CAPITAL CULTURE: Obama pastry chef the Crustmaster

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WASHINGTON - WASHINGTON (AP) — Poor Bill Yosses. He's the White House pastry chef. He makes desserts for a living.

He works for Barack and Michelle Obama. They talk about healthy eating. All the time.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?

Not at all.

Yosses' creations — especially his pies — have won over even the Obamas.

The president calls him "The Crustmaster."

The first lady points to pie-on-demand as one of the big plusses of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I'm the dark side," Yosses joked in an AP interview. "They love our pies."

In truth, Yosses says, there's no contradiction to being the pastry chef for such an avowedly health-conscious first family.

"They did reassure me that they love dessert," Yosses says of his first days in the Obama White House. "But they don't want it there for themselves or their children every day."

Yosses, 56, doesn't cook just for the Obamas. His team whips up treats for dozens, hundreds and thousands of guests attending a never-ending stream of parties, receptions and other special events at the White House.

On a recent visit to the pastry kitchen, Yosses offered a rare insider's view of the operation.

Menus for close to a dozen coming events were taped to metal shelves. Trays of Halloween cookies were stacked 18 high on a rolling rack. A freshly baked pie shell sat on the marble counter, awaiting its filling. Housekeepers and groundskeepers helped stuff cellophane goody bags for 2,000-plus trick-or-treaters. A tray held dried sugar pieces destined to become part of a circus centerpiece for a still-to-be determined event.

Yosses, in his white jacket and apron, was just back from the South Lawn, where he helped Mrs. Obama and schoolchildren harvest vegetables from the first lady's kitchen garden. Earlier, he'd baked oatmeal raisin cookies for the youngsters, the snacks sweetened with maple syrup to avoid refined sugar.

For all that's going on, Yosses, bald and bespectacled, never seems to lose his easy manner and broad grin.

"We're kind of used to the idea that, oh, there's going to be 1,200 guests tomorrow," he deadpans.

Yosses says there's a set rhythm to the start of each day — a quick 7:30 a.m. meeting where all the White House departments coordinate the day's plans. Then structure gives way to the varying demands of the day, with Yosses shuttling between the main pastry kitchen and a smaller chocolate shop and decorating area tucked into White House nooks. About 6:30 p.m., he heads home — to fix a quick salad for dinner.

Yosses, who co-authored "Desserts for Dummies" and another cookbook, had been executive pastry chef at a series of top restaurants before he arrived at the White House in January 2007, two years ahead of the Obamas.

When a new first family arrives, Yosses says, "we start from zero, getting to know a whole new situation."

Within days of the inauguration, Mrs. Obama sat down with the cooking staff to talk about the importance of healthy eating, Yosses said, but she also let it be known that desserts were still welcome on the menu. Now, nine months into the Obama presidency, Yosses can anticipate what will please the family's palates.

"Once in a while they'll say I'm really hungry for X, Y or Z, but basically they pretty much leave it to us," he says.

Specifics about the first family's tastes are closely held, but some have filtered out over the months.

Obama loves pie. Banana cream pie. Huckleberry pie. Fruit pies of all sorts.

When AP asked the president in July to reveal a secret about the White House, he said this: "The pastry chef makes the best pie I've ever tasted, and that is causing big problems for Michelle and myself. I mean, whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you've ever eaten."

Yosses says the secret to his pie lies in the crust: It's hand-mixed, to avoid overworking the dough. The bottom crust is pre-baked to keep it from being doughy. For fruit pies, the filling is cooked on the stove, then placed in the cooked pie shell and covered with the rolled-out top dough. The top is then brushed with egg-wash and the whole thing is baked again.

As Yosses explains his pie protocol, there is a pre-baked pie shell sitting on a nearby counter, still filled with the metal beans that weighed down the crust during baking so that it wouldn't bubble up "like a volcano in the middle," in the words of longtime assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison.

For all their enthusiasm about pie, the Obamas are disciplined enough to limit pie consumption to about once a week, Yosses says.

And nobody binges from the cookie jar, or puts out the call for late-night snacks.

"Nobody's a cookie fan," says Yosses. "No, there's never any raiding."

Inevitably, some dishes don't go over that well — anything with meringue, for one.

"No meringue," says Yosses. "Not baked. Not fresh. Not boiled, if there is such a thing. No meringue."

Yosses also made some pies with rhubarb from the South Lawn garden early in the summer that went over well — with the adults.

For the kids? "Not so much."

Yosses seems adept at juggling the duties of family cook and chef for thousands.

One minute he's helping the Obama kids make desserts with friends, the next he's plotting strategy for events like the first state dinner on Nov. 24.

Even in October, the state dinner plan was well in hand — and a well-kept secret. The Christmas gingerbread house was on the drawing board, and planning was under way for feeding the hordes who will flock to White House holiday receptions. Already, the idea of gardens and nature was being incorporated into the holiday theme.

All this food and energy emanate from what Yosses jokingly calls his "ivory tower," a long, narrow kitchen on a mezzanine between the first and second floors of the White House. The full-time pastry staff consists of Yosses and Morrison, but they bring in help as needed from restaurants and hotels in the area.

For big events, nine or 10 people may cram into the kitchen, about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide.

Not an inch is wasted. Racks of trays are suspended from the ceilings. Attachments for mixers — 30 quart, 20 quart and more — hang from the walls. A display case contains marzipan and chocolate creations from events past. Photos show greatest hits from state dinners.

Yosses and Morrison proudly point out their view of the White House front lawn; they don't seem to mind that one must stoop to peer out a floor-level window that ends below the waist. To help visitors get a fix on their location, Yosses whips out a $20 bill, which has a picture of the White House on the back. The pastry kitchen's low window is actually the top portion of the window in the bottom right corner of the currency.

He's right on the money — in more ways than one.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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