Standing in the White House pastry kitchen, clad in an impeccably white coat with an equally white toque standing straight on his head, Roland Mesnier is putting the finishing touches on dessert for the working luncheon President Bush is hosting for the president of Chile.
Mesnier twists the plate holding a light orange bombe, a melon sherbet cake decorated with a spray of chocolate flowers, carefully placing a ring of fresh cherries around it.
"It's almost like placing diamonds on a crown," says Mesnier, metal framed half-glasses midway down his nose, "everything has to be placed perfectly."
At age 60, after 25 years at the White House, the days are winding down to his last desserts. He will retire July 30. Yet, he's still proud of every new creation.
"They were truly created at the White House for a special function and for the president and first lady of the United States. How better can it get? I don't think so! It's the best. It's the top."
From France to the White House
Mesnier began as an apprentice in a pastry shop in his native France at age 12 then climbed the pastry kitchen ladder there. Trained as well in Germany and England, he eventually became pastry chef at Paris' posh George V hotel. Eventually he came to the United States and the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va.
Hired by Rosalyn Carter in 1979, Mesnier has created desserts for five presidents, with different backgrounds, different politics and different tastes. But he converted every one to a common belief.
"Every president loves desserts, even if they didn't like desserts before they got here," he says with more than a trace of a French accent. "Within weeks, they were converted to a dessert lover."
Slightly plump, with a round face and a ready laugh, Mesnier relishes talking about his creations and his core belief about ingredients.
"They will respond to you according to your work with them, how you treat them," he says. "It's like a lady. You treat her nice, she's nice to you."
Blend of Cultures
In food circles, Mesnier is considered something of a genius, a sorcerer who transformed an afterthought to a state dinner into a creative expression of American cooking while drawing on the native culture and flavors of a visiting head of state.
At the state dinner last year for President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, a coffee-producing country, Mesnier served coffee ice cream. But that was only the beginning. He also created an old fashioned coffee grinder completely of chocolate decorated with the yellow rose of Texas. And on each plate there was a giraffe, exquisitely fashioned of blown sugar.
For the emperor of Japan, there were sushi baskets fashioned of sugar; for the queen of England, dainty chocolate coaches. For the president of the Philippines, he used the country's favorite flavor, mango, to make a sorbet filled with coconut mousse, layered inside were coconut macaroons. And it was presented on a nougat stand made with caramel and sliced almonds. There were also native flowers created from sugar and chocolate.
For a recent working lunch, Mesnier showed off what looked like an oversized hydrangea. Each of the pink flower leaves were made by hand from sugar, with a green dot of butter cream at the center. Inside was pistachio and chocolate ice cream.
"What you put out there," says Mesnier, "has to be the best in the world."
‘Boy, He’s Good’
His desserts not only look good, they taste good. Just ask satisfied customer Bill Clinton.
"Boy, he's good. He's really good at what he does," says the former president, who adds that Mesnier prides himself on never making the same dessert twice, unless asked. In the case of the Clinton family, that was certain fruit cobblers and pies.
"So, on a fairly regular basis, but not so often as to get me intolerably fat," chortles Clinton, "Roland would make them again."
Clinton also says Mesnier's desserts were often the perfect diplomatic touch for a state dinner.
"On more than one occasion, he turned a tense diplomatic situation into a happy ending," the former President says, "because no matter what somebody might have thought about me, and some difference of opinion that we had, once the dinner was finished and Roland's dessert was inside, they were pretty happy anyway."
There is a much less public side to Mesnier's accomplishments. He works from a tiny, cramped kitchen wedged between the first and second floors of the White House, with little counter space, utensils stored in the ceiling and only two ice cream makers, each producing just a quart at a time. And everything sweet served in the White House is made there. Everything. Even after-dinner chocolates.
At Christmas, that means the traditional giant gingerbread house and 135,000 cookies and pieces of cake to be served at holiday parties. Mesnier usually began preparing for Christmas in July.
"If you don't have it in storage by Thanksgiving, I wouldn't want to think about Christmas," he says, "I think I would leave town, to be honest with you."
This past Christmas, first lady Laura Bush asked Mesnier to add something new to his holiday repertoire — a Willy Wonka chocolate factory. Mesnier was already working an average 15-hour day.
"You've got to invent everything from scratch," he says. "This is when you start shopping at Home Depot, at any hardware store around town for anything that chocolate can be molded in."
‘A True Passion’
Frank Ruta, who now owns and runs Palena Restaurant in Washington, was the executive sous chef at the White House and worked with Mesnier for 11 years.
"You can't do what he does, put in the hours that he's put in, none of us can," Ruta says, "without having passion, a true passion for what he does."
"It's an excitement like no other," says Mesnier. "And for a person like me to come here and be as creative as I can be, it's the most exciting thing in the world. My 25 years at the White House have been rewarding more than you can possible imagine."
When Mesnier came to the White House, not everything was made inside, but he insisted — in part, he says, because "everyone knows guests steal things. When they took cookies, I wanted them to be cookies made at the White House."
Mesnier has a strong belief that there is no bad food, only bad cooking. With one exception — low-carb diets.
"I think it's just another gimmick. Like before it was something else and something else and then there will be something else. This will pass."
And what's a meal without a dessert? he is asked.
"It's a bad meal," laughs Mesnier, who will walk out of the White House for the last time leaving behind thousands upon thousands of sweet memories.