(Updated Sunday evening)
It’s been nearly eight years since Roland Mesnier left the White House kitchen — but he could dine out on the experience for decades to come.
Other executive branch veterans fill memoirs with insider recollections of policy disputes and campaign triumphs. But for the really delicious stuff? Ask the cook. According to Mesnier — who served 25 years as White House pastry chef — Barbara Bush was a shouter who insisted on serving dry, overcooked fish. And Bill Clinton’s brother-in-law Hugh Rodham could polish off five or six pork chops in a sitting.
Mesnier has been dishing stories like these ever since he left the White House in 2004, with a memoir and three cookbooks. On Friday, as a last-minute speaker subbing for former White House florist Nancy Clarke at the Washington Winter Show antique showcase, the Frenchman’s command over a rapt audience demonstrated a bottomless appetite for tales of what the first families ate behind closed doors. Here are some of his leftovers:
• Rosalynn Carter, who hired the French chef in 1980, had a family recipe she insisted be added to White House buffets: a molded cheese ring.
“That thing was so nasty,” Mesnier told the crowd. “It was a mixture of Muenster, cheddar, all the stickiest cheese you could find, mixed with onions, capers, and strawberry jam in the middle . . . It was a secret family recipe that no one tried to steal.” (Mesnier fans may hear echoes of his story of the Clinton family recipe he divulged in his 2007 memoir: “An atrocious concoction of Coca-Cola-flavored jelly served with black glacé cherries.” What, they don’t teach that one in France?) Oh, and believe it or not, he claimed that the Carters “did not care for peanuts at all.”
• Nancy Reagan’s arrival in 1981 had the kitchen staff fearing for their jobs — the incoming first lady, they’d heard, was “hell on wheels.” Mesnier said he quickly realized it was “Nancy’s way or the highway. And I like that, to be honest with you. . . Forget about compliments — if she didn’t complain, that was a compliment. But I loved her to death. She was a perfectionist.”
For one September dinner in the Rose Garden, Nancy directed the staff to wire hundreds of fresh roses onto the bare bushes. She also gave Mesnier strict orders never to give her husband chocolate. But when she was out of town, Ronnie got his favorite meal: steak, mac-and-cheese and a big bowl of chocolate mousse. “That was a very happy man,” Mesnier recalled.
• Did you know? All food gifts sent to the first family, even by close friends, are destroyed for security reasons. A couple weeks after his historic trip to Washington, Mikhail Gorbachev sent a large package to the White House. Mesnier and the executive chef were the only ones on duty when the head usher walked the box into the kitchen and ordered it dumped. The cooks opened the box to find two massive tins of Russian caviar.
“I looked at the other chef and said: ‘I don’t know about you, buddy, but I’m willing to die for what’s inside. So I’m taking one home, and you can have the other one,’ ” Mesnier recalled.
(Sunday, 1/8: This story has been modified. An earlier version said that Mesnier described Bill Clinton eating multiple pork chops in one sitting, but a recording of Mesnier’s speech indicates he was actually speaking about the former president’s brother-in-law Hugh.)