Shay Aaron dusts his hands with cornstarch and starts making the pizza dough. “I’m a bit like a baker,” he says with a big smile, though the dough he is kneading is made out of a polymer clay, known best by its brand name, Fimo. The diameter of the miniature pizza he is preparing on a table in a crowded studio apartment in the center of Tel Aviv is only 2.5 centimeters (just under an inch).
A pasta machine is used to roll out the dough, and the circle — similar to a real pizza baked with coarse flour — gets its rough texture with the help of a small basalt stone (“I found it on a trip with a friend and I said to myself: ‘Wow, you can make a perfect texture for chocolate chip cookies with it.’ In the end it turned out it was wonderful for creating the texture on the edges of pizza crust, too.”)
The next stage is painting. In order to create the exact colors of real pizza dough, including the burnt-yellow crust on the edges and a lighter-colored center, Aaron mixes a few hues of chalky pastel powders on a piece of paper serving as a palette.
“These days I do it automatically,” he says, “but at the beginning it really wasn’t that way. I looked at pizzas for hours in order to understand the colors, textures and fine nuances.” The dough for the miniature pizzas (“If I have already made the dough I take the opportunity to prepare at least 10 pizzas.”) goes to bake in the toaster oven, one of two on the counter in the kitchen — “one for the miniatures and the other for real schnitzel.”
After the baking is done, Aaron cuts a slice from the pizza. With a safety pin, he makes small crumbs along the cut. The name of the game, and the secret behind the charm of the ancient art of miniatures, is creating a perfect picture of a miniature world. The exact imitation of realistic details, such as the almost microscopic crumbs of crust, is what elicits cries of wonder and amazement from the viewers of the exhibit.
In the next stage, Aaron spreads red “tomato sauce” on the pizza. (“They will only see a hint of this layer, but I have to, so it will look completely real. Sometimes I mix oregano in the color for additional authenticity.”) He then places slices of “mozzarella cheese” on top and generously spreads olives, onion, mushrooms and all sorts of other perfect and tiny toppings made out of clay on the pizza — all while using a diminutive pair of tweezers.
Gefilte fish earrings
The pizza is just one of a long list of miniature — and inedible — raw materials, foods and dishes that Aaron produces. Each one requires a long learning process and many stages of trial and error. On his popular Instagram page, he has almost 100,000 followers from all over the world. You can see tiny sushi platters, as pretty as if a Japanese master sushi chef had created them; macaroons, tarts and ice cream cones; fattened turkeys for Thanksgiving — all miniature and amazing imitations of their real life counterparts.
His online store on Etsy features more than just the miniatures, which are sold to fans and collectors, but also jewelry such as gefilte fish earrings or falafel in a pita on a necklaces. The pictures always include an object that makes the scale clear: A match, coin or human hand. “Even so, people don’t believe me and think it's an optical illusion, or a huge match,” says the miniatures artist with a smile.
Aaron was born in 1985 in Tel Aviv and grew up in Or Yehuda. “I was a very fat child, youth and man,” says the thin-bodied young man as he tries to explain his obsession with food. “I always loved to eat. I still love it, and from age five I started getting fat. At the peak I reached 140 kilos (308 pounds) and I wasn't drafted into the army because of it,” he says. “One day, after three plates of falafel, one after another, it simply happened. Something changed in my brain. Until then I didn’t really try to lose weight, even if I publicly declared I did. Within a year I lost 80 kilos with a lot of sport and without surgical intervention.” A “remember and don't forget” photo from the overweight period of his life hangs on his refrigerator.
“It’s cheap psychology and a cliché, and it was never done consciously, but it seems that I replaced overeating with the creation of inedible dishes,” he says with a laugh. He made his first inedible food miniature food almost a decade ago, at the request of a friend who wanted a refrigerator magnet in the image of a Passover seder plate. “I even went to a professional confectionery course. For a moment I thought that my future lay in preparing food in the real world, but when I came home every day from the course I prepared miniatures of the cakes we learned to make.”
Aaron, who studied scenery and costume design, says his greatest love is the theater, and he has worked as a set designer for children’s plays. “But it is almost impossible to make a living from the theater. You give all your heart and soul and the financial return is nothing,” he says.
For now, food miniatures are his main livelihood. “The most serious customers are Americans,” he says, as a ding from his cell phone announces the online sale of another one of his works. “After them come the English and Australians, and after that, Europeans and Japanese. In Israel there is no great awareness for the subject of miniatures, and when they finally buy it, it's usually donuts, pizza or macaroons. It is actually the Americans who are crazy about hummus, falafel and Middle Eastern [meat] skewers.”