When Tammy Carmona was 14, she applied for a job at a gift store in a poor suburb of Tel Aviv.

Tall for her age, and claiming to know how to wrap gifts and handle customers, she got the job before the store owner found out her real age. By that time, Tammy had already proven her worth, designing hot-selling gift items and developing loyal customers who confided in her while making purchases.

“That’s how it is when you don’t have a normal home. You mature quickly,” says the 42-year-old owner of Carmona, an elegant shop in Brooklyn, New York, where she designs and sells award-winning custom tableware favored by chefs including Gordon Ramsay and style-makers including Oprah Winfrey.

“Life doesn’t always smile on kids, and parents aren’t always there to protect you — or there at all, for that matter,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Tammy doesn’t like to dwell on the circumstances that led her, at 17, to marry a man with blue eyes and an American passport. Moving to upstate New York, she had no knowledge of English and no financial or emotional support from either side of the family.

Tammy Carmona Polatsek showing how to use a birdcage as a centerpiece. Photo via YouTube
Tammy Carmona Polatsek showing how to use a birdcage as a centerpiece. Photo via YouTube

Starting with what she knew best — sewing for customers in the couple’s tiny basement apartment — she learned English by talking to customers and reading. At an event one evening, she spotted a carved fruit basket and decided to try her hand at the craft.

What started as a hobby quickly became a profession. Tammy Carmona Polatsek taught fruit carving courses all over the world and wrote a book, Aristocratic Fruits, to share her secrets for fabulous fruit displays.

Tammy Carmona carved this watermelon for an Israel TV show. Photo: courtesy
Tammy Carmona carved this watermelon for an Israel TV show. Photo: courtesy

And to prove her worth to her mother-in-law, she taught herself to bake. “I wish I was as skinny as my first cake that I didn’t add baking powder to,” she jokes.

“I started with simple things for my husband, and then moved on to much larger cakes for customers. I even sold a cake for $10,000. But it was all done from my small kitchen, and with five kids we all know it’s impossible to do that for very long.”

Celebrity party planner

She found her true passion when a friend called her for help in planning an event. This, she realized, was her chance to be an artist without limiting herself to one form of art.

Before long, the talented Israeli was landing Hollywood jobs for clients such as Paris Hilton and Jamie Foxx. Three times in a row, Tammy won the annual Tulips & Pansies floral design competition against celebrity party planners such as Preston Bailey and David Tutera.

In 2011, she landed the plum assignment of designing the lavish wedding scene for the blockbuster film Twilight: Breaking Dawn, which would be copied by many brides including Kim Kardashian.

Tammy Carmona designed the often replicated wedding scene in Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Photo: courtesy
Tammy Carmona designed the often replicated wedding scene in Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Photo: courtesy

But when her 20-year marriage ended and a string of misfortunes caused her to lose everything, Tammy decided to anchor herself with a bricks-and-mortar business.

Carmona New York was born of a need she saw for custom-designed oven-microwave-freezer-safe bone china for restaurants and caterers.

Tammy Carmona’s crème brûlée set. Photo: courtesy
Tammy Carmona’s crème brûlée set. Photo: courtesy

“It has to be interesting shapes, yet it has to look elegant, and no matter what you serve everything has to match. Therefore, Carmona NY has more than 200 designs that can be mixed and matched perfectly. And delicate flavors like crème brûlée need to be served in a delicate dish, not the heavy ceramic everyone uses.”

Oprah Winfrey named Carmona’s canape and dessert plates among her favorite things for 2013.

These are the dishes Tammy Carmona designed for the Twilight wedding. Photo: courtesy
These are the dishes Tammy Carmona designed for the Twilight wedding. Photo: courtesy

Carmona tableware is featured in eateries including Hard Rock Café, Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR and the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas, and will be available soon at retail stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond. Carmona keeps the molds for each client’s design so that replacement items can easily be ordered.

“We expanded our line to custom silk floral arrangements, stemware and jeweled one-of a-kind napkin rings,” Tammy says.

Despite her celebrity clientele and her columns for magazines such as Bridal Guide and Binah, Tammy considers herself a simple woman and has never forgotten her past.

“None of the Hollywood stuff rubbed off on me; I care more for people who need help. Right now a bride came to me with no money and I agreed to donate my services for her wedding. I had no flowers at my wedding and I believe that’s why I became what I am today, to help others. That’s more important to me than the Oscar parties I’ve done.”

In addition to her biological children, Tammy has taken in several adolescents from troubled homes. They all call her Mommy.

“Because I was that kid, I want to do this,” she says.

“If people put you down, you have two choices: You can go down with it or you can show you’re better than they think you are. And that’s what I want to show this kids: that everything is possible if you just believe in yourself.”

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The interior of Carmona in Brooklyn. Photo: courtesy
The interior of Carmona in Brooklyn. Photo: courtesy