, I’m so impressed that everybody has to cooperate and work together that I actually forget my impatience or the need to control everything and I’m really there in the moment. And that’s a gift.”
On a Potential Charity Episode of Sweet Genius…
“You know, that’s a very good idea. There are so many people that ask me to come on the show [laughs]. I have requests from people who are pop singers to people in the fashion industry. ‘I’m always thinking who can we bring as a person and a cause?’ And that is a great idea!
You know, the show can evolve in different ways. I’m intrigued by all the letters I get from kids. It’s really fascinating. Kids write me. They send the pictures with the cakes or cookies that they’ve baked; they send drawings. So I’ve been keeping a Facebook page for Sweet Genius; I think we have almost 20,000 followers.”
On the Line Between Genius and Madness…
“Since you are all about the madness, there’s a fine line between madness and genius, you know that?
So I don’t mind being a little crazy in order to get the chefs motivated. And sometimes I feel they are so shocked with what I just proposed to them, that I need to get them motivated. So I do raise my voice and say, ‘come on, let’s go already! I’m hungry!’ [laughs] or just to push them. And some people break down in the middle so I have to help them not to give up. Some people work so fast that they actually fall down, so it does feel like madness.
It’s a good thing. You need to in order to survive.”
On the Show’s Ties to Pop Culture…
“All the inspirations and many of the ingredients are part of our culture. Once in a while I will dig up an ingredient that is very exotic like a mushroom that grows on a cornhusk from Mexico. Okay, that’s very exotic. Truly delicious, a real delicacy. But a lot of the ingredients are fantastic kid stuff that are fun to use! Marshmallows! Or licorice!
So that also throws the chefs off because they don’t know how to repurpose something. I if I gave you licorice, I just don’t want the same candy dessert, I want you to maybe melt the licorice or chop it up or turn it into an ice cream, so that’s where the technique and imagination come.
But a lot of the inspirations are part of our culture and many of them are pop culture. So without telling too much, I may have colors as inspiration, definitely rituals. This season we’re going to do holidays and mark the passage of time, so the show becomes more contemporary and connected both for the viewers and the chefs, because of course we always make something special for the holidays.
Actually, I have to say that if Sweet Genius becomes pop culture that will be wonderful. You know, because it represents culture of different types. From kids culture, pop culture, American holidays, with the holidays I tried to include as many cultures as possible, so it’s not just limited to Christmas. Just to entertain, but at the same time to teach.”
On What He Likes to Bake Around the Holidays…
“Well you know, most of the cakes I do are wedding cakes. So they are very rich cakes with many layers of cake and frosting and fillings and so forth, but when I have a guest or to bake for myself, I love to bake with yeast.
So I like the European style of cakes that are more like sweet dough, babka, kugelhopf, even sticky buns, anything that has yeast with it. So it’s the cakes that are more European bakery style. With, of course, fillings and chocolate, but not so much with butter cream.”
On His Experiences at the Farmer’s Market…
“I live near the Farmer’s Market in Union Square in New York, so I get to see what’s available and I choose to bake based on that. So if they have great zucchinis in the summer, I’ll make a zucchini bread.
[laughs] You know, but I always meet people in the Farmer’s Market or when I go shopping and they say to me, ‘oh! Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you do that?’ We got hundreds and hundreds of suggestions of what to include in the next season. Literally hundreds.”
Season Premiere of Sweet Genius airs Thursday, October 18 at 10/9c on Food Network
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