Executive Chef: An Interview with the White House Pastry Chef

As election season gears up, Cambridge, MA welcomed a DC insider who wows pols on both sides of the aisle: White House pastry chef Bill Yosses. Marking his third year presenting at Harvard’s fall Science & Cooking public lecture series, the man Obama calls “the Crust Master” schooled a rapt crowd with his talk “How Phase Changes Cause Deliciousness.” But first, Yosses chatted with us about the issues — like winter gardens and reality TV. One of your responsibilities is tending the South Lawn kitchen garden.

bill yosses michelle obama

Image credit: NYTimes

What’s your philosophy on cooking seasonally?

Every chef would like to cook seasonally, but it’s not always possible, especially if you are living in a northern climate. Sometimes in the winter there’s not much, and for a pastry chef that basically means apples and pears. We love seasonal, we love local, but we are not limited by it. . . . Eliot Coleman, a farmer in Maine, is a great example of the way chefs and farmers are collaborating today. He has a four-season garden — in Maine, if you can believe that — and we use a similar system. They’re called hoops; it’s a hoop with plastic over it, and in the dead of winter you can still grow things underneath because the sun heats the ground during the day and allows ground water to collect. We’ve grown things at the White House in January in the snowfall.

A French take on Italian tiramisu for the former president and first lady of France, blown sugar apples filled with ice cream for a Chinese state dinner — how do you make desserts that are culturally relevant to White House visitors?

To me that has been one of the most interesting parts of the job. There are people coming from every corner of the world, so we do research in the kitchen. Of course, we want to learn about what kind of dishes and what ingredients the guests would like. Sometimes we’ll call the embassies; sometimes they send information to us.

bill yosses michelle obama kitchen

Image Credit: Free Republic

You have a deep interest in White House culinary history, which is heavily influenced by French cooking. How much of that history do you incorporate into your own recipes? I was trained in France, and I do use a lot of classical French techniques — all pastry chefs do. But we also love American desserts, and that’s what people expect; they’re coming to the White House. So, what we like to say is that the way we cook is like American jazz: we take a classic style, and then we innovate with it. What we do with cooking is what jazz is to classical music, with a European foundation.

Do you have any guilty-pleasure reality cooking shows? Top Chef? Cupcake Wars? You know, I don’t! But I like the fact that they are out there. Anything that gets people interested in food and cooking, I’m all for it. What I would love is if that interest would get translated into food knowledge — to really understanding what we are eating, what it does to our bodies, what the sources are. These days, what people really are interested in is who’s growing the food and how they are growing it. So, I think it’s entertaining, but on a very superficial level. I hope it brings people to understand more about food like we do here, where we are talking about food as a science.