The former White House chef was on the scene when First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” wellness program. Now he’s taken what he’s learned out on the road.
PHOTO BY NICK ROMANENKO
COURTESY OF RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW JERSEY
By Allan Richter
The Obama presidency was in its first year and the administration was hosting its biggest social event to date—a state dinner to honor the U.S. friendship with India, one of America’s closest allies, and its prime minister, Manmohan Singh. To mark the occasion, White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses created a dessert that would honor the bond between the two countries by straddling American and Indian culinary cultures—a pumpkin pie with Asian-favored ingredients.
Any attention that Yosses’ carefully crafted pie might have garnered, however, quickly shifted when news broke that a couple had allegedly made it past Secret Service to crash the event and mingle with the likes of Vice President Joe Biden and then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. “The only story that was reported was about this couple that came to the dinner. So my pumpkin pie went by the wayside,” Yosses says with a laugh. “Nobody wrote about it.”
Yosses was working at Paul Newman’s Westport, Connecticut, eatery, The Dressing Room, in 2007 when he was hired by Laura Bush. At the time, Yosses was known not just for his work at actor Newman’s restaurant but for his soufflés and other rich creations at French restaurants like Bouley and Montrachet in New York.
A few months after the infamous White House state dinner, Yosses was on hand when First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move! fitness and nutrition program to combat childhood obesity, the rates of which have tripled over the past three decades. At the same time, the Obamas directed their culinary staff to make more healthful food and serve smaller portions. Yosses was a frequent visitor to Mrs. Obama’s newly planted kitchen vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House, where he gathered greens for meals and gave tours for school groups.
He left the White House two years ago to launch Kitchen Garden Laboratory (kitchengardenlaboratory.org), a venture that promotes healthy eating through the study of science. We caught up with Yosses recently at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, where he was training teachers to bring gardening and cooking projects into their classrooms under the New York City Board of Education’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy program.
At Stuyvesant, Yosses and scientist Vayu Maini Rekdal of Young Chefs (youngchefsprogram.org) hypothesized with the teachers over possible salad dressing emulsifiers such as honey, mustard and mayonnaise, and then tested their creations atop bowls of arugula, peppers, Muscat grapes and tomatoes. The chef and scientist talked up hydrophobic (water-hating) and hydrophilic (water-loving) combinations.
“Emulsifiers bring these two together,” Yosses told his students as he snipped basil from a six-foot hydroponic garden tower. “It’s like Donald Trump and Hillary becoming friends.”
Sipping ginger soda, Yosses sat down for a talk about his White House years, his philosophy about healthful eating and, oh yes, that pumpkin pie that lost the spotlight to a couple of alleged White House interlopers.
Energy Times: Let’s give your pumpkin pie the attention it deserves. Tell me about your decisions on the ingredients you chose and why it was so suited to the India state dinner.
Bill Yosses: Prime Minister Singh wanted an American experience. It’s often the case that heads of state want that, and they’re right: Why make garam masala when it’s a lot better in India? We as chefs in the White House want to represent the best of our country, from all the regions. We want them to experience American cuisine, if there is such a thing.
So I decided to make a pumpkin pie and use a squash and some Indian spices. We want them to know we respect their country, traditions and their flavor profile. So we do include some things in an American way of cooking that refers to their country. A pumpkin pie is as American as you can get, but also they cook with squash in Asia, so it sort of fits into this global view of food. Then I used some spices that might be associated with India like coriander. It was a healthful pie. We used natural honey instead of refined sugar, for example.
ET: How did you end up at the White House?
BY: You never know why you were hired at the White House, especially in the side which is known as the residence. Presidents hire people usually whom they have known, if they worked on their campaign, for example. The house is sort of apart. Typically the house staff stays from administration to administration, and there are people that have been there from way back when. They’re very devoted to the president and to the presidency, to discretion, to security, to everything there can be about that house and office that is really worth protecting.
There’s very careful scrutiny when you’re hired. There’s a huge background check. Lots and lots of interviews.
It’s a privilege and honor every day to walk into those doors. I never took it for granted. I’m a history buff to begin with, a political junkie, so it was really thrilling, although you’re not involved in day-to-day policy but you feel like you’re part of a team. You’re sort of a fly on the wall seeing these things, but on the other side. You know there’s something happening on the other side of that wall. You have no idea what’s being said, but you read about it the next day. That’s kind of thrilling.
ET: How did Paul Newman emphasize healthy eating at his restaurant and what was your favorite menu item?
BY: Unfortunately the restaurant is now closed. He was very devoted to healthy fare, and he started a farmers market out in the parking lot of the restaurant where he had as much organic produce as he could. He had a focus on healthy but delicious food. My favorite? He put a lot of time into developing a hamburger; there was a mixture of the right combination of beef cuts.
ET: When Michelle Obama stepped up the effort to bring healthier dining into the White House, you explored a variety of ingredients that you could substitute to make food more healthful. How did you navigate that?
BY: We did change the recipes, yes. But I want to steer away from the idea that we were making healthy desserts by replacing all of these great ingredients across the board. You can certainly take sugar out of a lot of desserts, at least 33%, I’ve been finding, from most recipes and you still have a satisfying dessert. Sometimes you do have to add another egg or something for structure, so it’s individual cases. But we can’t make a blanket statement that you can replace, say, cream with tofu or something like that. You often end up with an unsatisfying dessert. So all you’ve done is made the person miss something that is more satisfying.
I would rather have a rich dessert made with good butter, cream, natural sugars and flour that’s well-sourced from a great mill than to have something that has tried to be reengineered with all these so-called healthy ingredients. When you make a dessert with natural ingredients from good sources, it tastes good and you eat less. You want less. You’re satisfied with a really good piece of cheesecake that’s a third of the size that is usually served. You’re satisfied with strawberry shortcake when there’s a lot of strawberries, not much sugar and a very little bit of the shortbread. You’re satisfied with really good chocolate that has a huge range of flavors and dimensions, and all you’ve taken is a bonbon the size of a thumbnail, but it’s so satisfying because it’s rich and complex. And your body is satisfied, too.
Oftentimes with junk food or modern fast food, they give you a really big helping of something but it’s all synthetic, and your body knows that it’s not receiving real nutrients. When you eat a fast-food hamburger, you’re not satisfying your body. You can eat 10 of them, and people do, because their body is telling them, “I have not had anything satisfying yet.” One of the examples of that is in one of the experiments we do with kids. I have bought a fast-food burger. You put it on a table, unwrapped and uncovered. I’ve left it out for months, and nothing happens to it. There are no ants. There’s no mold. There’s no fungus. There’s nothing nutritious in there, so nothing happens to a fast-food burger. It dries out.
It turns into a Jeff Koons sort of art piece. It’s been processed to the point that there’s no
nutrition. It’s filler. It’s like eating cotton.
ET: What are some of the more effective substitutions, that is, healthful but that still taste good, you’ve made?
BY: There were many times when we would replace butter with olive oil. Olive oil tastes great. It’s an unsaturated fat. It works great in baking. I never cooked with olive oil before; I have a French background and it was always butter. But then in the last 10 or 15 years I started using olive oil in cakes, and it’s awesome. It’s really case by case, where it works in the recipe and where it’s still delicious and satisfying. I would like to make fewer desserts with rich butter and cream but I wouldn’t reject it entirely. I would like to have one dessert out of 10 with rich butter and cream, and the others have a coconut oil or olive oil. I’m trying to increase the repertoire.
I make a Tunisian olive oil cake, which is done with citrus. It’s fantastic. The other day I made a gluten-free vegan sort of quiche in which there were no eggs. The filling was made with soy milk and cooked millet flour to hold it together, and tofu and collards. The shell was made with millet flour, golden flaxseed flour, and we had four grains that were totally gluten-free, which gave it this great nutty flavor. And we used turmeric, which gives it a zing and takes your mind away from what you’re expecting. If you wanted a Quiche Lorraine, which has a slab of bacon and eggs and cheese, and you see this other quiche that I made, you’d be missing the bacon and cheese. But if you put in something like turmeric, there’s color and flavor and maybe a little heat from chili peppers, you feel that it’s satisfying and you don’t think about that Quiche Lorraine.
ET: Part of the exercise you just did with the teachers involved Muscat grapes from Chile, where it’s now autumn and the grapes are in season. I take it you don’t strictly adhere to sourcing food locally.
BY: I’m fine with the carbon footprint of food miles, of food that has traveled around the world, because there are studies that show that local is not necessarily better. There was this study in England where lambs were raised 10 miles outside of London, and then they compared that with the carbon footprint of lambs raised in New Zealand and transported to England, and the [transporters of the New Zealand lambs] were actually doing a more efficient job overall.
Economies of scale are important, so a lot of the smaller producers who are strictly-by-the-book organic—which I admire and we have to keep that; we have to support local farmers—but there are some times when a more intelligent approach could be found by using a larger production scale that is still humane, antibiotic-free and growth hormone-free but performed in a way that is done more efficiently.
So if a person is respecting the locality, the land, the water, the environment, the air—and the people, especially the people that work for them—then I’m willing to buy that product. That, to me, is local. That’s respect for the locality.
Many people have taken a sort of extreme view that we should only eat organic, that we should only eat food that is produced within 50 miles, that we should ban all GMOs, that all of these things will somehow lead to a better life for us. But those kinds of dogmatic stances are holding us back.
Take organic, for example. It takes a lot more land. The production [yields are] much lower. I’m all for organic if you can do it, but I don’t see a way, at least from what I’ve read, that organic food is going to feed the 9 billion people that we’re going to have on the planet by 2050. There won’t be enough. And organic means non-GMO, and non-GMO means less production.
I’m not saying that GMOs are being used correctly; they’re probably in the wrong hands. But I don’t know about the idea that we should just eliminate them entirely or that they’re dangerous on their own, without looking at how individual cases could be improved, because many GMO crops don’t use fertilizer, don’t need fungicide, don’t need pesticide.
So let’s be intelligent about it. Maybe it has to be investigated by government agencies or by private academia, not sponsored by big multinationals.
ET: It sounds like examples of the kind of moderation, if you will, you’re talking about are the Environmental Working Group’s annual lists—the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables the EWG says have been most exposed to pesticides and should be bought organic, and the “Clean 15” of those that are more free of pesticides and can be bought non-organic.
BY: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Let’s be reasonable. Let’s use moderation in our thinking. You don’t need to go to the extreme. But I’m glad that people do [go to the extreme] by the way. There need to be people like that, who say “I believe only organic” and “I believe only local,” because we need to have that vision, that there is a kind of utopian thinking that is important for us to know. It’s important since the writing in the 50s of Silent Spring, that we are damaging this planet in a way that is irreparable, by a lot of things, not only the way we grow food. So yes, there have to be those people who are showing us how disastrous our methods are. But that doesn’t mean we have to go to the other end of the spectrum and say everybody should only eat what they grow in their backyard. Potatoes are fine, but that’s all you’re going to eat in January if you’re only eating what you grow.
ET: Did you ever consider broaching any issues relating to food policy with White House officials? After all you had the ear of the president.
BY: I had his palate. There are people better informed than I on those issues. The president doesn’t consult you about policy—even dessert policy.