A June 2 Food article about White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier incorrectly referred to the king of Japan. The correct title is emperor. (Published 6/3/04)
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."
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."