White House Pastry Chef Hangs Up Spatula

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’

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