Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Bill Yosses NYT Profile

The Executive Pastry Chef, out & about in the Kitchen Garden...
White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses is publishing an excellent new cookbook, "The Perfect Finish," in June, and the W.W. Norton publicity junket has started in earnest. It's a tricky thing: Yosses is the first-ever White House chef to publish a non-White House cookbook while still "in office," and though the glorious book seems destined to be a classic, it's primarily dessert recipes. With his boss, First Lady Michelle Obama, running a national campaign to demolish childhood obesity...well, a bit of spin needs to happen.

It needs to be made clear to America that dessert is a good thing, not something Mrs. Obama frowns upon. Because that's the perception many people come away with, when they hear the catch phrase "end childhood obesity within a generation." Yosses, already an internationally acclaimed dessert meister before being named to his post by First Lady Laura Bush, can't get caught up in the current "political situation" at the White House. His book is based on his previous work, after all; it's the 80 best recipes form his "personal archive" of 5,000, developed while manning the Sugar Situation Rooms at some of New York's be st restaurants.

So now, Yosses has a lovely, feel-good profile in the New York Times ("his work is both opulent and whimsical") ("Mr. Yosses has blossomed along with his role") ("In his time at the White House, Mr. Yosses has developed what amounts to a crush on the house and its history"). Yosses chats about some of the healthy ingredient swaps he makes, to ensure that his desserts fit in with The Campaign. The Times notes the fact that trail mix, M&Ms and the White House Spider Cookies that were in last year's Halloween gift bag for the 2000+ local kids who trick or treated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was "a compromise between nutrition and tradition."

Yosses is photographed in the Kitchen Garden, and the reporter describes him tending rhubarb, to make sure that Mrs. Obama's platform of more fruit and vegetable consumption for everyone gets promoted...even while talking about sweets.

It's all been a bit of a tough road for Yosses, who has previously joked in print that as Exec Pastry Chef, he's "the dark side." It hasn't helped that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has blamed the President's "borderline high" cholesterol count on too much of Yosses' pie, which Mrs. Obama has called "dangerously good." It hasn't helped that weeks later, Senior Adviser David Axelrod repeated the same "fun story" to Jay Leno while making an appearance on The Tonight Show.

The bombe shell...
Yosses also comes out to the Times, and discusses his relationship with his partner, Charlie Fabella, a school teacher in New York (they don't have "the luxury" of living in the same city). There's even a little amuse bouche about Yosses appearing in a friend's foodie drag show.

And yes, it's very notable to chat about being gay with the Times. Because while it's old news in New York restaurant circles that Yosses is "openly" gay, it's a BIG deal to have anyone at the White House say this in print, when there are people handcuffing themselves to the North Lawn fence, to protest the fact that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is still official policy. And when President Obama is getting heckled by gay rights advocates in public. And when the idea that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan might be gay has caused absolute hysteria across the blogosphere...yes, it's quite notable that Yosses goes on the record. Though it may well give the President's nickname for Yosses, "the Crustmaster," new meaning.

The story is accompanied by a recipe for Yosses' healthy Fruit and Oat Bars, made without nuts, chocolate or white sugar, which appeared on this blog in April, here. The Times refers to these as "a bid to ease out the previous administrations bottomless cookie plate." See the sidebar for more Yosses recipes. Check out a preview of "The Perfect Finish" here. The Smithsonian will host an evening with Yosses on June 22, for a special book launch event. It's open to the public. (The bars, above)

*Photos from the Times story by Doug Mills

Here's the full Times story:
The White House Pastry Chef Revamps Sweets
by Julia Moskin - NYT, May 11, 2010

Michelle Obama's first meeting with the White House cooks was nerve-racking for the pastry chef, Bill Yosses. “The most surprising day of my life,” said Mr. Yosses, who was hired by Laura Bush in 2007. (Above: Yosses in the pastry kitchen)

He said that Mrs. Obama stipulated that dessert would be a rarity, not routine, at family meals, and that portions should be scaled down.

“Maybe I should have been worried about my job,” he said. “But I was just exhilarated.”

In the intervening months, because of Mrs. Obama’s campaign for healthy eating, the first family’s day-to-day meals have taken on national significance. And as his responsibilities have broadened to include apprentice beekeeping, weeding and the pursuit of the perfect pie crust (it includes lard, not Crisco), Mr. Yosses has blossomed along with his role.

On a recent sunny morning, he picked clumps of mint and tended his rhubarb beds in the small garden on the South Lawn. An armed member of the Secret Service’s counter-assault team emerged from a stand of blooming dogwood trees, eyeing him protectively, just as Mr. Yosses eyed tiny sprouts destined for a state dinner on May 19.

Mr. Yosses, 57, is a cheerful veteran of New York restaurant kitchens. His current job is to make desserts for the first family — and their guests, who may be Olympic athletes or heads of state, musicians or firefighters, and who may number in the hundreds on any given day. The position was created by Jacqueline Kennedy, who sparked controversy by bringing in French-trained chefs to lift the kitchen to international standards.

In his time at the White House, Mr. Yosses has developed what amounts to a crush on the house and its history. “When you work here, you walk in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson,” he said happily, tiptoeing around the edges of the oval Diplomatic Reception Room so as not to incur the housekeeper’s wrath by tracking garden mud onto its famous carpet. Mr. Jefferson and his French-trained cook, James Hemings, a slave at Monticello, are among Mr. Yosses’ many culinary-historical obsessions.

“I found an old English recipe for a sweet pea tart,” he said. “But I don’t think I could get the president to eat it.”

Traditionally, the White House pastry chef has focused on sugar sculpture and grand cakes, creating beautiful, sweet treats to ornament the house and its image. The job is the culinary equivalent of the vice presidency: important, but more peripheral and ceremonial than the top job of executive chef, held by Cristeta Comerford, who has been at her post since 2005.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t work hard. Mr. Yosses’ 12-hour days are occupied with the slog familiar to any chef, baking pastries for morning meetings in the West Wing (“which no one ever eats,” he said), adjusting the day’s menu to incorporate ingredients from local farmers (whose identities are secret for security reasons); planning for events like Halloween (as a compromise between nutrition and tradition, last year the Obamas handed out trail mix, cookies and M&M’s).

He said that the pressures of the job — even making a chocolate village for the Easter egg roll, or devising ever more ways to replace white sugar with honey and maple syrup — are entirely manageable compared with the chaos and hysteria of a high-profile New York restaurant kitchen.

“Bill fit into the madness and wasn’t fazed by it,” said the chef David Bouley, who worked alongside Mr. Yosses for almost 20 years at restaurants that included Montrachet and Bouley.

“What we were trying to do — cooking multicourse French meals, using great ingredients, with untrained staff — was totally new and almost impossible,” Mr. Bouley said of meals at his restaurant, which often stretched to four or five hours as the kitchen scrambled to keep up. “Bill could always break the tension in the kitchen, and everyone loved him.”

Mr. Yosses became one of the first American pastry chefs to build an international reputation in an era when the great masters of ganache and glamour were still French, like Jacques Torres, François Payard and Pierre Hermé. In New York, where he also ran the huge pastry kitchen at Tavern on the Green, he is known and loved for his ability to run a tight ship; his conviction that teaching, not torture, is the role of a senior chef; and his general sunniness under pressure.

But like many chefs, he eventually burned out from the stress. “There isn’t much that I miss about that life,” he said.

Except, he said, the luxury of living in the same city as his partner of six years, Charlie Fabella, a reading specialist at P.S. 54, an elementary school in Queens. A gay chef is no longer news, but it is still rare for those who work in the White House to speak publicly about being gay.

“The people I work with are much more respectful since the F.B.I. came to check me out,” said Mr. Fabella, referring to the vetting process that transformed Mr. Yosses from a New York chef to the man President Obama calls the Crustmaster.

“They used to think my boyfriend just worked in a bakery somewhere,” he added with satisfaction.

Mr. Yosses’ openness and charm have carried him a long way from Toledo, Ohio, where his mother, “a good Midwestern cook,” specialized in pies, upside-down cake, and cheesecake from a recipe by Mamie Eisenhower. They got him a job answering phones at Air France, his first job in New York City, which enabled him to globetrot through the late 1970s; an apprenticeship at Le Moulin de Mougins near Cannes with Roger Vergé, when nouvelle cuisine was in full flower; and into the kitchen at the Polo, a glamorous early ’80s spot on the Upper East Side where he worked alongside future stars like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Alfred Portale.

Mr. Yosses first became known at Montrachet for a pair of soufflés: one with chocolate, pear and nougatine; the other with lemon and raspberries, both glazed outside to a crunchy sugary crust and warm in the center. At the time, soufflés were considered old hat, but he worked to make them fresh, with perfectly balanced flavors. The molten vanilla cake he invented was a witty take on the chocolate version, but — more important — delicious. (Recipes for some of these desserts are collected in a new cookbook, “The Perfect Finish,” written with Melissa Clark, a food columnist at The New York Times.)

“Bill is a perfectionist but also patient, and that’s a rare combination in the kitchen,” said Anita Lo, the chef and an owner of Annisa restaurant, who worked with Mr. Yosses at Bouley in 1989. At that time, Ms. Lo added, the culture of the restaurant kitchen was still very competitive and relentlessly macho, and Mr. Yosses’ openness about being gay was rare. “Now, and even then, a gay pastry chef is not big news,” she said. “But any public figure coming out and being relaxed about it is a good thing.”

Mr. Yosses’ steady self-assurance makes him particularly suited to the White House job, and to his role in the delicate dance of protocol. In March, for example, he recreated a traditional Italian tiramisù in a tidy French style, as an homage to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his Italian-born wife, Carla Bruni, a dessert that he delivered along with an explanation in fluid French.

Although his work at the White House is both opulent and whimsical, Mr. Yosses is strictly against irrelevant or inedible garnishes, like fresh mint leaves on crème brûlée. “The decoration should come naturally from the food,” he said. (The mint he picked from the garden was destined for a sauce.) He might play with a little agar-agar (to set finely chopped rhubarb into a soft gel) or crystallized vitamin C (to preserve the green of an herb purée), but he has generally kept to a strong French backbone of flavor profiles. In his work, chocolate remains paired with hazelnut; pineapple with lime.

“He does not approve of a dessert like tomato sorbet with rosemary syrup,” said Jonathan Hayes, a forensic pathologist and former food writer who has been a friend and fan since the 1980s.

Mr. Hayes was among hundreds of spectators at the 2004 Salon du Chocolat in Paris, the first time American pastry chefs were invited to display their talents alongside prestigious European chocolatiers like Pierre Hermé and Robert Linxe. Bravely, they served elegant versions of Devil Dogs and Mallomars. Mr. Yosses’ friend Martin Howard, also a pastry chef, performed in drag as Chocolatina — “a kind of chocolate Carmen Miranda,” Mr. Hayes said — while Mr. Yosses donned a suit to act as Chocolatina’s innocent prey.

“The audience was absolutely dumbstruck,” Mr. Hayes said. “After that I had no doubt that Bill would do anything for a friend.”

One of Mr. Yosses’ oldest friends is Robert Surles, known to New Yorkers as Chef Bobo, who cooks excellent lunches for 600 children each day at the private Calhoun School on the Upper West Side and grows herbs on the school’s roof. Mr. Surles followed Mr. Yosses into professional cooking, and the two have long shared a conviction that any change in American eating habits must begin in childhood. At Calhoun, there are no seconds at lunch, except for salad and fruit. Dessert is served once a week. “The kids have no problem with it,” Mr. Surles said. “It’s the parents who are harder to teach.”

Mr. Yosses’ most recent mission is changing the White House tradition of the bottomless cookie plate. (Among White House journalists, President Clinton was known for going straight from a grueling run into the pastry kitchen. Only part of it is visible through a window, but reporters outside recognized him by his sneakers.)

To edge out the cookies, Mr. Yosses decided to create a child-pleasing crunchy granola bar without nuts, chocolate or white sugar. “We went through many tastings on this one,” he said in his skinny galley kitchen, patting the final result, a mix of toasted oats, sesame seeds and chewy dried fruits into a sheet pan.

Over two days of interviews, his cheerfulness flagged only once: at the thought of Christmas, and the many open-house receptions it entails. “Twenty-thousand cookies is a lot,” he said.

This week at the White House, Mr. Yosses is busy with run-throughs for next week’s state dinner for the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón.

As usual, not so much as a candied pumpkinseed will be confirmed until the day of the event.

“This is Mrs. Obama’s house,” Mr. Yosses said, when pressed for details. “It’s not my place to say what dessert she might serve.”