Is there something gay about the wild visual and tactile fantasies at play in dessert-making?
“Of course, it’s a gay sensibility! We don’t say it in public anymore, but fuck them, of course it’s a gay sensibility!” said Ron Ben Israel, one of the most elite wedding-cake makers in America and the queerest queer to have ever starred in a TV food series.
You’ll remember him as the madman behind Sweet Genius, the Food Network pastry-competition show where he subjected patissiers to amusingly cruel tests like making a cake with duck fat and fusilli that somehow reflected the artistic inspiration of a diamond. The surrealism of Ben Israel’s tests seemed queer in itself: on the show, he made chefs confect chocolates out of Pop Rocks and beef jerky, inspired by a disco ball, and insisted on another occasion that they create a frozen dessert out of squid ink that also somehow got across the idea of butterflies.
The tests for the four cheftestants went beyond Chopped — this was Dada. The show itself was far, far gayer than Chopped, regardless of the fact that that series also has an openly gay host and occasional LGBT contenders. Chopped’s chefs, whether lesbian, gay, or trans, duked it out in a macho fight-world all too similar to the sexist, gay-bashing world of restaurant kitchens.
Sweet Genius was something new. On the first season, Ben Israel reminded me of Paul Lynde, who thrilled me as a queer child by playing the fey warlock Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. Ben Israel projected an androgynous wizardly authority that has always been rare on TV, entering the show robed in darkness and pressing the giant, thundering buzzer that would summon his mandatory ingredients and symbolic icons. “Be inspired by the bewildering objects I have selected! Be astonishingly creative with the mandatory ingredients I have chosen!”
Looking otherworldly with odd-looking, mischievous eyes, a shaved head, and chef’s whites, the patissier (recognized by Martha Stewart, the International Culinary Center, and Brides magazine as one of the best in the US), got to act like the queen of the ball, saying to the viewer in his strong Israeli accent, “I am a sweet genius!” and then extending his powerful but slender hand, “Are you?”
Despite the show’s theatricality, it was also dead serious: pastry chefs’ careers could be made by winning, and the executive patissiers of Buddakan, Morimoto, and David Burke at Bloomingdale’s all made their way to the competition. Meanwhile Ben Israel, whose cakes have been on the cover of O: the Oprah Magazine, New York magazine Weddings, and Modern Bride, and who was named Best Baker by Vogue, got to project a femininity I adore while also appearing as the enormous authority that he is.
His persona became less forbidding in the second and third seasons, but perhaps even more feminine, appearing in the opening credits arranging the beautifully lifelike sugar flowers he is known for (purple roses, in this case) and smiling beatifically at the viewer, speaking-shouting “Aha!” and, later, “Abracadabra!” In one segment where the mandatory ingredient was baby formula, Ben Israel told the contestants, “Remember, chefs, I’m a big baby with a sweet tooth! Pacify me! My next feeding is coming up!”
The required “inspirations” remained thoroughly gay, from a sexy, slithering, muscular snake to a masked male acrobat, from an elite ballerina to “gorgeous real live firemen from the Bronx,” he told Gay City News in a recent interview, “hand-picked!”
Ben Israel, now a judge on Food Network’s Cake Wars and the Halloween Baking Championship, met me in his wedding-cake studio in the Garment District. “We used to call it ‘the Schmatta District,’ ” he said, sitting down with me in a beautiful, cool office decorated in muted tones, with a small brass figurine of the Hindu god Shiva on his shelf, dancing the universe into creation by destroying the previous one. It was a gift from one of his pastry students.
Handsome and unassuming in person, Ben Israel told me he made it a point to come out to his commanders as soon as he went into the Israeli army for his mandatory military service in the mid-70s. “I was very much afraid of being bullied or physically hurt, because I knew people who were gay who were badly beaten up in the army or by the police. Being gay was illegal in Israel then. I couldn’t hide, so I thought if I came out, maybe they wouldn’t be able to make fun of me. And it worked.” Ben Israel says he was outrageous in the IDF, putting his sexuality in everybody’s face.
He brought a similar scrappiness to the homophobia he experienced in restaurant kitchens. “I have a big mouth and I learned to defend myself, but places were abusive. There was so much discrimination — against Latins, Mexicans had to be the dishwasher, you could never really move up, and women, forget about it. I didn’t find the world of commercial cooking hospitable to anyone. How many famous black chefs do you know? We have to look at this.”
Ben Israel startled me by bringing up Quentin Crisp and Harry Hay: “I discovered Quentin Crisp’s books when I was in Israeli school, they were such a great source of hope to me. Then I had the privilege of meeting him after he came to New York. It was so wonderful to see him at The Center or even waiting for a bus, this aging man with purple hair and a big-brimmed hat who had made the choice, back before the Second World War, that he can’t hide it. With him you knew: he is gay.”
Then he quoted Hay, the founder of one of the first gay-rights groups in America, the Mattachine Society: “The work of homosexual liberation should come from us, we can’t expect it to come from the outside.” Ben Israel amplified: “We have such an impulse to hate ourselves and put ourselves down, and you hear it in the bars. And more and more young kids kill themselves in shame! And we can’t expect society to take care of it, we have to take care of it.”
Ben Israel is one of the few famous chefs in the country — you can count them on one hand — who has a history of actual, physical queer activism, not just sending a check now and then. He volunteered for Tom Duane’s early campaigns, and has gone to activist marches for years. “One of my most life-changing experiences was the lesbian and gay march on Washington in 1993.” One of the reasons he moved to Toronto for a year during his first career (as a dancer) was to be able to write for that city’s radical gay liberation newspaper, The Body Politic, which he had read for years. “It was a radical collective, very special.”
In his dance and theater reviews in that paper, what I found most notable was Ben Israel’s consistent feminism. In one 1984 review, he criticized the choreographer Paul-Andre Fortier for presenting female dancers who look like they “want it very, very badly” and get punished for it by angry-looking male dancers who “try to stick chairs into the women’s vaginas.”
Later, Ben Israel also wrote dance criticism for the New York Native, the gay newspaper that ran from the 80s through the mid-90s. “That was radical enough, and crazy.”
Finally, it was time for me to taste the two wedding-cake samples he’d prepared for me on a porcelain plate. My favorite was the piece that balanced a layer of amazingly butch, intense deep chocolate with an equally powerful tier of light substantial vanilla, occasionally intermingling some salted caramel cream like a sexy third person invited home for the night. It was the most gay male cake I’ve ever eaten.
Then he took me on a tour of his workshop. The most extraordinary objects were the sugar flowers: rows and rows of see-through containers organized by type of flower, hydrangeas, roses, peonies, lilies and others in all the colors of the rainbow, perfectly matching their real-life models. I saw one of his assistants individually sculpting pink peonies that would go on a cake; I found them movingly lifelike, and sexy. Ben Israel has invented a technique of crafting flowers in all stages of opening, even ones beginning to go past their prime; the resulting swaths of flowers look alive, as though they were breathing.
All of them are edible. I have to say that most of the cakes on display in his studio and on Ron Ben Israel Cakes’ social media are much too formal for my tastes, looking like cakes for weddings that are more about joining the social register than they are about exuberance and joy. Some are abstract, architectural layers with graphics like stripes or dots; others resemble the interiors of Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman, looking like chandeliers, marble, and luxury women’s shopping. But the ones overspilling with flowers — and I do mean overspilling — mad fountains of roses, Gerbera daisies in purple and red, lilies of the valley, blue irises, green snapdragons – are ones I would gladly buy for my own wedding reception.
Chef Ron notes that he’s single, and says interested parties should look for him in small coffee bars around the Village. “Come and say hi.” He says he “loves all colors and types,” but doesn’t understand men who say they’re “straight-acting.” “You act as you are,” he says. “For me, if someone is effeminate or outrageous, it’s a wonderful expression of our versatility.”
Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, his father interned in Auschwitz and his mother in a Nazi ghetto where Jews were slowly starved. For him, he says, the result is that he wants to “go with extra butter, extra sugar. I tend to be a hedonist. Build the cake taller, add more sugar flowers. I don’t hoard or hold back. I want it to be a celebration of life, not ‘We shouldn’t make waves.’ ”
If you’re a queer or trans chef in New York, I’d like to know about you, too. You can email me at morsels69 AT Gmail.
This was originally published in Gay City News, August 4, 2016. Support the queer/trans/GNC press!