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Just desserts for the president

White House pastry chef creates sweet memories that last a lifetime.

By James N. ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 1998



WASHINGTON

There are few pots in Washington this holiday season that aren't boiling over with impeachment news and scandal speculation.

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But in a quiet corner of the White House, just a stone's throw from the Oval Office, a rarefied holiday air reigns supreme.

It's found here in the kitchen of White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, where Christmas delicacies are imagined and prepared from one presidency to the next. A sort of holiday pilot light, Chef Mesnier ignites this time of year as an undaunted spirit of Christmas, no matter who's in the Oval Office or what political currents swirl outside.

"It's very special here," smiles Mesnier, attired in chef garb and white clogs. While he does not forbid talk of current events in his kitchen, the veteran chef, who has served four presidents from both political parties, is more intent on preserving the one-of-a-kind experience visitors receive when invited to the White House - especially the thousands fortunate enough to be invited during the holidays.

"You should see this place at Christmas," he says, adding that preparations for the winter celebration actually begin back when the jonquils are blooming.

"Right after Easter, we start cooking and planning for Christmas. That's when I begin making a thousand pounds of fruitcake," Mesnier says, offering a slice.

Cranking out cookies

Each year Mesnier cranks out tens of thousands of macaroons and leckerle, linzer cookies and chocolate truffles, not to mention the legion of gingerbread men - each individually decorated. There are hundreds of buch de Noel logs and dozens of loaves of panettone.

According to the White House, Mesnier will use 500 pounds of sugar and 300 pounds of chocolate in making tens of thousands of cookies and bite-sized pieces of confectionery, proudly presented to guests.

Many invited to holiday events can be seen slipping one of these cookies, delicately wrapped in a White House napkin, into a coat pocket or purse for someone back home.

"You want them to know it came from the White House," the pastry chef says, "and that it's special."

Mesnier was somewhat overwhelmed to learn that his first interview for the White House job in 1979 would be with the first lady herself, then Rosalyn Carter. Even more unnerving - a state dinner for Margaret Thatcher was under way that very day. To hear Mesnier describe it, it was like interviewing for a quarterback job the day of the Super Bowl.

In the years since, he has continued the White House's standard of quality, insisting everything be made in-house by expert hands.

Remarkably fit given his vocation, Mesnier exudes the quiet confidence of a clean-shaven Sean Connery. The French native, one of nine children, has come a long way from his quaint village of 120 people to uphold a White House tradition.

"There have always been French pastry chefs," says William Seale, author of "The President's House" and a White House historian. "Most of them became preeminent as a result."

Fourth US President James Madison, Mr. Seale explains, enjoyed the efforts of Jean-Pierre Sioussat, nicknamed "French John." This French chef was known for creating and rushing frozen-on-the-inside, hot-on-the-outside pastries up backstairs before they melted.

Mesnier has, in fact, achieved a preeminent status in his field, not only for his holiday creations but for his indefatigable efforts throughout the year.

His desserts, wheeled out during official state dinners, are highly anticipated Washington events. Mesnier carefully researches the background of each visiting head of state and then incorporates a national and personal theme in his creations.

"We listen carefully when the desserts go in, to the sounds of the voices and the laughter," he beams. "[Desserts)] are like the fireworks."

Doing his pastry homework

Before a recent state dinner for Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Mesnier did his homework. He learned the leader's home town of Bologna is also home to a large twin tower. So the pastry chef crafted more than a dozen sets of the towers from confection and chestnut ice cream - Prime Minister Prodi's favorite. They were a huge success.

Evidenced by the fact that none of the towers began leaning, it's apparent Mesnier has learned much about engineering over the years, including the delicate architecture involved in making the traditional gingerbread house centerpieces displayed in the State Dining Room.

This year's gingerbread house, a castle really, is built from 40 pounds of chocolate and 90 pounds of gingerbread, complete with towers and bridges. It's surrounded by an edible forest and inhabited by Santa's clan and confectionery versions of first pets Socks and Buddy.

All of Mesnier's work is done in an impossibly small workspace, which he customized to his liking. He measured every inch, placing ovens and refrigerated counters to optimize the tiny space.

Nevertheless, the brightly lit, immaculate kitchen reflects Mesnier's positive work-with-what-you-have attitude.

"To be creative, you have to be happy," he winks. "If I am unhappy or grumpy, then the people who work for me are. It's not a way to spend your very good days."

That philosophy has created for Mesnier a reputation that flies in the face of the temperamental, rolling-pin wielding chef who screams when the cookies burn. It's also earned a genuine affection from those he's touched.

"He's in a league of his own," says Dan Michel, pastry chef at the Monarch Hotel in Washington. "He's a nice and humble person in a league of his own, and he likes to help bring people along with him."