By Joan Obra
RISMEDIA, February 12, 2009-(MCT)-Let’s be honest: Americans are obsessed with life in the White House – from what presidents eat to behind-the-scenes gossip about events. And who better to share such stories than Roland Mesnier, the White House executive pastry chef for 25 years?
Mesnier dishes on the presidents he served: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in a memoir called, “All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House,” (Flammarion, $24.95).
Mesnier is also available to give a talk called “White House Meringues and Memoirs.” If his memoir is any indication, listeners are in for a treat.
In 2006, Mesnier finally left the White House, but continued to keep his hands in the pastry dough. During the half century that he’s worked, he’s rarely taken a day off. Despite the crushing workload, Mesnier would do it all over again.
“I wouldn’t even blink an eye,” he says. “But I would also say the White House job is not for just anybody. … It’s a much more demanding job, where you have to practically dedicate yourself to the White House. If you can’t do that, don’t go there.”
Here’s a look at Mesnier’s life through the years.
The early years: 1944-1979
As one of nine children in a poor family, “you would have never thought … after reading my book that I would have been a candidate for the White House,” Mesnier says in a telephone interview.
His memoir paints a tough, yet pleasant childhood. Born during World War II in the tiny village of Bonnay, France, Mesnier grew up in a rat-damaged home with no electricity and no running water. But his close-knit family was happy.
“We had little, but wanted for nothing, since you can’t miss what you’ve never had,” he writes.
On his 14th birthday, Mesnier started his apprenticeship at a pastry shop. His perfectionist boss made him scrub stairs, wash dishes and run errands for a year before teaching him the art of croissants and chocolate decorations. Three years later, after Mesnier passed his apprenticeship exam, he worked in pastry shops in France and Germany. His big break occurred when he was about 20 years old: Though he didn’t speak a word of English,
Mesnier was hired by the Savoy, the famed luxury hotel in London, England.
“In those years, (it) was probably more difficult to work there or get a job there than in the White House,” Mesnier says. “This place would scrutinize every single inch of you before you could make it to the kitchen.”
From there, a string of high-profile jobs followed, including head pastry chef for the Hotel George V in Paris, corporate pastry chef for the Princess Hotels and executive pastry chef at The Homestead in Virginia.
The Jimmy Carter years: 1979-1981
By the time he interviewed with Rosalynn Carter for the position of White House executive pastry chef, Mesnier had extensive experience in creating sugar sculptures, marzipan figures and chocolate decorations.
Rosalynn Carter was so impressed with his portfolio, she hired Mesnier without tasting his desserts.
He initially was dismayed with the state of pastries at his new job. Cookies and cakes for afternoon tea and even Christmas would come from the corner bakery.
“I did not enjoy that,” he says. “There was no fresh ice cream made. And I definitely wanted to start that at the White House.”
In the beginning, he didn’t have his own kitchen _ or an assistant. So he alone would churn out 3,000 cookies for an afternoon tea.
The job also involved catering to the whims of the first family, especially when 12-year-old Amy Carter baked cookies in the presidential apartment.
After mixing the dough and putting the cookies in the oven, Amy would start roller skating and forget about them.
“So next thing you know, there’s smoke over the White House and Secret Service are getting very excited,” Mesnier says. “… They would run to me first and I would redirect them to the second floor of the White House and say, ‘You know, I think you’d better check Amy’s kitchen.’ And of course they would pull those trays of cookies smoking and totally blackened.”
The next morning, a half-asleep, pajama-clad Amy would visit Mesnier for some cookies to take to school.
“I knew that would happen. So I always prepared some cookies on the side for her,” Mesnier says.
The Ronald Reagan years: 1981-1989
Mesnier’s memoir describes a memorable moment between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The president once dropped some raspberry mousse on his shirt, much to the first lady’s horror.
“She didn’t think that was very presidential, especially with the staff watching what was going on,” Mesnier says. “But President Reagan didn’t care at all. He keeps scraping what was on his shirt and eating it and exclaiming that it was wonderful _ that he loved it! … So I knew right away that the president was a very easygoing fellow. But the first lady was not quite the same case.”
Nancy Reagan was a perfectionist who gave exacting directions for desserts. They didn’t always turn out as planned, however.
A dinner with French president Francois Mitterand and famed chef Julia Child featured sugar decorations of birds, branches and leaves. All the desserts went into the dining room except for one. A chef had put it aside to take pictures.
When Mesnier called for the missing dessert, the chef hurried and dropped it. The dessert didn’t hit the floor, but the sugar work was a mess.
“I had no choice but to send that to the dining room,” Mesnier says. “… Of course, the next day I find out that Julia Child is the one that got it.”
Child wrote a scathing review of the meal. Mesnier writes in his memoir: “She described it as a pile of broken multicolored bits of sugar, adding that it was neither beautiful to look at nor good to eat.”
The George H.W. Bush years: 1989-1993
George H.W. Bush’s term also was marred by a pastry disaster. For a dinner with Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mesnier created a dessert in the shape of houses with a man in a sombrero, taking his siesta. Though the figure was common on travel posters at the time, Social Secretary Laurie Firestone thought the figure could imply that “Mexican people spend their time taking siestas and doing nothing much else,” Mesnier writes in his memoir.
A Mexican guest assured Firestone that it was fine, but she remained unconvinced. In full view of everyone, Firestone plucked off the figure just as dessert was being served.
“My blood was boiling,” Mesnier says. “… I looked like a fool in front of all the staff.”
The day after, she apologized. “I told her, ‘You know, that will never happen again, because the next time I will not be returning to the White House,’” he says.
The Bill Clinton years: 1993-2001
During Clinton’s presidency, his allergies to chocolate, dairy, and possibly wheat flour affected the desserts, Mesnier says.
When Mesnier made bananas in strawberry cream (one of Charlie Chaplain’s favorite desserts at the Savoy), he used nondairy topping. And he replaced all-purpose flour with spelt flour in the president’s baked goods.
But Clinton didn’t always stick to the desserts made for him. At a party, the president chose the chocolate cake instead of the carrot cake with no butter, wheat flour or chocolate.
Mesnier could tell when the president had an allergic reaction: “Usually you would see that his eyes would be puffed up a little bit.”
The George W. Bush years: 2001-2006
Mesnier’s work was influenced by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
For about a month after the attacks, Mesnier scaled back the desserts to fit the mood of national mourning. Instead of ornate desserts, he made homey ones, such as tarte tatin and ginger ice cream.
“I didn’t think the family was ready to have festivities of any kind,” Mesnier says, “so the desserts became more simple for a while.”
By that Christmas, the desserts had returned to the type of food the Bushes liked: “American food with a European accent,” Mesnier says.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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