Fans of Food Network’s most fantastical dessert competition Sweet Genius couldn’t help but notice a few intriguing changes when the multi-sensory sensation debuted its second season debuted a few weeks back.
Most notably, the show’s “Dr. Evil of Dessert,” celebrated Big Apple-based pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel — AKA the Sweet Genius — finally gets to be … well, sweet. In other words, himself.
The Israel-born former professional modern dancer — who shot to fame when Martha Stewart noticed his amazing confections displayed in the window of Fifth Avenue’s Mikimoto store — laughs when I tell him that the show’s discussion boards are abuzz about this kinder, gentler Genius.
“The truth is, every human being has many different sides,” he explains, “I think the producers in the first season really wanted to frighten the chefs. But pretty soon we realized that they are going to be afraid of me, one way or another. And I really always wanted to encourage them. So it’s a compromise. I encourage them to be themselves and tell me who they are — and then we give them such impossible ingredients and hard challenges that it’s still scary.”
The new season’s other switch-up is equally sweet. Contestants expecting to create the unique baked desserts and fanciful frozen confections that so vexed their predecessors in their pursuit of each episode’s $10,000 prize found that the game had changed, too. They would be creating chocolate desserts, candy and — yipes! — cakes for the cake master himself.
If you watched the first season, you understand why Ben-Israel and his Food Network team felt compelled to tweak the challenges. Simply put, sometimes the scared-silly chefs got just a little too ambitious with — or a lot overwhelmed by — the requisite exotic ingredients in their attempt to dazzle Ben-Israel, who had no choice but to sample their wares.
“I had to try every little dessert in the first season,” he says. “And I concluded that sometimes with crazy, crazy ingredients the result would not exactly be … shall we say, appetizing? So I thought about doing ingredients that were more accessible and maybe available around the home or a specialty shop. Because it’s so hard — even with the ingredients in the second season that are more friendly — to come up with an original design. As opposed to other TV shows, here we have to deal with very attractive desserts because we eat first with our eyes. So I really wanted to concentrate on the inspirations.”
Inspirations which will include magicians, ballerinas, electricity … and even a snake.
“Well, thank you for mentioning that!” Ben-Israel laughs when I tell him I’ve seen the photo of him smiling with an enormous yellow python draped across his shoulders and ask how such a seriously imposing reptile could inspire some seriously tasty desserts.
“This is exactly the message of the whole show — that we have to broaden our imagination and just look around! So you’ll see the snake episode — it’s coming up. I refused to look at it as anything but evil. But they really are magnificent creatures.”
Ultimately, Ben-Israel says, he aims to embolden his protégés to always think outside the box, both on the show and long afterward, so they’ll continue to push their chosen art form and profession to the forefront of people’s imaginations, popular cuisine and ingeniously tasty TV.
“The show keeps evolving and I think, in this second season, it has really come into its own,” Ben-Israel says. “You really can see that I am much more happy with the results. But when I’m not, I’ll let them know! It’s not easy to send somebody home. I want them all to stay.
“Really, what I would like to do is go down into the arena and work with them side-by-side, but then we would have no competition. So I agree to be assigned to the role of the Sweet Genius as long as everybody works to the same goal — which is to create magnificent desserts. But it’s still a game. So as long as everybody is willing to play it with me, I am happy!”
CGM: This season, you’ve incorporated chocolate and candy challenges, which I think is doubly exciting for the viewers because we get to see a fresh array of amazing creations and we also get to see how candy is made. That’s a pretty new thing for food television.
RB-I: We still have those great ice cream makers and a piece of equipment called the anti-griddle, which is the reverse of a hot griddle. It’s a flash freezer that can freeze anything on touch. So we welcome a lot of frozen elements. But the candy was just too seductive. There are hundreds of things that can be done in that category and most of them can be done quickly. And they’re magnificent! There’s translucency and all kinds of interesting shapes.
And candy is usually small, so you can achieve it in a short amount of time, and it’s interesting to see it being poured and pooled and made into bonbons. You can use chocolate in the candy round, as well. As long as it’s chocolate candy. And you can make frozen candies as well!
And if you will remember, in the first season, we had the “baked” challenge. Well now we call it the “cake” challenge, because come on! Cake is my favorite thing in the whole world! It’s wonderful to have chefs bake cakes for you! That by itself was so exciting, yet frightening, for the chefs. And they told me so! I didn’t have to threaten them with anything, because [by then] they are already at the height of the game.
CGM: Do you learn from the contestants, as well — or, because of the amount of professional success you’ve enjoyed, are you the Godfather of Dessert, whose role is to challenge these up-and-coming pastry chefs to be the best they can be?
RB-I: You’re kind! But the truth is, I learn from the chefs all the time!
First of all, I admire the chefs for being willing to come and put themselves on the line in front of America and beyond — because the show is now international, as well — and to be exposed like that. Because I love to work, but I enjoy being in control at my business [SoHo’s Ron Ben-Israel Cakes].
They’re willing to be in front of the camera and to try really hard in front of the cameras and I admire them for that. My heart goes out to them. But yes, I am in the position of the Godfather, in a way, and I play the part. Because the next day I go back to my bakery and guess who does the dishes when we have too many in the sink?
So I physically work almost every day in my own bakery and I meet with clients and I come up with new designs. I’m very much hands on. But during the show, I observe from above and I keep track of time and I do encourage the chefs, if necessary, and give them ideas. But ultimately I see my role as an educator and a catalyst in the development of people’s imagination.
CGM: You spoke with my colleague in the fall and you said something that has stuck with me since — that “pastry chefs are all introverted, obsessive/compulsive people.” But pastry is a such a happy, festive, celebratory food. Help me understand the juxtaposition.
RB-I: Well I’ve changed my mind! [laughs] My definition of a pastry chef still holds, but when pastry chefs used to come on TV, it used to be that what would sparkle is our desserts — and I always loved the idea that the desserts steal the show. But little did I know that my colleagues also like to sparkle themselves. And by coming on Sweet Genius in person, well you see we have quite the personalities! So now it’s not only the desserts that sparkle, it’s the pastry chefs!
And we’re probably the last chefs to sparkle, because chefs were always in a service position. Cooks were really in the back of the kitchen and no one would see them. Thanks to TV and to publishing, chefs have gained our own notoriety and now pastry chefs are stepping forward — and according to the pastry chefs you see on Sweet Genius, they want center stage!
CGM: And they’ve gotten it — as proven by the cake and cupcake shows on multiple networks and cupcake shops on every corner. Do you think that is, in part, because, with the slumping economy, people are cutting back on dining out and other non-essentials — but everyone can still afford a decadent little sweet treat?
RB-I: I’ve been getting letters and photos and drawings from kids who’ve been watching the show together with their parents — I hope they watch not at 10 o’clock at night but during the reruns! I need to be in bed at 10 o’clock because I have to be up at 5 each morning to be at the bakery — but the funny thing is that kids are now experimenting in the kitchen at home with the encouragement of their parents. So a kid the other day, his mother sent me a photo of him with his first three-tiered cake! And he’s 8 years old! Can you believe it!?
So people are starting to look at the profession as a viable outlet and a way that you can make a name for yourself. And we really make people happy. So no matter recession or any other economic conditions, there will always be a place for a well-made chocolate dessert or cake.
CGM: By it’s very nature, pastry offers so much opportunity for artistic expression — but that also comes with a unique set of pressures to create something that has not yet been done before. Do you think studying art is helpful, or even necessary, for someone intent on making pastry his or her career?
RB-I: I feel that an art background can definitely help. But so can just opening your eyes! I live in New York City and I love walking the streets here because I can see so much great architecture and beauty. Yesterday I was walking down the street and all of sudden I noticed the magnolia trees — the pink tulip trees. Somebody brought them to the middle of Fifth Avenue, and they were all in bloom. Everybody was stopping and looking and taking photos on their phones of these magnificent Southern blooms in the middle of Manhattan. So inspiration is there. One only needs to open their eyes!
But it’s also very important to pay heed to the chemistry of baking. Because desserts are all about chemistry, changing temperatures and timing. So, by itself, it’s a contact sport. I think there should be Olympics for desserts. Which we are, in a way!
CGM: So do you think some people are too focused on artistic presentation and forget that the ultimate test of a dessert happens when the consumer pops it in their mouth?
RB-I: Well! Since you mention this, I think you remember me saying that some of the changes come from me tasting all of the desserts in the first season? I did not hold back in the second season! When I loved something, I went on and on praising the chef. But some things I tasted I practically had to spit out. You saw in the first episode! I did it as politely as possible, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold back. So hopefully as the season goes on you see me, more and more, being myself.
CGM: To that end, is there any edible thing that you believe should never, ever find its way into a dessert? Chili peppers seem to be oddly popular in dessert food …
RBI: I am a strong believer that anything can become a dessert!
You mention chili peppers. I had transformative experiences eating desserts that had spices — especially peppers and salt — as strong ingredients. And they were still desserts. We have a huge range of exotic fruits and vegetables. Think about carrot cake! Carrot is a vegetable, but it became part of a classic dessert.
And actually meats in desserts, in a certain balance, can work out very well. A lot of chefs are using bacon and duck fat in their chocolates and they work beautifully. So there is a lot to explore. Ultimately, it’s a matter of balance and taste. In general, I think of dessert as sweet items. But you can always add an interesting flavor. And honestly, a sweet dessert can be bland without a tiny bit of salt to accent the sweetness. So why not add a little heat and get that umami going? Or the zest of an exotic fruit?
These questions are exactly the questions that I pose to myself. And I can’t tell you too much, but all the things that you’ve brought up will be answered in Season 2 of Sweet Genius!
CGM: Fans have suggested a celebrity episode of Sweet Genius for charity — which is something you are passionate about. Is that something you might consider?
RB-I: Yes! Most chefs I know are very involved in charity — especially the fight against hunger. It’s mind-boggling that even in the heart of New York City, we have hunger. We have hunger next to obesity. So I was inspired by all the famous chefs that do charity, and that really got me to join City Harvest, which is the organization that I work with. It’s really humbling to go to a school and see children that are starving because they are just eating raw sugar.
Let’s be clear: Our cakes are pretty expensive. I sell a luxury item for special occasions. And at the same time, I am confronted with hunger in my own city. So a lot of our clients — especially for weddings and celebrations — agree that we’ll make a larger cake that will be a great visual statement, and then part of it will be donated in their name to City Harvest.
There’s something about Sweet Genius that I’m very grateful at the end of each taping, as difficult as it is. I contain all of the emotions going on in the chefs and in myself — plus eating all those desserts — but there is always a sense of gratitude. Because we are working in a beautiful format and who’s not happy about dessert? We are the lucky ones.
New episodes of Sweet Genius air Thursday nights at 10pm ET/9 CT on Food Network.
Images and video: Food Network