Wednesday, February 20, 2013

After Three Years Of Working On Let's Move!, White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses Is 'Repentant'

America's top sugar master discusses his conversion to healthier practices, and says First Lady's childhood obesity campaign builds on the work of the Founding Fathers...
White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses has undergone a quasi-religious conversion to healthy eating, thanks to working as an ambassador for First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign for the last three years.  The mastermind behind all the sweets served at 1600 Penn, from glorious presentation cakes to the stunning Gingerbread White House at Christmas, Yosses says he is now "repentant" about being a professional sugar slinger for more than thirty years.  He made the admission on Saturday as he spoke to food activists gathered for TEDx Manhattan's "Changing the Way We Eat" conference in New York.  (Above, Yosses in action)
"I am a converted--a repentant pastry chef," Yosses declared during his wide-ranging remarks as he described his work with Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity initiative.

And while Yosses said he doesn't want to "totally disavow my profession," he warned about the health consequences of sugar, and described changes he's made at the White House.  As the only dessert deacon on the diverse speakers' schedule, Yosses compared his appearance to President Richard Nixon backing the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's kind of like...when a member of one political party advocates something from the other political party--then people really listen," Yosses said.  "If pastry chefs are worried that the amount of fat and sugar that we're consuming is a problem...then we really have a problem."

With Mrs. Obama seeking to drop the prevalence of childhood obesity from its current national level of about 16-17% to just 5% by 2030 with Let's Move!, Yosses' job at the White House is profoundly different than when he was appointed to his post by First Lady Laura Bush in January of 2007, after a career in some of America's finest restaurants. 

These days, Yosses said, he spends as much time teaching kids about growing food--leading tour groups through Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden twice weekly, and lecturing in schools about healthier eating--as he does working on sweets, though he showed plenty of photos of extravagant White House desserts during his slideshow presentation.

Yosses proposes a "hedonistic culture of healthy eating"...
Yosses shared his theory about what an enlightened approach to sweets should be for America's chefs, in order to help the nation achieve Mrs. Obama's goals.

"One of the things that scares people is the thought that healthy food is the opposite of pleasure, deliciousness, flavor," Yosses said. "What I'm advocating today is a hedonistic culture of healthy eating."

Portion sizes for desserts should be small, and made "with good ingredients from purveyors who have integrity," he said.  "I think its important to keep the notion of pleasure alive and a delicious dessert is a potent symbol of that."

Still, too much sugar "causes cell damage," Yosses warned. "We're learning more and more about how this contributes to obesity and diabetes."

Describing changes he's made at the White House to create healthier desserts, Yosses showed photos of the White House beehive, the first to ever be on the 18-acre campus in more than two centuries, installed in 2009 at Mrs. Obama's behest beside her Kitchen Garden. 

"We're thinking about how we change the ingredients, how we change what we put in those cakes so we're not hurting ourselves," Yosses said.  "Honey is one of the really great replacements for refined sugar...it has flavor, it has less fructose and you need less of it."

Yosses added a pastry chef's tip: Honey "keeps your cakes moist longer."

Repentance notwithstanding, Yosses' bosses have been praising him since 2009, when President Obama nicknamed him "The Crustmaster" for the lard and butter crusts on his signature fruit pies, which Mrs. Obama has dubbed "dangerously good."

The Let's Move! campaign and the Founding Fathers...
As he showed photos of Mrs. Obama working with invited school children in the garden, Yosses described the annual Spring plantings and Fall harvests--and the kids' delight in eating the newly plucked bounty during the picnics that follow.

"What I love to talk about with the kids is that agriculture, healthy eating and delicious food is part of our DNA as Americans," Yosses said.

Mrs. Obama's campaign for healthy eating is "not something new, it's something we lost--it's very much part of the history of our country, something we lost in the interest of efficiency," he argued.

"All of our founding fathers were very interested in farming, very interested in food...John Adams had a small garden in Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson spent the rest of his life gardening."

Heirloom seeds from Jefferson's restored kitchen garden at his Monticello plantation home in Charlottesville, Virginia, now grow in Mrs. Obama's garden, Yosses explained, and he recommended the book "Founding Gardeners"* by Andrea Wulf as an important read that details the deep influence of growing their own food on the Founding Fathers.

Yosses also included Mrs. Obama's advocacy for physical activity in his presentation, showing photos of her working out in the White House, including with talk show host Jimmy Fallon.  The First Lady will kick off her celebration for the third anniversary of Let's Move! this Friday, Feb. 22, with an appearance on Fallon's late-night talk show.

"Mrs. Obama has been tireless in not only the healthy eating but in exercise," Yosses said.

In addition to making school visits to promote healthy eating in the Washington, DC area, for the last three years Yosses has been a guest lecturer in Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, teaching food science and molecular gastronomy as part of an undergraduate lecture series in physics. Last summer, he taught a similar course to elementary school students at a Harvard summer camp.  There will be more of that for the Let's Move! campaign, Yosses said.

"Our next step is we want to use science-based learning to teach kids about food, and to use food to teach kids about science," Yosses said.  "We love doing it and we're going to continue it."

Mrs. Obama has traveled around the US to spotlight local food and child health projects that can be replicated on the national level, and Yosses gave a shout out to people he said are doing the kind of work that will help his boss transform America into a healthy oasis.  On his list was Dan Barber, chef/owner of New York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an appointed member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, who has cooked diplomatic luncheons for Mrs. Obama.  Chef Michel Nischan, who owns The Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, CT, and runs Wholesome Wave Foundation, also got lauds; Yosses was Nischan's pastry chef at The Dressing Room when he was tapped for his White House post.  

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Yosses is the author of two cookbooks, Desserts for Dummies, published in 1997 before he joined the White House staff, and The Perfect Finish:  Special Desserts For Every Occasion.  The glorious tome was published in 2010, and features fifty of his favorite recipes from his vast personal repertoire.

Yosses also contributed recipes and essays to Mrs. Obama's book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, published last May.  Check the sidebar for Yosses' recipes.

Yosses' speech comes in at the 1:44 mark in this video from the conference:



*Yosses refers to the book as "Founding Farmers" during his remarks.

*Video courtesy of TEDx Manhattan