Re-imagining Desserts at a Legendary Restaurant

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(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

“I always loved the Four Seasons,” says groundbreaking American pastry chef Bill Yosses, recalling collaborations with colleagues in the kitchens of the iconic Manhattan landmark. Now Yosses, whose ever-evolving career includes rolling out desserts at top restaurants and at the White House, lecturing at Harvard, and, most recently, preparing pies for the off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, is leading a staff of eight as Executive Pastry Chef at the recently reborn restaurant.

Opened in 1959 in the Seagram Building, the Four Seasons breathtaking decor and its seasonal American accented menu, revolutionary in that era, ushered in a new style of fine dining that endured into the 21st century. Then, two years ago, after the current landlord refused to renew the lease, the restaurant closed and the owners, Alex Von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, arranged to migrate three blocks south.

Early in the planning stage they suggested to Yosses, “Why don’t you do the desserts?” just as he was ready for post-White House Act II. “When I started walking through the space, there were no walls, no windows, just concrete,” he said, and everything from the old restaurant had been auctioned off – even the machine for making the de rigeur pink cotton candy. But there was a treasure trove of old menus available for inspiration: “I thought it was interesting how innovative they were with ingredients.” He continued, “They were fearless, introducing stuff that was new in the ‘60’s – cloudberries, foraged plants, greengage plums, which had a two week season.” Yosses opted to keep some of the old favorites, updated for today’s palates: “One of the signature desserts was the chocolate bar cake, similar to a Napoleon, that was made with chocolate puff pastry and buttercream. I don’t think that buttercream works these days, so we replaced it with chocolate pastry cream; it is still layered, and the heart of the dessert remains the same.”

The Four Seasons Aged Rum Baba

The cake was created by Albert Kumin, a revered Swiss patissier who was lured from Canada to inaugurate the dessert menu at the Four Seasons by Joe Baum, the inventive impresario of Restaurant Associates, the company that ran the restaurant. Kumin later, like Yosses, served as White House Pastry Chef, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Another Kumin original at the Four Seasons was the chocolate velvet, a chocolate glazed dome containing mousse, chopped up Heath Bars, Amaretto, and rum, made in a special inverted cylindrical mold. All of the original molds were sold, so Yosses is having new ones made in a machine shop in Brooklyn, and, he notes, “We will make our own milk chocolate toffee Heath Bars.”

“There was a huge repertoire, but we’re not trying to do the same things over again,” Yosses adds. “We have to honor the legacy, but this is a modern restaurant and we have been given carte blanche to do what we want.” For Yosses and his crew that means seasonal, modern American desserts, very classic, not deconstructed. “Some avant garde cooking is wonderful,” he believes, “but it doesn’t fit in here.” He recruited the highly regarded Victoria Wells, long-time Executive Pastry Chef for Bobby Flay restaurants and an instructor at ICE, to join the team. According to Yosses, “Having her as a partner is the only reason I’m able to do the other things I’m involved in. I’m also lucky to have Emily Fu, formerly Sous Pastry Chef at Atelier, and chocolatier Pedro Rosell from The Modern and Mariebelle chocolates, so we can make all of our confections in- house.”

“I’m very collaborative with Vicki and the team members,” Yosses explains. “We work together. The desserts we come up with are not my desserts, these are desserts we come up with together, which could be a new paradigm for places with pastry chefs who also have other ongoing projects.”

One selection on the current menu, the Fall Fruit Crostata with Buttermilk Ice Cream,

channels Yosses’s dedication to healthier desserts, cutting back on sugar and fats, a cause he has championed in his books and working with Michelle Obama on the Healthy Foods Initiative. Also popular are the aged rum baba topped with colorful roasted seasonal grapes – unusual varieties from Upstate New York – and the caramel flan resting on a bed of pain d’epice. Winter desserts are still a work in progress. On the drawing board, a hazelnut cake with gianduja sorbet, and rice pudding with persimmon, probably the Japanese Hakshen, which is “so squishy when ripe.”

Never on the menu, but always offered for special occasions, or because a captain decides it is warranted, is the iconic tower of cotton candy, made in a huge new machine in the restaurant’s basement. Yosses admits he enjoys going down to make the sugary fluff for a little relaxation away from the kitchen. And he has added his own embellishment, a sprinkling of candied violets – never fragments, only whole flowers. It’s all in the details for the multi-tasking Yosses, whether he’s selecting violets or creating healthy meals for kids in the Kitchen Garden Lab.

“I’ve always been in a kitchen,” he concludes, “but it feels good to be back in a restaurant kitchen – like home.”

The Four Seasons Caramel Flan