clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Demon Baker of Fleet Street

The real stars of a new production of Sweeney Todd are the pies, made by a former White House pastry chef

On a recent Sunday around noon, Bill Yosses, the former White House executive pastry chef, was standing in the middle of the West Village with two insulated black crates. He’d just pulled them out of his Jeep, which makes the 20-minute drive from his bakery, Perfect Pie in Long Island City, Queens, across the East River and into Manhattan at least once a day. Yosses was about to roll the boxes into the Barrow Street Theater, an art house that is currently home to the first off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Tony Award-winning musical.

The boxes were packed with dozens of small, savory pies — 50 or so were filled with a creamy chicken-and-vegetable mixture, while another 20 contained a stew of vegetables, including squash, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, and cauliflower. “I like to think the pies are the real star of the show,” Yosses said while transferring them to an oven backstage. He might be biased, but pie does play a central role in the story: Sweeney Todd, a barber and vengeance-seeking serial killer, sends his victims’ corpses to Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie shop downstairs. Operating under a perverse sense of thrift, she grinds the dead bodies into filling for her pastries; overnight, the pie shop goes from serving “the worst pies in London” to boasting a fanatical following.

Yosses is not making pies out of human flesh, of course. Those who wish to dine on pie before each show pay an additional $22.50 per person; tickets start at $69.50 just for the performance, which was recently extended through the end of 2017. Each pie, chicken or vegetable, comes with a swipe of mashed potatoes and a glug of a sauce called liquor, sometimes spelled “licker.” Ticketholders who opt for Yosses’s pies arrive at the theater about an hour before each performance, with the show starting after the last of the dirty dishes has been collected.

Yosses, a slim figure with kind eyes and the measured, efficient movements of a professional chef, earned undergraduate and advanced degrees in French language before shipping out to study cooking and pastry in France. After stints as a pastry chef at several restaurants, including Montrachet, Bouley, and Tavern on the Green, he was hired to be the White House’s executive pastry chef in 2007, where he charmed the Obama family with his all-butter crusts, earning him the title of “Crustmaster.” At one point, President Obama joked that Yosses’s pies were too good to be true. "I don't know what he does, whether he puts crack in them, or... " Obama said in 2014, on the day Yosses stepped down from his post. After leaving the White House, Yosses opened Perfect Pie, a six-person bakery that churns out fruit pies with lattice crusts, chocolate silk pies covered in whipped cream, mini-pie sampler boxes, and a deep-dish barbecue pulled pork pie; Oprah is a fan.

This isn’t the first time Sweeney has hosted dinner in addition to the show: In 2014, a small London-based performing arts production company, Tooting Arts Club, staged the tragic thriller inside Harrington’s, one of South London’s oldest pie and mash shops. The storefront could only accommodate an audience of 32, but guests loved being in the middle of the action — and enjoyed getting a plate of pie and mash with their ticket to the show. Lacking a stage, most of the drama happened on the shop’s counter and tables; sometimes attendees were pushed, prodded, or patted on the head. The show’s success spurred a tour, and for the company’s third Sweeney production, Barrow Street was converted into an enlarged version of Harrington’s, right down to the mint-green wall tiles, beige counter, and long, laminate-tile tables.

It’s safe to say that compared to Harrington’s, Yosses’s pies better appeal to the average American palate, bearing a thin resemblance to British meat pies of the 1800s. Due to the limited availability of beef, pork, and chicken, many of the shops in London were making pies out of whatever they could get their hands on. To this day, Harrington’s — which is said to be over a hundred years old — serves eel pies. Traditionally, eels were some of the few creatures that could survive the polluted waters of the inky-black Thames. When Yosses was approached by producers to host Sweeney Todd at his Long Island City bakery, “They didn’t realize that we were wholesale only,” he said. Tooting and Perfect Pie struck a deal after Yosses suggested to producers that he supply the pies, while they supply a theater.

Moments after Yosses loaded his pies into the oven, the theater, alive with the preparations for a matinee, was filled with the enchanting smell of browned butter, vegetables, and herbs. Actors in Victorian costume sang to each other in passing; stage managers with earpieces holding clipboards smiled as they checked props and place markings. Even actor Jeremy Secomb, who plays the brooding, demonic Sweeney — and, according to a spokesperson, “loves the pie” — looked content as he laced up his boots backstage.

An hour before the show, dozens of guests had lined up inside. Yosses, in a white chef’s coat and burgundy Harrington’s apron, stood behind the counter next to Roberto Welch, a Perfect Pie staffer. Welch put a hot pie on a blue-rimmed white enamelware bowl and passed it to Yosses, who smeared a spoonful of mashed potatoes onto one side, and added a glug of green liquor (stored in a coffee carafe) to each serving. “I honestly don’t know what Harrington’s puts in their liquor,” Yosses said, an uneasy tone in his voice. In photos, Harrington’s liquor looks a little bit like a melted Shamrock Shake. “What I can tell you is that theirs is green,” Yosses went on, “and so ours is green too. But ours is made from herbs that have been blanched and blended with vegetable stock.” A pinch of truffle zest, which is powdered truffle with a bit of salt in it, finishes each pie plate. “It really livens it up,” Yosses said.

Annemarie Biviano, who was in town from Poughkeepsie, was one of the first guests to walk into the theater with an orange ticket for pie. It wasn’t her first time seeing Sweeney Todd, but it was her first time having Yosses’s pie. “I’m Italian, so my version of a meat pie is totally different from this,” Biviano said while picking at the pie’s crust with the tip of her fork. “It’s ricotta cheese, salami, ham all in a crust. But this one is pretty good, like a chicken pot pie. Yeah, I like it.”

Just after 1 p.m., Yosses leaned over to me. “So, a funny thing I like to tell people is that Perfect Pie happens to be located across the street from one of the oldest cemeteries in New York.” He skipped a beat, and added a wink before clarifying, “but we don’t source locally.”

When asked if any famous faces had graced Harrington’s, understudy Colin Anderson told me, “Sarah Jessica Parker was here, though I don’t think she had pie.” Fellow understudy Monet Sabel corrected him, “She got her pie to go.” Laughing, Anderson continued, “Jane Krakowski got pie…” he drifted off, thinking, “Oh! Bernadette Peters had pie to go, and Josh Groban got pie the other night, too.”

“Sometimes we get sick of pie,” Yosses admitted. “So thank God for Taco Mahal. Do you know it?” The Indian-Mexican fusion restaurant around the corner from the theater allows the troupe to supplement its pie diet with lamb kabob roti and chicken curry naan tacos. “But we love Bill’s pie the most,” Anderson said.

As the last few pie eaters trickled in to claim their lunch, 17-year-old Gavin Fansler was digging into his plate of pie next to his parents and older sister. He looked perplexed. “I mean it was really tasty,” he said of the pie, “but, like, knowing the backstory of the show it was kind of terrifying to be eating a meat pie...” He glanced around with wide eyes, adding, “here, inside of Harrington’s.” His family laughed. “My sister was in a Sweeney Todd play when she was in college at Vanderbilt,” he said, “and I’ve seen the movies, but I’ve never seen a real show. This is my first one.” His sister, Madeline Fansler, added, “We brought him here as part of his birthday weekend celebration. I hadn’t heard of the pastry chef before, but then I did some reading on him and found out he used to make pie for the Obamas. So of course we had to get the pie.”

Harrington’s pie shop inside the Barrow Street Theater — which has a temporary food service permit and is inspected by the New York City Department of Health — closed for business a half-hour before the show was to begin. As Yosses cleaned up his pie station I asked if he thought the Obamas might stop by, even just to say hi. “I have no idea,” Yosses said, “but they might. It would be so nice to see them and the girls again. It would be really nice.”

Daniel Galarza is a senior editor at Eater.
Maddie Chaffer is an illustrator based in Los Angeles.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin