story and photos by Janet I. Martineau
|White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier|
He may have toiled as the White House’s executive pastry chef for 26 years, creating replicas of the White House with 175 pounds of chocolate and gingerbread as well as small portraits of the first ladies in frosting, but here is one of the stories Roland Mesnier told the Horizons Town Talk audience on Tuesday morning.
President George Bush and First Lady Laura were enjoying their first dinner in the executive mansion, with pooches Barney and Spot in the room with them, when suddenly George kicked open the door into the kitchen, with dogs in tow, and barked to the butler that “somebody farted in the dining room and it wasn’t me or the first lady, so take these two outside.”
Gales of laughter followed that story....but, then, during his entire hour-long talk, 65-year-old Mesnier was part stand-up comedian along with that pastry chef business. His stories were priceless .... of a playful President Reagan pretending to be drunk and scaring his Secret Service detail, of lonely Bill Clinton during the White House aide scandal blowing a fuse when he could not find the second half of a low calorie strawberry cake, of a stinky Carter “signature” dish that was “so God damn bad nobody ever ate it.”
But the story that perhaps took the cake was the one about perfectionist Nancy Reagan who had booked a September dinner in the White House Rose Garden, only to discover that not a single rose was in bloom that day.
“So before long two trucks drove up, inside of them were thousands of (cut) roses,” said Mesnier in his charming French accent, “and the White House staff was set to wiring all of them on the bushes. Since the dinner was at night, no one could tell the roses were wired on. No one ever knew the difference.”
Mesnier was the longest running chef at the White House and served five presidents in all, never concocted the same dessert twice, worked 16-hour days, retired three times before it finally took, and has since authored four books.
|Signing copies of his books|
Not bad for a kid who was born in a small village in eastern France -- population 140, of which his family of nine children and two parents were a good hunk of it. They were, he said, dirt poor -- no electricity, no running water, growing all their food.
The clothes went from “kid to kid, and I was number seven down the line, so with the underwear I was lucky to get the rubber waist band.”
At age 12 he visited an older brother who had become a pastry chef. And on his own 14th birthday he came to supper and found his chair occupied by a suitcase. “Son, it is time for you to go,” his strapped parents said. “There is a job waiting for you in the big city.”
And 15 minutes later he was on his way to working up the pastry chef line -- from France to Germany, England, Switzerland, Bermuda, Mexico and finally the United States.
He was working at a resort in Virginia when the White House became a pest -- repeatedly asking him to come work for them in Washington, D.C. “To shut them up” he made the five-hour drive for an interview, found “the people there were not very nice” and then suddenly was ushered in for a 20-minute interview with Rosalynn Carter “who was the first friendly person I met there.”
His hiring followed, despite the fact he had only a Green Card and was not a U.S. citizen. Mrs. Carter was not fazed, he said. A few days after he began work he was ordered into a black limo, taken to an office where he was questioned about the U.S. Supreme Court and other governmental things....which he knew nothing about and could not answer.
“Finally I was asked do you know who is the president of the United States?” That one he could answer, he was told “you passed the test,” was whisked off to the Alexandria Court House where a woman met him with a Bible, and presto, he was a United States citizen.
“It was Rosalynn Carter who opened all the doors for me” ... despite that stinky cheese ring dish.
Each first family, he said, brought with them a signature family dish which was ALWAYS served “no matter what” when a buffet table was up. The cheese ring consisted of stinky cheeses, onions, anchovies and strawberry jam. As noted before, Mesnier says no one ever ate it and he wonders to this day if the White House freezer still contains some.
Other stories from the Mesnier era:
-- Nancy Reagan told him that “whatever you do, don’t give chocolate to the president.” But, says the chef, “I could see in his eyes, he was in despair.” So whenever she went to visit her sick mother, the president was served “steak, macaroni and cheese, and a big, big serving of chocolate mousse” -- all of which was forbidden by his wife.
|Mesnier still dresses the part|
-- Barbara Bush ordered that “swordfish a la Bush” be served when England’s Prince Charles came to visit. No one knew what it was, so she was called to the kitchen right after giving a speech -- all dressed up in a nice blue dress and her traditional string of pearls.
“And she proceeded to show us -- she took the swordfish, slathered both sides with mayonnaise, squirted it with lemon, told us to cook it for five minutes on each side “and it will be black as hell, but the prince will love it.”
Barbara Bush, sad Mesnier, “was witty and quick. If you tangled with her, you lost.”
-- Dessert-loving Clinton was a challenge since he was, says Mesnier, allergic to dairy products, flour and chocolate. “There was a time (the scandal) in the White House when he ate alone a lot. And Mrs. Clinton also ate alone a lot then -- she liked mocha cake then to his low-calorie strawberry cake. Things finally got over that bump.”
-- Whenever cookies were served, Mesnier planned on five per guest.....except when the Blue Hair Ladies Club came and he baked maybe double the amount because “they came with huge pocketbooks and, well, the cookies just popped in them by accident.”