White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier dies at 78

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Roland Mesnier, the French-born pastry chef who whipped up desserts for five presidents and dignitaries for a quarter-century in the White House and bragged about never serving the same dish twice, died Aug. 26 in an assisted living facility in the town of Burke in Northern Virginia. He was 78 years old.

The cause was complications from cancer, said his son, George Mesnier.

Mr. Mesnier, whose career began with a $1-a-month baking apprenticeship at age 14, was offered the White House job in 1979 after pleasing First Lady Rosalynn Carter with a promise that 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 says, was to comfort a family living under constant surveillance, 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, teamed up with the White House butler to glean more information about presidential tastes, and began Christmas planning 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” which was “a secret family recipe that no one tried to steal.

The Clintons also 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.”

He satisfied President Ronald Reagan’s chocolate cravings, consistently denied by the first lady, by making 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 Mr. Mesnier had presented to her for a state dinner featuring the Queen of the Netherlands. The Sunday before Tuesday dinner, 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 sherbet and of fruit.

“She nodded 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 appearance-conscious dignitaries, he made salutary changes to 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 had no shortage of exposure: he was known for his molded chocolate, made with his own moulds, and his sugar work was second to none.

François Dionot, the founder of the former L’Académie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the top cooking schools in the country, described Mr. Mesnier to the Los Angeles Daily News as the “king of sugar work “, including “spun sugar, poured sugar, rock candy, pulled sugar. Very few people know how to do this yet. It makes roses that look real.

Mr. Mesnier boasted that he had never made a bad dessert in the White House, a skill he attributed to grueling hours and 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 don’t like to cook because they get so stuck up when they cook,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 2007. “I used to have a glass of wine before I cooked. It worked for me. And if all else fails, just finish the bottle of wine.

Roland Robert Mesnier was born in Bonnay, in rural eastern France, on July 8, 1944, the seventh of nine siblings. Her father worked for the railroad system and her mother was a homemaker and, in her opinion, “a wonderful chef”.

He became interested in a culinary career through his older brother Jean, one of the main bakers at a patisserie. At 14, Mr. 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 recalled to 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, Mr. Mesnier became pastry chef at the Princess Hotel in Bermuda, where he met Martha Whiteford, an American teacher from West Virginia. The two married in 1969 and had a son, George, in 1971. His wife died in January. In addition to her son, of Clearwater, Fla., survivors include two sisters and a brother.

In 1976, Mr. 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 under the George W. Bush administration in 2004, he wrote a cookbook and memoir, “All the President’s Pastries,” in 2007 with Christian Malard.

Only once, he recalled to the Washington Post, did he break strict White House employment rules. It was 1987 and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting President Reagan in Washington. Although it’s common for all food gifts sent to the White House to be destroyed for security reasons, he couldn’t 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.'”

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