Monday, December 27, 2010

Bill Yosses: Dessert Is Art...And Unnecessary

The White House Pastry Chef goes on the record about the role of sugar in the culture...
"Dessert is not a right," First Lady Michelle Obama announced in July, as she spoke about the Let's Move! campaign to more than 4,000 people at the 101st NAACP Convention in Missouri.

“Dessert is aspirational,” White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses announced in the New Yorker this week. “It’s the one part of the meal you don’t have to eat. It’s the purest part of the meal: the art part. But it’s also the greediest part, the eat-it-in-a-closet part. We don’t have to have it, and yet we do." (Above: Yosses at the White House)

Yosses made the pronouncement to Adam Gopnik, who after giving up sugar and sweets, decided to go on a global tour to discover their "meaning." Gopnik visited Yosses at the White House to get some guidance, and then after trotting the globe, cooked with him.

"Bill Yosses, I had been made to understand, was the Great Still Center of the American dessert," Gopnik wrote in The Sweet Revolution: The Power of The Pastry Chef. "Yosses turned out to be a smiling, vaguely seraphic presence—at one point, he neatly, calmly distinguished caramel, mere burnt sugar, from butterscotch, brown sugar mixed with butter, for the benefit of his sous-chefs."

Gopnik got nowhere near Mrs. Obama, who after proclaiming that dessert was not a "right" but a special treat, also advised the members of the NAACP that their century of hard work for civil rights would be derailed by childhood obesity, if they continued to eat dessert and fried foods with abandon. Still, this year, as she rolled out the Let's Move! campaign, Mrs. Obama continued to insist that dessert has a role in everyone's lives; her campaign is about moderation and balance, not banning dessert. It's a shades-of-gray approach that's been lost on her critics, who believe she's intent on doing things like eliminating bake sales from schools, and mandating broccoli. Yosses added to the shades-of gray confusion, as he tried to guide Gopnik on his quest for the meaning of sugar.

"When I was a kid, I would stuff my face with éclairs. I still would, I guess,” Yosses told Gopnik.

Gopnik was not impressed by the White House: "...the White House might seem less like the nerve center of the free world than like a medium-sized, slightly shabby charming resort hotel in Virginia, the kind where your best friend from college puts everyone up when he marries that horsy girl you all have doubts about," Gopnik wrote.


Go West, young man, or at least to elBulli...
Still, despite his assessment of the White House, Gopnik took Yosses' advice seriously, when Yosses told Gopnik that he'd have to search harder for the "meaning" of dessert.

“The real question is this,” Yosses said. “How did this thing, this spice, sugar, become a staple? How did something that ought to be like saffron, a rare thing to add, become the thing we build on? How did a whole way of cooking creep up from sweetness? Why do we use it to end the meal? Those are the big questions.”

Yosses suggested Gopnik visit a different master for his quest for sugar enlightenment. Another chef who is deeply involved with the White House, Dan Barber, also gave Gopnik the same advice, so Gopnik jetted off to Barcelona, to visit Feran Adrià's pastry operation at elBulli, perhaps the most famous restaurant in the world. Barber is a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and in September, Mrs. Obama hosted a special luncheon for UN spouses at Barber's Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in New York. Yosses created the desserts for the luncheon. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaks at the luncheon, as Yosses, second from right, and Barber, far right, look on; Executive Chef Cris Comerford and assistant chef Sam Kass also cooked at the luncheon)

Gopnik lays "a trap" for Yosses
In Spain, Gopnik witnessed all kinds of fabulous but apparently meaningless dessert creations, and after he returned to the US, he was still flummoxed about the "why" of desserts.

"There was nothing that you could do with what I had learned," Gopnik wrote. He decided to "lay a trap" for Yosses.

"I invited Bill Yosses, the White House chef, over for dessert, and laid a small trap for him: I was going to make the apricot soufflé, and see if I could achieve the zone. Over dinner, we talked desserts some more: the mysteries of plating, the needs of family life," Gopnik wrote.

He devotes seven paragraphs to describing a lesson Yosses gave him in beating an apricot soufflé to perfection, but in the end, comes to no conclusion about the meaning of sugar.

"With Yosses’s help, I had taken something elaborate and made it something that seemed elemental. The primate instinct—get sweets at any price—had been turned into this polished performance," Gopnik wrote, and added that his questions remained.

Yosses published The Perfect Finish this summer, a spectacular cookbook based on his long career as one of the most notable pastry chefs in the US, before arriving at the White House in 2007, hired by First Lady Laura Bush. He's regularly consulted by people like Gopnik and other writers who are desperate to understand how sweets fit in to Mrs. Obama's campaign. Last May, Yosses told the New York Times that his very first meeting with Mrs. Obama, after the President had been sworn in, was "nerve wracking."

“The most surprising day of my life,” Yosses said, adding that Mrs. Obama stipulated that dessert would be a rarity, not routine, at White House family meals, and that portions should be scaled down.

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

The rest of the Times article takes a look at how Yosses was creating "healthier" desserts in the White House, and noted his enthusiasm for the First Lady's Kitchen Garden. In November, as he purchased baked goods from the Gingerbread House Bakery in Kokomo, Indiana, President Obama announced the White House dessert policy.

"The girls aren't supposed to have dessert on weekdays but it's Thanksgiving week," The President said.

The President cleaned out the dessert case, purchasing boxes and boxes of donuts, pumpkin rolls, cream rolls. He caught plenty of flak for it from critics of Mrs. Obama's campaign.

*Top photo by New York Times; second by EGK/Obama Foodorama