Bill Yosses

Yosses at the White HousePhoto: Sheelah Craighead/Courtesy of the White House

Serving petits fours to POTUS isn’t in your typical pastry chef’s job description. Bill Yosses, late of Bouley and Citarella, presently of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, isn’t your typical pastry chef. Last fall, as he was helping launch Paul Newman’s Westport restaurant, Dressing Room, he was summoned to the White House for a tryout. If the First Family had known he wrote Desserts for Dummies, would Yosses have gotten the gig? Having tasted his chocolate-hazelnut Sweet Pleasures and his vanilla-bean cake, we’d have to say yes. Recently, we checked in on the confectioner-in-chief.

A lot of little boys dream of growing up to be the president. Did you want to be the president’s pastry chef?
You know, I won’t say I didn’t. Roland Mesnier, the pastry chef here for 25 years, was such a presence in our industry.

When did you start thinking about cooking?
Not until I had moved to France after my college days. I couldn’t afford the three-star meals, but I could afford the cakes at Fauchon. That’s probably what made me a pastry chef.

How did the president and First Lady find out about you?
The White House sent out some invitations to people and asked for résumés. They invited me to come here and do a tasting.

What clinched it for you?
I have no idea. There was good feedback from the beginning. There were still a lot of great peaches around. I used some Frog Hollow peaches, which are superb.

Those are from California. How did you get them, mail-order?
Yes. I maybe had a leg up since there were all these great fruits still around and lemon verbena and lemon balm, and I always love that stuff, matching that with fresh summer fruits.

Do the farmers’ markets come into play as much there? Do you have time to explore them?
Well, no. We have people who source the food. We don’t really get into that because that’s a big security no-no. We don’t talk about that.

Then how do you get those specialty items, like the Frog Hollow peaches? I imagine they have to pass some sort of rigorous inspection.
Some sort of, yes.

Did your predecessor, when he left, have any words of wisdom?
“Don’t forget where you are, keep a smile on your face even when you’re crushed, and just listen.”

Nothing ingredient-based?
He told me the president likes chocolate. And no pineapple. Actually, you better strike that. The pineapple growers of America will revolt.

You’ve worked for David Bouley, Citarella’s Joe Gurrera, and now the First Lady. Who was the toughest, most demanding boss?
Oh, my God, are you trying to get me hanged? I never thought I’d hear those names together. Let me put it this way: Any chef who cares about food wants to work for people who care about food, and that means caring about detail. I’m proud and honored to have worked with people who care.

What would you say is the difference between a Republican and a Democratic dessert?
The reason I’m in the food business and the reason I love it is because it crosses all boundaries. Everybody loves food and everybody loves to have a great dessert. The great thing about this job is that it’s not red or blue, it’s purple. A chef who speaks out like a Hollywood celebrity about politics loses half his customers.

Are you learning any Texas specialties?
Sure. I had already been slightly familiar with cajeta. It’s great. It’s dulce de leche but made with goat’s milk, and it’s a favorite of the First Family’s.

Do the cookie jars get pilfered late at night?
Well, neither the president nor Mrs. Bush likes late-night snacks as far as I know. They do love desserts, but Mrs. Bush does refrain more.

People like Sam Mason and Will Goldfarb work in a style that’s considered the new vanguard of pastry. Is there much call for that style where you are now?
No, none. Being a New York pastry chef, we’re always tempted to do something newfangled, but we don’t really push any envelopes here.

Is it something you’d like to do?
I love those kinds of desserts. It’s important for chefs to be a little bit humble, and that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make outlandish desserts. It means they should be aware of their audience. In the end we’re trying to make people happy.

And that wouldn’t happen if you served mushrooms and avocados for dessert?
I think I’d be back in New York pretty quickly.

Bill Yosses