The scariest man on television is obsessed with cakes.
Ron Ben-Israel, the host of Food Network’s bizarre culinary competition series Sweet Genius, absolutely terrifies me. Watching the show reduces me to cold sweat, imagining that Ben-Israel has forced me into the Saw-like confines of the Sweet Genius set, where I must bake a génoise while he cackles eagerly at my misery before murdering me.
Sweet Genius is a variation on the network’s highly successful Chopped: Four chefs—pastry chefs and confectionary makers in this case—must cook three courses from pre-selected mystery ingredients, and one chef gets eliminated each round, leading to a final showdown between the last two competitors. This is hardly a novel conceit (in fact the entire show seems to be a direct reaction to Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts), but here the courses—or “tests” to borrow the Sweet Genius parlance—are composed of chocolate, candy, and cake rounds, and the judge may cause you to wet your pants in fright, even if you’re not appearing on the show.
Overseeing the action from a thronelike place of power on a raised dais, Ben-Israel seems to be a cross between Fringe’s Observers—chromelike baldpates whose alienlike eyes skim over the action but never quite connect with it—and Austin Powers’s Bond-villain spoof Dr. Evil, given their similar physical appearances, fondness for wearing purple-blue and self-serious natures.
It’s the last element that’s the most troubling. While there’s clearly an overt aura of enforced theatricality to the proceedings, Ben-Israel takes his persona a little too far. There’s the spine-chilling way in which he tastes elements of the contestants’ dishes with an insane amount of fastidiousness, as though he were solving a complex differential equation or dissecting a victim rather than, well, eating candy. Adding to this sense of unease is the way with which Ben-Israel speaks, an exaggerated blend of winking coyness and thunderous voice of evil, announcing the inspiration for the dish (Ballerinas! Live baby chicks! A ventriloquist dummy!) and the way in which he slams his hand down on the large, overtly cake-shaped button that controls the show’s conveyer belt.
Oh, yes, did I forget to mention the mechanized conveyer belt? Ben-Israel’s command over the competition enables him to send out additional mandatory mystery ingredients (“You must now include a Peking duck in your desserts!” he cries out, missing only a silent-film-villain mustache to twirl menacingly), forcing the contestants to change directions instantly and further complicate a dish that might already contain chocolate, water chestnuts, and mangoes. One of these times, I expect a severed human head to emerge as one of these new ingredients.
The presence of the conveyer belt does nothing to reduce Ben-Israel’s Dr. Evil-esque tendencies. Though devoid of a white fluffy cat in his lap, he nonetheless appears to be engaged in some sort of Austin Powers/James Bond relationship with the deathtrap nature of the mechanical conveyance. When the contestants ponder how they’re going to incorporate, say, foul-smelling durian fruit or squid ink into a chocolate cake (the silent question of “Do you expect me to cook with this?” hovering in the air), you can almost hear Ben-Israel whisper malevolently, “No, I expect you to die …” as his dark eyes glitter with a sharp malice.
(One plus: In its second season, Sweet Genius fortunately ejected a disembodied female computerized voice, which had informed the audience about the background and qualities of these ingredients. Possibly because the presence of a female artificial intelligence took things too far into the science-fiction realm, injecting yet another strain of creepiness into a show already overflowing with it.)
In real life, Ben-Israel is ex-Israeli military, a former dancer, and an über-successful pastry chef. He’s the owner of Manhattan’s renowned Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, a firm celebrated for their insanely gorgeous wedding cakes and lifelike sugar flowers. He’s supremely talented, a visionary pastry chef plucked from relative obscurity by Martha Stewart. And he’s proven, such as by his guest appearance during Season 2 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts, that he doesn’t always stick to his sinister shtick with such severity.
But when he’s placed into the ridiculous arenalike setting of Sweet Genius, it seems as though Ben-Israel’s persona as an outré Bond villain emerges only too willingly, reducing an already tedious show to the level of ridiculousness.
What we’re left with is the strangest reality host on television—a Pinhead for the pastry-cream set.