In his 28-year career as a pastry chef, Bill Yosses has worked at many notable establishments, including New York City’s renowned Tavern on the Green, but none so prestigious as his current place of employment—the White House. Yosses started under the Bush Administration, but luckily for him the Obamas’ focus on health doesn’t spell an end for desserts, just a shift to moderation. We talked with Yosses about how health factors into his creations and the holiday festivities at the White House.
How has your job as White House pastry chef changed since President Obama came into office?
From our first meeting, Mrs. Obama emphasized healthier eating as part of a larger life plan, especially for kids: more vegetables and fruits, less fatty foods. And since the White House has this enormous garden, which is a fantastic source of seasonal produce, that has changed the way all of us cook. But she made it clear that there would still be some indulgences.
The First Family has dessert, but it isn’t every day; it is served on special occasions. The problem at the White House is that every day is a special occasion—from breakfast meetings with a foundation to a state dinner.
What do you do to make desserts healthier?
The first thing I look at is the fat content. I try to replace butter either with a healthful oil (e.g., canola oil) or with a fruit puree so you’re still offering flavor. Another trick we use when cutting fat is to add other complex flavors. So we often add spices—a little bit of cardamom, honey, vanilla, citrus zest—and even a touch of saffron or turmeric for a little color.
How does the First Family influence the food atmosphere at the White House over the holidays?
In every meeting we’ve had with Mrs. Obama it’s been made clear that she wants this to feel like a home.
The dessert that was the biggest hit last year was a sugar cookie in the shape of the First Family’s dog, Bo. This year we have a black and yellow bumblebee to celebrate the first-ever White House beehive. Cookies are huge here. We make five to six kinds of dough and freeze it. Then every day during the holiday season we roll it out and bake and decorate. We easily make up to 15,000 to 20,000 cookies for the holidays.
What has been your most panicky moment as White House Pastry Chef? Moving that gosh darn gingerbread house. Last year the white chocolate-covered gingerbread White House we created weighed well over 300 pounds. We made it downstairs in the China Room but we had to carry it upstairs to display it.
We plastered it with chocolate to make sure that it was stable and thick enough that it didn’t ooze off the table in a warm room. It was just nerve-racking.
Do you do a trial run to move it?
Nope, we just hope for the best.