Retired White House Pastry Chef Mesnier Shares Dessert Tips
Photo of Chef Roland Mesnier at Dover Downs
“What is so wonderful about Roland is that his fantastic pastry and confections always look beautiful and taste divine. In short, he is the best there is!” ~ Hillary Rodham Clinton
Photo of Chef Mesnier at Chocolate Festival
Roland Mesnier at the Chocolate Festival in Dover Downs Hotel
When I read that Roland Mesnier, the longest-serving White House pastry chef and author of three books, Dessert University, Basic to Beautiful Cakes, and All the Presidents Pastries: Twenty Five Years in the White House, A Memoir, was going to give a free lecture at the Chocolate Festival at the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino and share stories about his years of service to 5 different American Presidents I knew I had to go hear him speak. What I didn't realize was the fact that he would also be giving a food demonstration and that the members of the audience would be invited to sample his delicious creation. His recipe for raspberry chocolate cups is in his book, "Dessert University" and will also be posted on the Dover Downs Hotel website within the next few days. Like all his recipes, the ingredients are common- real whipping cream, raspberry puree, seedless raspberry jam, vanilla and corn syrup are blended together and poured into individual chocolate shells that can be purchased online or at a local gourmet food store. Garnish with a fresh raspberry on top and you get the delectable looking dessert cups in the photograph I took.
Raspberry Chocolate Cups Made by Chef Mesnier
Chef Mesnier's Gingerbread Replica of Mt. Vernon
Chef Mesnier's Life Story
By any measure Roland Mesnier has led an extraordinary life. Born into a family of 9 children in a small village in France, his early years were spent in a home with no electricity or running water and the family was so poor they could not afford to buy a Christmas tree so the siblings would go out and cut down a small tree in a nearby forest and set it up on their mother's sewing machine console. Each child, including the boy who would one day grow up to be pastry chef for American Presidents was given an orange for their Christmas dessert/present.
As a young boy Roland was expected to work every summer to earn money to support the family and the jobs he had before the age of 11 were on farms. But the summer he turned 12 he worked in a bakery where his older brother was the bakery chef. He thought the smell of real yeast dough baking in the oven was a heavenly scent and knew right away that this kind of baking was for him. Thereafter his dream was to become the best pastry chef in the world and he spent his youth and young adult years learning to bake as an apprentice. To this day, he is a strong believer that experience is the most important factor in learning how to be a good chef. Add knowledge of the way that cooking ingredients interact with each other, a creative imagination that loves experimentation, and you have the makings of a great chef.
The story he told about how he, an immigrant working on a green card visa as pastry chef in an exclusive family owned hotel in Virginia, came to be a pastry chef at the White House was delightful and shows how important a professional chef's reputation can be. His dream was to be the best chef in the world, not White House pastry chef. Washington insiders who were patrons of the hotel were raving over the desserts he was creating and encouraged him to apply for the White House position but he loved where he was working and never applied. One day he received a phone call from first lady Rosalynn Carter's personal secretary asking him to "Please come to visit." He did, and when he met the White House staff he didn't like them but when he met with Mrs. Carter she greeted him with a kiss, addressed him by his first name and talked with him for a full twenty minutes after which she offered him the job saying he was, "The cutest pastry Chef." He was so charmed he accepted the position but there was one snag- he told her he was not an American Citizen. The first lady said, "I will take care of it." and true to her word, she did. Two weeks after he was working as White House Pastry Chef a limo picked him up at the White House and took him to take his test. He said he didn't know many of the answers to the questions that the immigration officer asked, but when asked, "Do you know who the president is?" he nodded his head and said, "President Jimmy Carter- I feed him everyday." He passed the test and to this day feels grateful that Mrs. Carter helped him become an American Citizen.
Chef Mesnier loves challenges and never rested on his laurels when working at the White House. Instead he took great pride in creating new desserts every day and in always being prepared for the unexpected arrival of guests. For example, in the three weeks leading up to Christmas he would have 120,000 pieces of cakes and cookies in his freezer for both planned and unplanned dinners and events. Another thing he took great pride in was knowing how to prepare dishes from all around the world so that guests from any country could find something from their culture when they would eat at the White House.
When Chef Mesnier speaks and answer questions it becomes obvious that he has a great attitude and always puts a positive spin on things. For instance, when asked what his best tasting dessert is he answered, "All of them." When asked which president was the most difficult to please he made a point of rewording the question saying, "I never thought of any president or his family as being difficult but the Reagans were perfectionists. They knew how to entertain on a grand scale and Mrs. Reagan always knew exactly what she wanted. It was my pleasure to create it to the best of my ability. When speaking about his early years he said he didn't mind being poor because he was born to great parents who loved all their kids and spent a lot of time with them.
Chef Mesnier's Tips
When preparing a special dessert for company Chef Mesnier said that the cook should "Open a bottle of wine and have one glass before starting," then he jokingly added, "This helps the cook relax and if the food doesn't turn out well there is the rest of the bottle left to help the cook feel better!" With a twinkle in his eye he recommended that on Valentine's Day the cook should, "Prepare a special treat for his/her lover by baking something late at night dressed only in an apron- but be careful not to back into the stove when your lover lured by the delicious aroma comes into the kitchen!"
All kidding aside, Chef Mesnier believes that the processed pastries and cakes of today are not the same quality that were available in the past when things were made from scratch. The recipes in his books all use simple ingredients that are fresh and are also designed so that the cook can easily make substitutions depending on what fruits are in season or on hand. He uses real cream, real butter, fresh fruits and vegetables.
In his books he shares many recipes and also gives tips on how to make entertaining less stressful by preparing as many things as possible in advance and storing them in the freezer. The key is in knowing which items freeze well and which don't. For example, macaroons can be pre-baked and will freeze well but many other cookies don't. He makes the dough, shapes it, puts it on parchment paper and freezes it unbaked.
Chef Mesnier's Books
Roland Mesnier's books can be purchased online and in most book stores. They make fabulous gifts for anyone who loves to bake. The following is a brief description of each book:
A beautifully illustrated book that contains over 300 mouth watering recipes and lessons from Chef Mesnier. It is suitable for bakers of all levels and includes breakfast pastries, cookies and pies, fresh fruit desserts, frozen confections and cakes.
Basic to Beautiful Cakes
This is a step by step guide to creating delicious cakes that look as good as they taste. Chef Roland offers tips for investing in high-end ingredients and equipment that make a difference in the cook's ability to create masterpieces so that even amateur bakers can have spectacular results.
All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House, a Memoir
This book is Roland Mesnier's memoir and tells the story of how this young French pastry chef came to embody the American dream. There are many insider tales of his time working at the White House which give the reader a vastly different perspective of what world events and also Washington celebrations looked like from the proximity of his White House pastry kitchen.