Roland Mesnier: Maison Blanche pastry chef for a quarter of a century of sweets


Roland Mesnier, the French-born pastry chef who cooked desserts for five presidents and dignitaries for a quarter-century in the White House and boasted of never serving the same dish twice, has died at age 78 years old.

Mesnier, whose career began with a $1 (87p)-a-month baking apprenticeship at age 14, was offered the White House job in 1979 after pleasing First Lady Rosalynn Carter with his promise that he would focus on lighter desserts like fruit. Indeed, he had a knack for modifying decadent confections with low-calorie ingredient substitutes, and when a luxurious mood prevailed, he proved a master at creating the puffed and pulled sugar sculptures that adorned his desserts. He showed a whimsical side by making extravagant gingerbread houses for the Christmas season, as part of a White House tradition.

His mission, he said, was to comfort a family living under constant surveillance and to understand their tastes and culinary pleasures. “If I could take that pressure off for five minutes, then I would have done my job,” he once told The Canadian Press. “That was my role in the White House – to put a smile on the face of the first family.”

A confident, methodical pastry chef who took “Perfection is no accident” as his motto, he tasted every dessert that left his kitchen, carefully inspected finished plates to see what hadn’t been touched, allied with the White House butler to glean more information on the presidential election. likes, and began planning Christmas in June.

In interviews and books, he revealed insight into the palates and temperaments of the presidents and first ladies he worked for.

The Carters insisted on adding a molded cheese ring to the White House menu – “a mixture of muenster, cheddar, all the stickiest cheese you can find, mixed with onions, capers and jam. strawberries in the middle… It was a secret family recipe that no one tried to steal.

The Clintons, however, didn’t deserve Michelin stars for their family recipe: “An atrocious concoction of Coca-Cola flavored jelly served with glazed black cherries.” The Carters, perhaps surprisingly given their background growing legumes in their home state of Georgia, “didn’t care about peanuts at all.”

Mesnier would satisfy Ronald Reagan’s chocolate cravings, consistently denied by the first lady, by making a chocolate mousse when the first lady was out of town. From the likes of Nancy Reagan, he learned that “if she didn’t complain, it was a compliment.”

On one occasion, Nancy Reagan rejected three different desserts Mesnier had presented to her for a state dinner to be attended by the Queen of the Netherlands. The Sunday before dinner on Tuesday evening, she called him back to the White House and gave him very specific instructions: make 14 sugar baskets eight inches in diameter, and decorate each handle with six sugar tulips, before filling the baskets. with sorbet and fresh fruit.

Mesnier and assistant Susie Morrison put the finishing touches on a 40lb chocolate Easter egg and a chocolate reproduction of George W Bush’s dog Barney in 2002

(The Washington Post/Gerald Martineau)

“She tilted her head and said, ‘Roland, you have two days and two nights,’ and I said, ‘Thank you, Madame,'” Mesnier told The New York Times. “It was another test, and you know it makes you strong. Mrs. Reagan pushed me to be who I have become.

Serving politicians and other dignitaries who took care of their appearance, he healthily modified heavy desserts. His apple cider brulee featured apple cider and cornstarch instead of cream. Its soufflés and mousses avoided egg yolks. But like those who employed him, he didn’t skimp on flair: he was known for his molded chocolate, made with his own moulds, and his sugar work was second to none.

Francois Dionot, the founder of the now-closed L’Académie de Cuisine, one of the top cooking schools in the United States, described Mesnier to the Los Angeles Daily News as “king of sugar work – spun sugar, poured sugar, candy sugar, pulled sugar. Very few people know how to do this anymore. He makes roses that look real.

Mesnier boasted of never having made a bad dessert in the White House – a feat he attributed to hours and grueling years of training at his craft before setting foot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He advised budding pastry chefs to relax before starting the baking process.

“Most people have trouble cooking because they’re too tense when they’re cooking,” he said. The Baltimore Sun in 2007. “I used to drink a glass of wine before cooking. It worked for me. And if all else fails, just finish the bottle of wine.

First lady Laura Bush stands in the patisserie kitchen as Mesnier prepares an edible hummingbird for a state dinner in 2001

(The Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu)

Roland Robert Mesnier (pronounced MES-knee-ay) was born in Bonnay, in rural eastern France, on July 8, 1944, the seventh of nine siblings. Her father worked for the railway network and her mother was a housewife – and, in her opinion, “a wonderful cook”.

He became interested in a culinary career through his older brother Jean, one of the main bakers at a patisserie. At 14, Mesnier began a three-year pastry apprenticeship in Besançon, earning the equivalent of a dollar a month. The first year was spent scrubbing floors and washing pots, before the chef showed him how to make a croissant. “You never forget when you make your first croissant,” he reminded The Charlotte Observer.

After his apprenticeship, he worked in patisseries and hotels in Paris, Hanover and Hamburg in Germany, and in London at the Savoy Hotel, which he identified to the White House Historical Association as “the launching pad for my ambitions and my dreams”.

In 1967, Mesnier became pastry chef at the Princess Hotel in Bermuda, where he met Martha Whiteford, an American schoolteacher from West Virginia. The two married in 1969 and had a son, George, in 1971. Martha died in January of that year. In addition to her son, survivors include two sisters and a brother.

In 1976, Mesnier moved from Bermuda to the Homestead complex in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he worked until joining the Carter White House kitchen.

After leaving the White House during the George W Bush administration in 2004, he wrote a cookbook and memoir, All the President’s pastries (2007, with co-author Christian Malard).

Only once did he remember The Washington Post, he broke the strict rules of employment at the White House. It was 1987 and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting President Reagan in Washington. Although it is common for all food gifts sent to the White House to be destroyed for security reasons, he could not bring himself to part with two huge boxes of Russian caviar from Gorbachev.

“I looked at the other head and said, ‘I don’t know about you, mate, but I’m ready to die for what’s inside,'” he recalled. “‘So I’m taking one home, and you can have the other.'”

Roland Mesnier, pastry chef, born July 8, 1944, died August 26, 2022

© The Washington Post


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