Roland Mesnier was asked three times to be the pastry chef for the white house and he said no. He ended up working there for 26 years until 2004, serving five presidents and hundreds of thousands of guests from around the world. We met at the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, where he was building gingerbread houses with families and signing his cookbooks. They call him the creative genius.
We had this beautiful conversation on Facebook Live:
You came all the way from France to the White House; how did this opportunity come about?
MESNIER: Well, I didn’t come directly from France to the White House. I took a huge detour by working in many foreign countries because I always wanted to learn languages before learning the basics. So, I worked in Germany; I worked in Switzerland; I worked in England; I worked in Mexico. I worked in all those places and then I arrived in the United States. I took a job as a pastry chef in a very nice hotel in southern Virginia. This is where the White House discovered me.
MESNIER: There were some guests from the White House who used to come to the hotel. They spoke to me about how Mrs. Carter is looking for a new pastry chef and they wanted me to apply for the job, to which I said no. I said no.
MESNIER: Because I didn’t want to go to Washington. The people in Washington are strange, you know. (Laughing) So I said, “No, I don’t want to go to Washington.”
MESNIER: And then I stayed where I was and then they came back and asked me again, and I said no again.
MESNIER: Three times. Then one time, they tricked me.
MESNIER: They said to me: “Have you ever been to the White House?”
“Would you like to visit the White House?”
“So, why don’t you come right to the White House?”
Those days I was driving a very old car. Oh, my car was twenty years old … green like an avocado, you know, not a very pretty car, but when I arrived at the White House, they opened those gates and let me drive right in. Do you know the columns in front of the White House? They made me park my car there. Then I walked into the White House and this is where I bumped into Mrs. Carter.
Did she convince you?
MESNIER: She convinced me to take the job. I said I would. I couldn’t say no to the first lady of the United States. I could not do that.
But why did you stay for 26 years?
MESNIER: I loved it. This job was made for me, but I did not know that. They allowed me to do whatever I really wanted to do. They allowed me to be very creative, and that was really what I wanted to do. The salary was not big, was not great. I could survive, that’s about it, but I liked to do all these special things that I did. Remember, we serve kings, queens, all these important people from all over the world.
What is the highlight of your experience at the White House?
MESNIER: The moment you put something in front of the guest; something that represents their country, but that they don’t expect. So after dinner comes the beautiful dessert and there is something, a symbol, something that represents their country … Some heads of states, sometimes, were in tears.
Now I can see how your travels around the world helped you as a chef.
MESNIER: Yes, yes; it lets you know about different countries, what they like and dislike, and religion; be careful because you can make mistakes. You have to be very careful in what you serve. You have to be very knowledgeable. As I say, I love my job. I love my job; I love to be a pastry chef. I love to bake and do these things, and I am not like the chefs of today who travel the world but are never in their kitchen. They tell you they love to cook but they are never there. So when do they cook? Never! I am different. I like to be in my kitchen. That’s where I feel at home.
But you never thought to start your own bakery?
MESNIER: No because as soon as you bring business into the equation, things change.
So, you are an artist.
MESNIER: Exactly. I like to create, and I don’t follow what other chefs are doing. I worked for 26 years in the White House and for every meal, I created a new dessert.
So, what is the source of your inspiration?
MESNIER: Inspiration comes from the season, the weather, the politics of the day; walking around, you can see something, that is not a dessert and you would say “Oh, that would look good, let me make it with chocolate.” That’s where I found all my inspiration. As I said, I don’t follow what other chefs are doing.
Do you think politics influenced your creations?
MESNIER: Oh, yes!
MESNIER: The president, as you know, is into politics all the time, with other politicians, presidents, kings from around the world. So, [as a pastry chef] you can help the president by creating a very special dessert for the occasion, by reproducing something from the visiting head of state’s country. We make him feel, “Oh, my gosh, this is so nice, the president of America and his wife; this is what they did for me.” They don’t know me. They will never know me.
I know, but you represent them.
MESNIER: I represent them, and in the mind of the visiting head of state, that comes from the president and the first lady of the United States. And in that the way they are touched, and probably when they discuss business, later on, this will help them out a lot. You see, you put them in the mode to be nice. “These people were nice to me; I will be nice to them.” This is what I call “diplomacy gourmet.”
And you are the master of it! And by the way how many cookbooks did you write?
MESNIER: Eight cookbooks.
And what makes them different?
MESNIER: Well, they are on different subjects. This one here is all about Christmas at the White House. Beautiful pictures! And the pictures of this book were taken inside the White House. Look at these pictures of different presidents. Oh, this is the real cat of the Clinton family. His name is Socks and the reason I put him there, look what he is doing; he is eating the icing on the [gingerbread] house. This is why I put Socks here. Look at this cat. Beautiful, absolutely nice. When the president saw that [the photo of his cat], he was very touched, he said, “Look at my cat; he is eating the icing.” [Pointing at a different photo of a gingerbread house]. Do you know what this is? This is the house where former President Clinton grew up, where he was born. [Flipping another page] Look at the president looking at the house, look at him.
Was it a surprise?
MESNIER: Can’t you tell? Look at his face. He was so happy when he saw that. He was so touched!
Do you have a favorite president or first lady?
MESNIER: They all are my favorites, really, because they were all very nice to me.
You can learn more about Roland Mesnier and his upcoming events by visiting his website: https://www.chefrolandmesnier.com/white-house-creations.