For Bill Yosses, knowing that Barack and Michelle Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and wife Samantha, Hillary Clinton, George Clooney, and Warren Buffett would be among the 350 people eating his dessert was the least of his worries.
As the executive pastry chef at the White House, Yosses GSNB’78 was used to dignitaries marveling over his confections. In making preparations to serve dessert to 366 guests at the state dinner held in mid-March to honor England, however, he was mildly concerned about the unusually warm weather. It might sabotage his creation, a steamed Meyer lemon pudding topped with Idaho huckleberry sorbet and served with a Newtown pippin apple compote. Like all food selections for state dinners, the dessert was chosen to honor the guest nation. The apple, first grown in Queens, New York, and a favorite of presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, was a hit with young Queen Victoria of England, too, who promptly eliminated the duties on apples—one of the first partnerships between the nations after the Revolutionary War.
The dessert—suggested by Yosses and chosen by the First Lady, who is very active in menu and entertainment planning—separates into layers of pudding and sponge cake when baked, but it can become muddled if exposed to humidity and turbulence. The desserts had to be ferried 200 yards through the balmy evening air, from the White House pastry kitchen to the far corner of the South Lawn where an enormous tent housed the dinner guests. Yosses, who has worked at New York City’s Tavern on the Green, Montrachet, and Bouley, was unfazed. As it turns out, the dessert, like the entire evening itself, was a hit, one of the more spectacular events at the White House. “I like to take chances,” Yosses says. “Otherwise, why suit up?”
Yosses donned his chef whites five years ago when First Lady Laura Bush asked him to succeed the legendary pastry chef Roland Mesnier. After the hectic pace of Manhattan restaurant life, the position, created by Jacqueline Kennedy, presented a more predictable schedule though new challenges. “I wouldn’t have tried this at my first state dinner, which was, oddly enough, for the Queen of England,” says Yosses. “At the White House, the challenge is more about the logistics. I know I can make any dessert. What I need to figure out all the time is how it’s going to be delivered.”
He works out of a kitchen that’s the size of a galley appropriate for a moderately sized cabin cruiser. But, he prizes it for its efficiency—“I’m from New York City; I used to have cookie sheets on garbage cans.” He overcomes space and appliance limitations by breaking down a big recipe to four or five manageable portions for preparation and baking. Fortunately, the kitchen happens to be strategically positioned within the White House, facilitating the task of getting desserts to where they need to be, whether for a grand affair, a family dinner for the Obamas, or working lunches for the staff of the West Wing.
Yosses is vigilant about honoring Michelle Obama’s emphasis on healthy desserts—part of the First Lady’s public advocacy to eliminate childhood obesity, which has become an epidemic in America. When they first met, he was thrilled to learn about her interest because it coincided with his own enthusiasm, and participation in school programs like Spoons Across America, to introduce children to fresh food and good ingredients—a practice he continues by hosting school groups twice a week to visit the White House.
Yosses does have one not-so-healthy secret ingredient. He uses lard—just a pinch—for the crusts of his pies, a big favorite of the First Family’s and the reason why President Obama calls him the Crust Master. “All it takes is just a little bit to give it that crispy snap, that flakiness, and that flavor,” says Yosses, coauthor of The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). “I got the tip from a famous pie maker, who won so many county fairs that the other ladies had her kicked out.”
Yosses was introduced to French cooking while earning his master’s degree in French and French literature at Rutgers. Students would get together for dinner parties to cook French fare, and he was changed: “My god, food can taste this good?” Yosses’s command of French, he says, opened many culinary doors to work with French chefs in France and the United States, among them Daniel Boulud. Ever the student, he relished learning the repertory of French patisserie and today enjoys researching the culinary traditions of guest nations. And then there is the allure of the history of the White House and its famous inhabitants, who always seem to be watching Yosses as he delivers one delectable dessert after another. •
— David W. Major