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.
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.
"I will not say how I'd feel about a Hillary Clinton presidency, he replied. And by the way, I never worked for a Democrat or a Republican. I worked for the president of the United States." But Mesnier does say that it was during the fatiguing Clinton years when he began to think about retirement. "They liked to entertain big, with a capital B," he says, explaining that he had been used to making cakes, pies, pastries, and petits fours for parties of about 150, but the Clintons' guest list would often number 600 and once it even swelled to 6,000. Mesnier, who had only one full-time assistant, was working around the clock and saw little of his wife and son. The idea of retirement became more appealing than ever before.
Mesnier reveals a special fondness for the senior Bushes. Barbara Bush, Mesnier says, was "always funny and a terrific speaker," and George H.W. Bush was quick to laugh as well as to show emotion. Mesnier recalls one day when the former president singled him out to a security guard, telling the guard: "Keep an eye on this guy. He's the one who's trying to kill the president with calories!" And he'll never forget Bush senior's attempt to say farewell to his staff, cut short when he was overtaken by tears.
"You might think the White House is a cold place to work, but really, there is a lot of heart there," says Mesnier. He gets choked up himself when recalling the departure of various administrations. "When a new president arrived at the White House, such as when Reagan moved in after Carter, I was mad at him," he says. "I thought to myself, 'Who is this impostor in the Carters' house?' " But by the time the Reagans had left, Mesnier had grown to love them, too. "I was sad to see them go," he says. "Saying goodbye was always the hardest part."
Having said goodbye himself, Mesnier still feels a tinge of sadness even though he enjoys retirement and the time it allows him for family and travel. "I don't miss the workload," Mesnier says, "but I miss interacting with the first families and especially pleasing them."
Indeed, Mesnier did please those first families, their friends, and many world leaders. His artistry, his precise approach to pastry, and the dignity with which he carried himself didn't go without notice. "If there is such a thing as a 'genius pastry chef,' " Barbara Bush has said of him, "Roland Mesnier is it!"
Mesnier is especially proud of the stunning, one-of-a-kind confections he created for those state dinners, which were never duplicated in 26 years and always reflected the honored guest's country. There was the "Bonsai Garden of Sweet Serenity" with its plate of kiwi sauce threading a river floating with multicolored flowers, a bridge decorated with a dark-chocolate bonsai tree, and a timbale of assorted mousses recalling the colors of the Japanese flag. Mesnier honored the King of Spain with a chocolate box replete with liquor-filled citrus sorbets, and his final triumph was an oyster shell of white chocolate filled with a dark nougat "pearl" against a backdrop of chocolate seaweed for an Australian state dinner.
Surprisingly, Mesnier's personal favorite bears no resemblance to these wildly imaginative, head-turning works of art. "I love a good, old-fashioned American pie," he says. "When it's made well, there's no better dessert in the world."