The ’Sweet Genius’ Talks It Out!
During this year's Garden Party benefit for New York's LGBT Community Center this past June, while enjoying the delicious food and open bar, I was thrilled to meet Ron Ben-Israel, the celebrity chef from the Food Network show "Sweet Genius" for the second time. Only this time, I was a little more assertive than the first time we met, and asked Ron if we would be a guest on my weekly radio show on WRHU: 88.7 FM. He gladly accepted!
My first impression of the celebrity chef did not change when he graciously invited me into his offices and gave me a tour of his kitchen, introducing me to his hard working staff busily making intricate flowers and leaves made of sugar for his high profile clientele. Following the tour, we sat down for the hour long interview where he quickly opened up about his early childhood memories of being gay in his home city, Tel Aviv, which the chef viewed as "gay friendly." The chef talked openly about his dancing career and his mandatory military service in Israel.
The following comments on the subject are in Ron's own words:
Ron Ben-Israel: "Living in Israel as a gay boy, I quickly developed a 'thick skin,' being that I always demanded upon myself that I would act outwardly gay and proud both as a dancer and in my personal life. And yet, I was still very sensitive to ridicule by insensitive peers, mainly in the military, where instead of ignoring comments as many often do, I would quickly get 'in your face' when confronted by someone who would attempt to intimidate me!"
As the interview progressed, I could see both sadness and anger in the chef's body language; especially in his eyes, as he continued to relate his childhood history and the choices he made in his career; mainly, to be in professions where his artistic talents and creativity would be appreciated and accepted.
Ron Ben-Israel: "I attended mostly performing arts schools because they were less restrictive, and being that I loved to dance and was really good at it, I got to dance with two Israel Dance Company and toured internationally. My dance career continued when I decided to leave Israel for Toronto and finally getting the opportunity to live and work in New York. After all, many of my fellow Israelis love New York! Who doesn't?
"Unfortunately, when I came to New York, I found myself with little to no income once my dancing career ended in the late eighties / early nineties. So, I would walk dogs, sell my paintings, and bake cakes! But it wasn't until I marched in Gay Pride parades in Queens, NY in the early nineties, where I was inspired by the work of Keith Haring, the color purple, and pink triangles; all of which I chose to incorporate in my cake designs, finding another successful forum for my creativity and passion.
"Soon my cakes designs were gaining a large audience of fans, and I found myself making cakes for showrooms such as Swarovski Crystal, among others. It was in such a public forum, where I was fortunate enough to gain the attention and appreciation of Martha Stewart, who invited me on her television show and promoted my work!"
Ron's story was clearly an example of the importance of affirming one's special talents and not allowing self doubt to stop one from following one's passions, but clearly knowing how to make something beautiful that people need and cherish didn't hurt.
Ron Ben-Israel: "After my television appearances with Martha, other television appearances soon followed, along with winning culinary competitions in fancy food shows throughout the country, attracting the attention of the Food Network and the offer to do my own cooking show. 'Sweet Genius' enjoyed three seasons on the Food Network, but at present there is no offer on the table for a fourth season.
"Fortunately, many of my fans have since written to the network demanding that my show be put back on the air, so who knows what the future will be? For now, I am very happy with running my successful bakery and doing my philanthropic work with such charitable gay organizations as Callen-Lorde, Lambda Legal Defense, and, of course, the New York City Gay Community Center, where we got to meet at its annual fundraiser."
My next question for Ron was on how he viewed his own gay identity resulting in his strongest reaction thus far in the interview.
Ron Ben-Israel: "I identify as an Israeli, Jewish, and now a gay American who is passionate on the subject of human suffering, which further fuels my desire to help those most in need especially, gay youth!"
On the subject of gay shame, which is the focus of my upcoming book "Talk it OUT: No More Gay Shame," his response was equally vociferous.
Ron Ben-Israel: "I view gay shame as another word for internalized homophobia, where we instinctively as younger gay men feel bad about being; even today I see and hear kids calling each other 'faggots,' not even knowing half the time what the word means!
"Fortunately we live in a more accepting and permissive culture. Imagine living as a gay man or woman in Russia, where its forbidden for even the media to talk about gays, and where gay men and women are persecuted daily and individualism is suppressed."
When I asked about celebrities in film and television who continue to refuse to "come out of the closet" and reveal their true identity, Ron's response was even more virulent.
Ron Ben-Israel: "If someone does not step up and speak about who they truly are, then they are murderers! For their inaction is not helping to prevent young gay people struggling with their true natures from committing suicide! We see it happening everywhere, not only in this country!"
While living in Toronto, Canada, Ron wrote for the gay monthly magazine "Body Politic," which remained in publication from 1971 to 1987 and helped spearhead the gay community's activism in Toronto.
Ron Ben-Israel: "While writing for 'Body Politic,' I learned that our bodies speak for us. So how can we not take an action when it is necessary to do so, or how could I live my life without helping others when the need is so great?"
As a result of experiences learned in his social activism, Ron felt it was imperative that we all live our lives "out of the closet," and advocated being honest with those who are important in our lives.
Ron Ben-Israel: "The more people who get to know the gay people in their lives, the less ignorant our culture will be! So 'come out of your closet' if you are still locked inside it, because being gay is not only about sex. It is simply who we are!"
In closing our interview, Ron emphasized the care needed in "coming out" to family and friends should not be done impulsively if possible, but with care and consideration.
Ron Ben-Israel: After all, we don't have to shove it down their throats! We don't have to wear leather or be in drag to show others our gayness, even though I have done both. Just be yourself and live honestly, and tell your story whenever the opportunity presents itself, as I am doing here with you."
The interview ended with Ron bringing out a sampling of his wedding cakes, much to my enjoyment -- as well as my gratitude that such a kind and caring man, with such verve and amazing talents, is part of our community.