David Rexford’s kitchen is filled with the aroma of baking. There are fat eclairs fresh from the oven, puff pastry ready to go in, and a saucepan of milk, sugar and chocolate heating on the stove.

Rexford, 60, the former executive pastry chef at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel, writes questions on a whiteboard for the three students who have come to learn from the master: “Do you know why puff pastry rises? The butter gives off steam.”

But none of these things Rexford can eat. The man who once made a dessert called “floating island” for first lady Nancy Reagan — three scoops of poached raspberry meringue on a sea of vanilla crème anglaise — uses a feeding tube for nourishment.


He can smell what he’s baking and can still taste. But he cannot swallow or speak. And along with the flour and cooking oil on the kitchen counters are cases of the unflavored liquid he injects via the tube three times a day.


A copy of Bon Appétit magazine sits nearby.

“For a chef not to be able to eat or swallow is just like some horrible punishment,” Rexford’s wife, Karen, said.

Rexford has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the famous baseball player whose life it claimed in 1941.

It is a terminal neurological illness that gradually robs the body of its motor skills, taking away the ability to walk, talk, stand and eat, while leaving the brain and senses generally intact.


The disease can run a varying course, sometimes affecting arms and legs first; sometimes affecting speech, swallowing and breathing first.

Rexford’s case is the latter, known as “bulbar onset” of ALS, because the disease first alters the corticobulbar area of the brain, which controls muscles of the face, head and neck. He also has weakness on his left side.


The illness usually lasts three to five years.

Rexford, of Silver Spring, was first diagnosed in late 2016, after his speech began to slur.

He retired on disability in early 2017, after a career at the Four Seasons, several elite restaurants and clubs, and finally as an executive with Maryland’s Albert Uster Imports, which deals in specialty food, goods and pastry ingredients.

He’s been on the feeding tube since late last year and misses, mostly, the taste of chocolate.

But he is determined to pass on some of the skills he has learned in 40 years of making desserts for presidents, royalty, members of Congress and even the Washington Ballet.


One day last month, he hosted an experimental kitchen class for three local teenagers to teach some basics and share pointers. (Don’t crack an egg on the edge of a bowl or egg shells will get into your mix.)


It was his second such class.

Rexford said he would like to have a bigger group, maybe set up a Facebook page for recipes, a summer baking camp and then have a bake sale to benefit ALS research.

“I have so much information to share that [it’s] my way of paying it forward,” he wrote in a recent email, his vehicle for outside communication. The activity is also a good distraction, so “I don’t have to dwell on what is going on with the ALS.”

The students were recruited by Joan Deye, a longtime nurse volunteer with the ALS Association in Washington.


Elise Webb, 16, Deye’s granddaughter; Grace Oristian, 13; and Reese Rosenbloom, 13, sat on stools at a counter in Rexford’s kitchen and watched as he handed out recipes and began the day’s baking demonstration.

His marker squeaked now and then as he wrote on the whiteboard. His dog, Lucy, wandered through the room. A cane leaned against a cabinet in the corner.


'Glory days'

Rexford was raised in the hamlet of Hurleyville, N.Y., about 100 miles northwest of New York City. He was one of six children of a nurse and a master mechanic who serviced road-paving machines.

His mother worked a 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift and no one else in the household wanted to cook, “so the job fell to me,” he said in an email.


“My baking goes back also to my mom and grandmother,” he wrote. “They came from a farm where everything was made nothing bought. Simple recipes . . . memorable tastes . . . My grandmother used to say ‘lots of love and lots of butter’ make the food taste good.”

He attended the local Sullivan County Community College, which, because of all the resorts in the area, had an excellent hotel tech program, he said. He excelled, and was judged the best baking student his first year.


“I picked pastry because people like dessert and I hopefully can make them happy,” he wrote. “I always looked at dessert as a thing people looked forward to . . . I just enjoy people biting into something I make and they enjoy it.”


In 1979, he packed up, left Hurleyville in his new Buick Regal — black with a red interior — and took a job as a “Baker 2” at the new Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.

He was 21. Six years later he was promoted to executive pastry chef.

It was a high-pressure job with long hours and a premium on the chemistry, physics and techniques of making pastry.

“If the cake falls, you have to start all over,” he wrote. “If you forget the salt, you have to start over.”

“There is a reason the texture and taste was like it was,” he wrote. “If you used cold ingredients, over-whipped the cream or butter, [got the] oven too hot, used baking soda instead of baking powder, etc. [There are] many things to go wrong.”


In 1986 Rexford met a woman in the hotel’s catering department named Karen Antos. “Because I was in catering and he was the pastry chef there was a lot of interaction every day,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

“When you’re young and you’re at the foremost hotel in the metro area, it was great fun,” she said. “Those were really his glory days. But you’re working 16, 18, 20 hours a day and not even thinking about it.”

Rexford had been a multisport athlete in high school, and remained in top condition. “He was extraordinarily healthy, [had] really super human strength,” from hauling heavy bags of ingredients around the kitchen, Karen said.


“He used to look like Mr. Clean.”

(Rexford has no hair on his head, the result, he said, of a genetic condition called ectodermal dysplasia — “my first incurable disease” — which causes abnormal development of hair and skin and prevents him from sweating.)


He and Karen hit it off, got married, and had two daughters.

“Pastry is his first love and always has been,” she said. “One of the horrible things about getting the ALS is that he never planned to retire.”

In late summer of 2015 his speech began to slur and then deteriorated rapidly. “I thought he had a brain tumor,” Karen said. Doctors were consulted, and he was diagnosed with ALS.

The illness has progressed.

“He can’t really walk,” Karen said. “He can’t drive. There’s a whole world out there that he cannot participate in any more. But he can get around the house and get around the kitchen.”

“He loves people and he loves young people,” she said. “And I think he doesn’t feel so useless if he’s able to pass something on.”

The final touches

It was quiet in the kitchen that day last month, except for the clatter of utensils and the sound of birds chirping outside. A vase of lavender tulips sat beside the sink.


Rexford jotted down another bit of advice as he worked: Don’t put plastic dough scrapers in your back pocket. They can bend and split. A shirt pocket is better.

When the eclairs came out of the oven, brown and puffy, there was a gasp of approval.

Rexford showed the students how to inject into the eclair a filling made of milk, vanilla, egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and butter.

The injection holes were made with a cream horn and the filling was piped in with a disposable pastry bag.

The eclairs then got a coating of chocolate sauce, which was chilled and decorated with tiny edible imprints made of cocoa butter.

Rexford bustled around the kitchen and watched as the teens began tasting the fruits of their lessons. When they finished, they gathered copies of his recipes and thanked him.

A future assignment was already in the works: Ginger snap cookies and chocolate cake finished with buttercream.

Asked afterward if he ever dreamed about eating, he replied in an email:


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