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Pastries to please the palates of presidents

Former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier shares his memories of five administrations.

By Jennifer WolcottCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Fit for Kings: Rosalynn Carter persuaded Mesnier to work at the White House in 1980.

Courtesy of The White House

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When first lady Rosalynn Carter approached Roland Mesnier for a job at the White House, he was dumbfounded. "Why me?" he asked. He hadn't fully realized that his care and precision in the kitchen had established him as one of the nation's best pastry chefs.

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Mrs. Carter was determined to pluck him out of the kitchen at the venerable Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and put him to work making desserts in America's most famous residence. After his initial refusal ("I was happy at the Homestead," he says), she eventually won him over. 

It was a life-changing career move for Mr. Mesnier, who was raised as one of nine children in an impoverished French family from a tiny village in Burgundy. He never imagined he'd work in the "presidential palace of the most powerful nation on Earth," he writes in his memoir, "All the Presidents' Pastries." But even after 26 years at the White House making everything from spectacular sugar sculptures for state dinners to simple desserts for family suppers – beginning with the Carters and ending with the Bushes – Mesnier's head never got too big for his toque. 

When speaking recently at the French Library in Boston, the now-retired Mesnier shows, despite his stardom in the culinary world (prior to the White House, he worked at such luxury hotels as the George V in Paris and the Savoy in London), he hasn't strayed far from his humble roots. While he hopes his rags-to-riches story can inspire others, he also insists that a chef is "no more than a servant," and that one must "never forget where and for whom you are working." 

For Mesnier, this meant biting his tongue now and then. For example, when President Clinton went off his diet and sneaked a piece of chocolate cake; when Mrs. Reagan made an 11th-hour menu change, demanding that Mesnier present the Queen of the Netherlands and her entourage with elaborate sugar baskets incorporating delicate sugar tulips, orange sorbet, and petits fours; or when, at Christmastime, first lady Laura Bush requested a sugar-sculpted Willy Wonka chocolate factory instead of a more traditional gingerbread house – and he'd never heard of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka. "Keeping my mouth shut is how I kept my job for 26 years," says Mesnier.

He is also unfailingly discreet about the families he served and what he observed of their lives. "I cannot tell you anything," he says with a twinkle. Even in his memoir, while he regales readers with behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like to work for the Carters, Reagans, Clintons, and Bushes, he doesn't dish any dirt.

When he is asked the question every guest at the French Library event wanted to know but was afraid to ask, Mesnier is restrained.