25 Years in the White House
Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier Says Goodbye to First-Family Suppers, State Dinners and Barbecues for 1,200
By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page F01
It's a summer of high anxiety for the families who want to occupy the White House next year. But come the end of July, there's one longtime inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. who's happily walking out the door: Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier.
Dessert sorcerer to presidents, their families and movers and shakers from all over the planet for the past 25 years, Mesnier turns 60 in five weeks. He's still got a couple of dozen small dinners to get through, maybe two working lunches each week, a barbecue for 1,200 and a few larger events, but then he's ready to go. In a career that's been marked by a constant search for new challenges, it's time for the next one. "Always!" he says.
His departure is not a surprise. He's been planning it -- and saying it out loud -- for four years. "I decided 25 years at the White House was enough," he says. "I had other things I wanted to do in life."
Mesnier has been White House pastry chef since Rosalynn Carter hired him in 1979. For most of that time, he's been working flat out, squeezing in days off around the needs of the first families and their diplomatic and social obligations.
A sizable, sturdy man who doesn't let anything leave his kitchen without first tasting it, he's made sure that every sweet served in the White House is made in the White House -- every single cookie, every scoop of ice cream, every piece of pastry.
He's astonished world leaders with desserts that paid tribute to their countries (sushi-filled baskets made of molded sugar for the King of Japan, chocolate coaches for the queen of England). He's been sensitive to cultural taboos, dietary quirks and food allergies. His annual gingerbread houses have grown from single structures to whole villages. Last year's couldn't even fit in the White House elevator.
"I would hope that everything we do is not your average dessert," he says, knowing full well he's made sure that's the case.
When Mesnier arrived, the White House kitchen was a different place. The revolution that transformed and energized American food in the 1980s and '90s was yet to come. Cooking with seasonal ingredients wasn't de rigueur. And desserts in the best restaurants tended to be standbys -- creme caramel, key lime pie, crepes suzettes. Indeed, desserts were so taken for granted that Mesnier's work space was a cramped corner of the White House kitchen (and occasionally the hallway outside it).
Trained in Europe, where he'd mastered every kind of pastry, candy, dessert and decoration, Mesnier was dismayed. His first self-imposed task was getting rid of any sweet not made at the White House. "It was a common thing to order cookies for 300 people," he says. "I didn't see that with a very kind eye. Besides, everyone knows guests steal things. When they took cookies, I wanted them to be cookies made at the White House."
Gradually he introduced fine pastries, mousse cakes, frozen desserts, meringues, tarts and pies, chocolate and decorative sugar work. But with limited space, budget and staff, he didn't come into his own, he says, until early in the Reagan administration. "I decided if I was going to be creative, I had to take control of my own destiny."
These days Mesnier works in the separate -- but far from grand -- pastry kitchen carved out for him in 1989 in an East Wing space in between floors. There, and in a separate chocolate room, Mesnier, assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison and the part-timers he hires for large events produce a relentless parade of desserts and pastries.
Although each creation must be made from fresh ingredients, taste good and look beautiful, in Mesnier's kitchen there is a hierarchy of sweets, depending on the occasion. Family meals might get lemon bars, brownies, pies and cakes with ice cream and fresh fruit. Meals for new members of Congress are up a notch, say apple creme brulee with almond tuiles or caramel custard with fresh fruit. Working lunches with foreign dignitaries inspire more serious sweets, like tea sorbet with orange-chocolate mousse and pistachio sauce, while world leaders at Camp David get a more down-home treatment, such as warm apple and mango winter pudding with ginger ice cream and vanilla sauce.
A state dinner takes particular precedence. The desserts he creates for them are unique -- he has never repeated one. Working with the relevant embassy, often weeks ahead of time, Mesnier looks for images from the country for the sweet trays and themed showpieces he creates for each table -- like the blown-sugar giraffes and the coffee mills constructed of chocolate (accompanied by a sugar yellow rose of Texas) for Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's 2003 dinner. "And that's only the decoration," he says.
That respect for White House guests is only simple courtesy, he feels. "Whatever comes out of here, comes out in the name of the first lady and the president," says Mesnier. "We're not here to promote ourselves. We're trying to help the guests have fun and create beautiful desserts that distract them from their daily problems."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier with dessert for the state dinner for Poland.
(Tina Hager - White House Photo)