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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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‘I Love Food And I Have a Big Sweet Tooth’ [Q&A With Food Network’s ‘Sweet Genius’ Ron Ben-Israel]

Posted Oct 17, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Oct 17, 2012 at 02:20 PM

Ron Ben-Israel, Food Network

Ron Ben-Israel admits he played a bit of a caricature of himself in the first season of Food Network’s dessert competition show “Sweet Genius.”

The smooth-scalped, bespectacled host opted for the guise of the tough judge during those first shows, bringing a devastating scowl or a disapproving comment when desserts did not meet his standards or pastry chefs tried to fib about their creations.

As the show has evolved, Ben-Israel says he has settled into something closer to his true personality: fun-loving, exacting, dramatic but understanding.

The show’s third season starts at 10 p.m. Thursday on Food Network with an episode called “Cuckoo Genius” during which chefs must create chocolate desserts from an iconic breakfast food among other challenges.

The show’s format has five chefs being given inspirations they must interpret into desserts using surprising ingredients that sometimes appear to conflict in either flavor or texture. Two chefs battle in a final challenge with the winner being declared the “sweet genius.” Think “Chopped” but with chocolate.

Ben-Israel says he tests all the ingredients in advance so that he knows what desserts can be made with them and so he can interpret them for the audience. Also, he wants the ingredients, no matter how disparate, to result in delicious desserts

“I’m not looking to have the chefs fail,” he says. “I want them to succeed. Sometimes it’s rough because [the chefs are] all so good..”

I spoke to him recently about how the show has changed:

* * * * *

Congratulations on a third season.

You know, the Food Network commissioned us in one year. We shot three seasons in one year, which is incredible for a new show. I didn’t even know if anyone would watch the first season because I was so stiff, so forbidding.

You weren’t that confident you would get renewed?

Yes. I said if this show is to go on, I want to be myself. I want to have fun. I want to have a circus feeling that the chef would come in and get to celebrate the talent. That’s what we do. Especially in the third season.

What I figured out was that it was a unique concept. On this huge set that has perfectly working kitchens, they have everything, every new invention… induction ovens and all kind of equipment. Smoke machines, everything. You see some new equipment specifically for this season, some of which I didn’t know existed.

Pastry is such a specific talent. On all the other cooking shows, once they get to the pastry challenge, they fall apart. On this one, because it is specific, it shows you how delicate and precise the craft is.

And you have to be so… sharp because they don’t know what they are going to encounter. They don’t know the secret ingredient or the inspiration. They have to have all the technique and experience lined up to summon at a moment’s notice. I’l give you something crazy like, the color red. I’m telling you to do a chocolate dessert for the color red, but chocolate is brown. I give you the inspiration and then you have to use this strange fungus which grows on the husks of corn in Mexico. Go and try to make a chocolate dessert from that.

It’s a little bit funny to see their reaction, but most time I just want them to succeed. Please, expand your mind! It can happen if you just play with it! Take a chance. And people do take chances and usually they succeed.

Some go into panic mode and don’t recover.

It’s true. It’s true. I can’t physically go in and help them and say, “It’s going to be okay. Let’s move, let’s move.” I do it from my stage. It feels a little bit like gladiators, that I threw the challenges to the. My heart goes out to them.

On the other hand if you applied for the show and passed all the tests, you have to let your techniques and talents speak for themselves.

If they are gladiators, that would make you the emperor, wouldn’t it?

Ooooh, [laughs] Well, you know, you have to have ego to do that kind of show. Not just me. Also the contestants. Nobody who’s really shy can go on the show and succeed. This is the era of TV. Everyone gets a chance to be on TV.

When I told people I was going to interview you, one asked, “Is he really like that in person?” Because you’re very theatrical and very dramatic.

Sweet GeniusOf course I am! You should see me at work. I sing and dance. I work in a very creative environment. The people who work with me are a great complement to my temperament. We always have challenges. We work with a lot of brides and grooms and family. To each client, it’s a celebration and the most important thing in the world. I have to talk to a lot of creative people, from florists to stationary designers to event planners to chefs. Every cake that I make goes to a celebration. So of course it’s very dramatic and my personality is. [laughs] I want the cake to be the center of every occasion.

You can’t do that many hours of TV and not have your real personality come out over the screen.

Right. It does take time. The first season, I was playing more of a character of the tough judge. I couldn’t pull it too much. In the second season they brought this giant python snake, 9 feet long. I had two choices. My first impulse was to run away but then I said well give me the snake. I had never held a snake. I never want to hold a snake again. But I just had to. It was an amazing experience to have the snake draped around me, constricting me. That’s what I do now for every challenge.

I test all the ingredients so I know what can be done with them. I need to investigate the history so I can explain to the chefs and the audience at home what it consists of. Especially with the inspirations. I make a list of all the dishes I could make. It has to be possible. I’m not looking to have the chefs fail. I want them to succeed. Sometimes it’s rough because they’re all so good. I want to keep all of them, but I can’t.

Well, that’s the show.

That’s the show, but we have a life after the show and ultimately there are thousands of dessert chefs. But we do meet a lot of people, so many times I would meet the chefs in a restaurant or they come and visit me in my bakery. We stay in touch. Many times I hear that even if they were eliminated, they learned so much and they learned so much that they would do it again in a heartbeat.

Not everyone walks away from them feeling positive.

Most of them do! You would be surprised.

I didn’t mean to infer your show. I have talked with chefs who have been on other shows who regretted doing them.

Of course it’s a game show. I try, but once in a while I lose my temper.

What triggers your temper the most?

I expect people to be professional but to be themselves. If people start telling me stories to just cover their mistakes, what do they think? That I don’t see everything that goes on on the set?
If someone tries to hide… Listen, if you make a mistake and you can cover it and have success, I’m all for it.

So let’s say if your ice cream didn’t have enough time, and ice cream is basically a sauce called crème anglaise, by all means, serve it as a sauce. I’ll be delighted. But don’t try to lie. Don’t try to hide something from me. Then I get upset.

It’s the opposite when I discover something that is so genius like and such a surprise for all of us. I’m so happy, and I tell them. There’s a taste sensation I didn’t expect or a texture.

A local chef, Alon Gontowski of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, was on the show.

Sweet Genius Yes! Season 2, with the platinum blond hair. I would love to work in his kitchen, let me tell you. He has a great style, he’s like a rock star with a heart of gold. He works in such a neat way. He has enough confidence and experience that he was engaging the other chefs and giving compliments. I don’t know if it ended up on the air, but when someone needed an ingredient, he would say I have it here or there. Even though he was competing fiercely, he wasn’t trying to put down the other contestants. I was very inspired by that, I figured out that in his kitchen, working with him or underneath him would be a great experience.

The best chefs understand there is something to be learned and shared.

Of course you need to have an ego to be in charge and the knowledge, not everyone wants to be the top chef. Ultimately it’s about working in a community. It is a tight community of pastry chefs. I now get to go to more pastry shops and restaurants now and discuss with them what they are doing. People who have been on the show invite me to the openings of their shops or send me the menus. It’s exciting.

What trends excite you right now?

People are reconfiguring some of the classical American desserts. It’s endless. People will take a classic such as the campfire s’mores and make it into another dessert. I love baked goods. I love yeast baking, the most basic baking. A lot of people are making donuts now filled with jams and different things but as a dessert. I think it’s fantastic because a lot of the desserts we get are cold. Here you get a warm doughnut. I think that’s fantastic.

A colleague of mine Zac Young. He reconstructed a carrot cake. The cake is on the outside, and on the inside… It’s just all kinds of surprises. Maybe I can define the new trend is to surprise the guest, the diner and let them explore the dessert. What you see is not what you get.

I noticed salted caramel in everything from desserts to martinis.

Yes, so much so that after the first season of “Sweet Genius” we incorporated it into our wedding cakes. It’s one of our most popular flavors this season.

Why should a wedding cake be cloyingly sweet? Adding a layer of salted caramel is such a nice thing.

Not only am I enamored with trying other culinary ways, I’ve been advocating a lot for spice. So we have a flavor for wedding cake where we have spice cakes, but we also have hot Mexican chocolate filling with chili peppers in it. You get the creaminess of chocolate but the aftertaste that lingers of hot chiles. It actually makes people smile with pleasure because they didn’t expect it.

People are mixing the savory and sweet flavors. It’s blurring the line a little bit.

Correct. It has to be done with judgment. Sometimes I get to eat things on the show that are really horrible because they’ve overdone it. So then I tell them.

You want to give constructive feedback.

Yes, but sometimes they hurt my feelings by giving me a dessert that is not very appetizing so I have to shoot back. It’s hard work. Can you imagine being a restaurant critic. Is that what you do?

No, thank goodness. Because I think that is a hard job. I tell people all the time, sports writers don’t have to get out and play the game. The food writer has to ingest what they write about and then tell people how they feel.

I’m sure sometimes it’s very rewarding.

Oh, very rewarding. Absolutely.

I love food and I have a big sweet tooth.

I hope so.

Most of what I eat is incredible.

You have a sweet tooth? What for?

Baked goods made with yeast. I love to play with sweet doughs. I love things that take a long time to make. Nice kugel that takes hours to rise really satisfies me. I’m not into immediate gratification.

Is that a memory from childhood?

Of course. The cakes I make in the bakery are all leavened by eggs and baking powder, but I never saw my mother using baking powder. Everything they did was leavened with folded in egg whites. When I cook at home – I don’t cook professionally, I bake professionally – in baking for myself and friends and guests, I like to do these processes that are very earthy and really took hundreds of years to develop.

That more-methodical approach pays off in better flavors.


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