White House “Crustmaster” Bill Yosses has the weight of the world on his shoulders. The first family's executive pastry chef has to cook up delectable concoctions to please the picky palates of world leaders from Brasilia to Bangkok. And let’s not forget about pleasing the president's daughters Malia and Sasha. Smithsonian’s Brandon Springer spoke with Chef Yosses.He will be at the S. Dillon Ripley Center Tuesday night at 6:45 p.m. discussing the sweet life of a White House pastry chef.
I understand that for you dessert has deep connections to American traditions. Can you tell me about that?
Sure, one of the things that I mentioned in the book that I always love talking about is how America, especially even before the revolution, as our country was being formed, was seen as kind of a source of great food. Potatoes, tomatoes, chestnuts, all theses things did not exist in Europe and were found in America. All these were seen by Europeans as a new source, an interesting source, of food. Just as in the 14th century, spices from Asia were the new thing and only available to royalty and the aristocratic class, America was seen as this great source of new food and was looked to for new ideas.
One of the things that was developed here was new apples. The most famous one, that was written about by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was called the New Town Pippin. That apple was developed in what then was called New Town and what is now Queens, New York. Both Franklin and Jefferson write about this great apple that has no peer and European stock and all that. So, these foods were being celebrated even by our founding fathers who were, in Jefferson’s case and Washington’s case, basically farmers, but gentlemen farmers with very erudite backgrounds. So, that’s why things like apple pie have becomes so much a part of not just our American menu and American folklore, but also, really, our political traditions.
Have your desserts ever had an impact on politics and diplomacy at the White House?
Well, of course! Let me put it this way, I think food in general is sort of a universal. It’s universally appreciated. It has been since people gathered around the campfire. Food has a great civilizing influence. It’s when we stop hunting and we sit down and enjoy food together. It’s also the beginning of community.
In that sense, I think food is an important political tool. And this is the type of thing that was recognized in the early 19th century by Napoleon who hired Antonin Careme, one of the great chefs of that period. And his lavish dinners were used to persuade and cajole a lot of political questions. So, I don’t mean to glorify what we do by comparing them with that opulent period, but yes I think food is a great chance for people to come around a table and relax and talk through their differences. But I cannot point out a single amendment or bill that credit could be given to the strawberry shortcake.
What has been your most, let’s say, fanciful creation at the White House?
I would have to say the Chocolate Easter Village. It’s one we have a lot of fun with. We make an entire village out of chocolate, and little chocolate huts in the shape of eggs, and little creatures made out of marzipan and chocolate. Susie Morrison, my assistant, and myself spend a couple weeks preparing this and it is unveiled at the Easter Egg Roll and the kids get a big kick out of it. So in terms of fanciful, whimsical, I think that would count.
The whole Christmas season for us is a one huge, long event. From Dec. 1 to Christmas, there are several events a day, so we do a lot of decorated cookies and dessert buffets and decorations on that buffet, so that’s kind of our peak period.
How do you meet that balance between your inner artisan and your inner chemist when creating your desserts?
The inner artisan is what it’s all about in terms of creating something appropriate. The great thing about working at the White House is that we have a very cohesive team and basically we are all responding to the direction of Mrs. Obama and so, through her social secretary, we work out the theme of the event, what the food will be and what dessert will be. And this goes down to include as much as the invitations, the tableware, the florists, tablecloths, every department in the White House is involved in this joint process.
So, the artisan in each of us is attuned to what the theme of the event will be. As far as the inner chemist, that certainly has a place in pastry because our recipes are a kind of cooking chemistry and we base them on recipes we have developed, or the favorites of the first family, or are White House traditional recipes.
How often do the Obamas order dessert and what is their favorite?
As far as the frequency, we can say it is certainly not every day and mostly for special occasions. And the family likes traditional American desserts like cobblers and crisps and pies.
Final question: In the White House, does everyone receive their “just desserts”?
Well, I guess if you are philosophical in life in general and believe in Karma, then everyone gets their “just desserts” and I’m sure we’re no different.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would just add this: that as a chef it’s really exciting to be in the food business at this time when Mrs. Obama has put the importance of quality food and the importance of healthy eating in the forefront of the national conversation. Cris Comerford and myself are proud to be part of that effort.
Chef Yosses will also be signing copies of his new book “The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion.” Praline Bakery and Bistro will be providing tasty treats for the event. Tickets are $25.