25 Years in the White House
Learning on the Job
Mesnier and his wife, Martha, live in a Northern Virginia house with a French provincial feel in a country-like setting. With its spacious kitchen, antiques and well-tended flower beds, it's a far cry from the house he grew up in without refrigeration or electricity in Bonnay, a small village of about 140 people in the Franche-Comte region of France. Born in 1944, Mesnier grew up in an era of postwar shortages and privation. "You'd be sent to the store and the shelves would be empty," he recalls.
With nine children, his parents were probably relieved when young Roland got a chance to hang around his brother Jean's pastry shop. "It wasn't unusual for parents like mine to send children to work for a baker or butcher. You would never be hungry."
His first job was a summer one at a pastry shop about 30 miles away. "What turned me on to the profession happened right there. The smell. Everything was so fresh. It was so different from today. Cherry pies made from cherries picked the day before. Berries only in season." When he was 14, his mother found him a three-year apprenticeship at a pastry shop and tearoom in Besancon. For about $5 a month, plus bed and board, the small, skinny boy worked from 6 in the morning to 8 at night with time off for regular schooling once a week. That first year he scrubbed floors, washed pots and did daily shopping -- a typical test for first-year apprentices. "If you stayed, they knew you were really interested." One day, one of the chefs showed him how to make croissant dough. "You never forget the day you make your first croissant," says Mesnier. "It's a celebration."
Then came buttercream and brioche and cakes to put together and decorate, puff pastry, chocolate molding -- all required to pass his apprenticeship exam before a group of pastry chefs. "It was pretty intimidating at 17," he says.
From then on, he looked for jobs that would expand his skills, his education and his repertoire. Whenever he was restless, he moved on. Soon enough he decided the next step had to be Paris. But even there at a pastry shop and restaurant near the Opera, he quickly absorbed what there was to learn. Good advice to the downcast young man came from the chef he worked for: Go to Germany, the chef said; they're more advanced. So he did.
In Hanover, then in Hamburg, he was paid little, but learned valuable skills -- sugar, marzipan modeling, fondants and, of course, cakes and cookies. "A lot of my Christmas baking is still from there," he says.
With that experience and the new ability to speak German, he decided to learn English. When a job he thought he had in London didn't pan out, the young man went straight to the Savoy Hotel and the fabled kitchens he'd heard about in France. Unshaven, clutching his belongings in a small suitcase, he somehow got to see the chef. His excellent references resulted in a job offer. But when he returned to France to get the right visa, he was scooped up for military service. Eighteen months later, he was back at the Savoy. The food was classical French, and the guests knew what that meant. "We each carried a card with Escoffier's 'Le Repertoire de la Cuisine' in the back pocket," says Mesnier. "It surely gave me the biggest education of my life."
The Savoy also gave him his first experience with international celebrities -- Jacqueline Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, Aristotle Onassis. "The list of guests was as important as the White House," he says. He learned the desserts and dessert sauces of grande cuisine and a hotel ethic that catered to its guests' wishes. "It made me very strong." It has stood him well at the White House, where the occupants may not be as demanding, but the responsibility often is. "I'm 'on' 24 hours a day," he says. "If I'm at home, I'm making menus, planning desserts, I'm thinking what am I going to do for showpieces. It's a constant worry. But that's how you get better -- thinking about it all the time."
Even at the Savoy, Mesnier became restless. At 23, he wanted a job as head pastry chef. An invitation from the Princess Hotel in Bermuda seemed a good opportunity. But when he got there, he was shocked. "What they were doing in the pastry shop was very terrible," he says. "Sheet cake cut into little squares. Whipped topping. Not a showpiece to be seen." He didn't like the way desserts were sent to the table under a stainless steel plate cover either. "I've landed in a coffee shop," he said to himself.
Each day between shifts, he'd go off to a bar on the island where nobody knew him to brood about how to improve what they were doing. Gradually he did, offering simple desserts at first -- a fresh fruit tart with puff pastry, a Gateau St. Honore. During those Bermuda years, Mesnier met and and married Martha and had a son, George.
It was six years before he needed a new challenge. He found it in Paris, where he became head pastry chef at the posh George V Hotel. Its international guests marveled at the desserts just as they had at the Savoy.
But after a while he was wooed back to Bermuda to become corporate pastry chef for nine hotels. Three years later, he longed to get back in the kitchen.
His chance came in 1976 at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va. He thought he'd be there forever. "It was a beautiful hotel in the country," he says. "I created 560 desserts there in five years. I was happy."
But when Washington-based Homestead guests told him Rosalynn Carter was looking for a pastry chef, and White House Chef Henry Haller encouraged him to apply as well, he drove to Washington for an interview. A few weeks later, Mesnier, who was not yet a U.S. citizen, was whisked through the citizenship process. He's turned up at the White House virtually every morning at 7 ever since.
'He Will Be Missed'
In the den of his Fairfax County home, looking at the thousands of photographs he's taken of his White House desserts, Mesnier says now he'll finally have time to catalogue them and work in his beloved garden as well. Then there's the 40 pounds he says he needs to lose. "My health took a beating in his job," he says. "The stress. So many late hours. So few days off."
The White House, which is interviewing candidates, says a new pastry chef will be hired sometime this summer. But whatever happens, Mesnier will leave on July 30. "He will be missed," says first lady Laura Bush. "Roland's desserts have been enjoyed by presidents, their families and guests through five administrations. The president and I are always proud when his creations are presented to heads of state and old family friends."
Mesnier planned his departure carefully, first by deciding that its timing should coincide with the release of a book he wanted to write. So September will find him promoting "Dessert University" (Simon & Schuster), a course in pastry for the home chef, which he wrote with former pastry chef and author Lauren Chattman. He has another book in mind, too, and he's planning to teach again, lecture and do private tutoring for pastry chefs. "You cannot stop, just like that," he says.
That would be unlikely. After all, he's been in a pastry kitchen since he was 12 years old. "It's been more than a career," he says. "It's been a calling."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier with dessert for the state dinner for Poland.
(Tina Hager - White House Photo)