Sweet Perspective On First Families

By Linda Kulman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 28, 2007; F01

A topiary made of lemon, lime and orange sorbet, sauced with glazed kumquats. Chocolate truffle turbans with raspberries and lime coulis. While international diplomacy may never have rested on a petit four or a souffle, in more than two decades as the White House pastry chef, Roland Mesnier says, he approached each confection as though world affairs depended on it.

"When things were rough between two heads of state, I think dessert may have softened up the spot a little bit," he says.

Though Mesnier worked on a grand scale -- serving as many as 800 guests -- he planned his creations down to the last detail in hopes of reflecting the culture and tastes of a particular dignitary: for the Chinese president, an elaborate sugar-coated junk filled with handmade pomegranate sorbet; for Boris Yeltsin, nougatine baskets decorated with sugar ribbons the colors of the Russian Federation flag and filled with lime ice cream and vodka mousse.

Before retiring in 2004, Mesnier wore his White House toque under five presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. He returned briefly last year at Laura Bush's request before making way for new pastry chef Bill Yosses.

Mesnier, 62, writes about his experiences in "All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, a Memoir" (Flammarion, $24.95). In a recent conversation, he dished up the first families' predilections.

Which president had the sweetest tooth?

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Look at this picture of President Reagan with a spoon and fork, ready to dig into dessert. President Clinton was allergic to dairy, chocolate and [wheat] flour, but he loved sweets. When most families get to the White House, they tell you they don't really care for dessert. That lasts about two weeks.

Ronald Reagan sneaked dessert behind his wife's back. Did she ever find out?

I don't believe so. Mrs. Reagan said, "Please, no chocolate desserts for my husband." But when she would go away, we would fix the biggest bowl of chocolate mousse you've ever seen. The rest of the meal had to be a nice, big, thick steak and macaroni and cheese. He was a very happy man after that.

Was there much dieting among the first families?

Sometimes we would be told, "For the next two weeks, we only want fresh fruit." So we did beautiful trays of fresh fruit, and the president would say, "Don't you have a piece of pie somewhere?"

On stressful days, did the first families request comfort food?

Mrs. Clinton would call and say, "Roland, would you make a mocha cake?" That's when I knew things were not going too well. President Clinton loves cherry pie.

Did you ever have a complete disaster during a state dinner?

You cannot have a mishap. In every state dinner I aged about 10 years. I was a nervous wreck until the last minute. I learned that under Mrs. Reagan. You wouldn't believe how she would put a dessert through the test.

What sort of test?

I did once a huge pear made of sorbet on a nougat stand. The dessert was 20 inches tall. When I presented that to Mrs. Reagan, she said, "Roland, that pear is going to fall on ladies' dresses. There's no way we can serve that." I said, "Mrs. Reagan, it's not going anywhere." So she started shaking it, and the pear didn't go anywhere. She said, "Roland, that's a go."

With Hillary Clinton exploring a presidential run, how do you think Bill Clinton would do as a White House spouse?

I don't see President Clinton worrying with the tablecloth or the knives or the flowers or what the pastry chef is preparing. I think if Mrs. Clinton becomes president of the United States, they will have a strong social secretary -- maybe two -- doing that job.

I didn't realize how small Washington is until I read in your book about a White House photographer, Ralph Alswang. He's my husband.

You're kidding me! We had a ball. It's the sad part of the White House that you lose good friends usually when the administration leaves. You barely see people again.

You got very blue during presidential transitions.

It's as close to a funeral as you can get. It brings tears to my eyes mentioning it. You get attached to the family. If they were Republican or Democrat, it made no difference to me. When the Clintons left, I was devastated. President Clinton put his arms around me and said, "Roland, don't worry. Everything is going to be all right."

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