Alan Price: Good evening. I'm Alan Price, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And on behalf of all my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming this evening.
I would also like to acknowledge the generous support of our underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsors Bank of America and the Lowell Institute; and our media sponsors, the Boston Globe, Xfinity, and WBUR.
I'm also delighted to welcome all of you who are watching tonight's program online.
Chef Mesnier has kindly agreed to sign copies of his new book after tonight's program. Our bookstore will be selling copies of this book, and taking orders for Chef Mesnier's holiday book, The White House in Gingerbread: Memories and Recipes, if you are interested. And please watch for a special surprise as you exit the hall after the Forum this evening.
We thank you in advance for double checking to silence your cell phones.
A White House pastry chef faces challenges unique in the culinary sphere, from everyday desserts to state dinner centerpieces that must be as delicious as they are symbolic. Their work is demanding and ever-changing, and must always be executed at the highest level. We are so pleased to have the opportunity to explore this fascinating world in depth this evening.
I'm delighted to introduce tonight's speakers. Roland Mesnier was chief pastry chef at the White House from 1979 to 2004. During his 25-year tenure, he served five United States Presidents and their distinguished guests. He is the author of a number of books, including most recently, Creating the Sweet World of White House Desserts: A Pastry Chef's Secrets.
I'm also pleased to introduce our moderator for this evening. Sheryl Julian is the former food editor of the Boston Globe. She styles and photographs recipes, writes about food, teaches food journalism in the master's in gastronomy program at Boston University. She trained at the Cordon Bleu Schools in London and Paris.
Please join me in welcoming our special guests. [applause]
Sheryl Julian: Thank you. Good evening, and thank you all for coming out on this bleak night. We're going to make you very happy and talk about all things wonderful and sweet. Chef Mesnier, welcome to JFK Library.
Roland Mesnier: Thank you.
Sheryl Julian: You were raised in the village of Bonnay, France, in the north, near the Belgian border, one of nine children. Seven of nine? Seventh?
Roland Mesnier: Nine.
Sheryl Julian: Of nine, yes. You were number seven?
Roland Mesnier: I was number seven.
Sheryl Julian: And when they took the population of Bonnay a decade ago, there were 270 people. And it was undoubtedly many fewer people post-World War II when you were a boy in the '40s.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: What was it like? What was Bonnay like when you were a boy?
Roland Mesnier: Well, it was very, very tiny. It was very country.
Sheryl Julian: Rural.
Roland Mesnier: Rural. We had two fantastic parents that ran the house and everything, and discipline— we had discipline in that house, trust me. And I still thank them today because to organize seven boys and two girls, trust me, I felt very bad for my sisters [laughter] because they were the oldest. But you know what? They had a wonderful life. They're still alive today. They are in Nantes. But in my house, we only ate what we grew or what we raised. We had no money to go to the butcher shop. We had no money to go to JC Penney to buy clothes. [laughter] If you see what I mean. We had no running water and no electricity. That means for some of you here – please listen – no TV! [laughter] No what you call BlackBerry, BlueBerry, RaspBerry, whatever. [laughter] None of those. And my mother turned her first electric switch in her life at age 60 when she retired.
Sheryl Julian: Oh my.
Roland Mesnier: She had never turned an electric switch before. We had no refrigeration, we had none of that.
So life was interesting, to say the least. And the house where we lived would have probably been the size of that stage, maybe, on a good day, when we would expand.
Sheryl Julian: Were you all lined up on the floor in one of the rooms?
Roland Mesnier: We slept in bed, but three or four people in the same bed, you know, one facing this way, another one facing this way.
But I must say something regard to that. And I really say it sincerely to you. Those were great times of my life. If I could do it again, I would do it just like that. Today, life, for me, has lost a lot of fun because we created our own games. We created many things ourselves. You know, with a pile of mud and a stick, we would play all afternoon. Today you need to go buy a machine that costs you $1000.
Sheryl Julian: So— Sorry. Sorry for interrupting. You had a brother who had a bakery, presumably an older brother. And you went to work for him? And then your mother arranged an apprenticeship for you.
Roland Mesnier: Yeah, wait, wait, but I had two brothers. I had one brother who had his own bakery, and the other one who had his own pastry shop. And on my vacation, when vacation came, school vacation, we didn't go to Cancun. [laughter] We went to work.
Sheryl Julian: So Chef, explain for the audience the difference between a bakery in France and a pastry shop.
Roland Mesnier: Well, a bakery usually makes bread. Mainly bread.
Sheryl Julian: And nothing else.
Roland Mesnier: A few little things, but not much else. Pastry shop is where they make a lot of elaborate cakes, which is a little bit different. This is where I really got the taste of doing pastry. When I saw my brother baking a croissant or something of that kind, mixing the flour, the sugar, everything, and then put that in the oven, and then see that rising, and the smell – the smell. You know, smell, for me, is the number one thing that you need to have to attract customers. Here you can walk the street; do you ever smell anything when you walk the street? What you smell is not what you have in mind. [laughter] But that's the way it is.
And this is why we have lost a lot of excitement. In France, you walk the street for five minutes and you start smelling baked goods, pastry, bread. And you start smelling the coffee. And the cigarettes; oh, don't forget the cigarettes, that's part of life. I don't smoke, I've given up smoking when I was 19 years old. But this is very important.
Sheryl Julian: So your mother arranged an apprenticeship
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: At a pastry shop.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: When you were 14. And was this typical, that a parent went to a tradesman and set up all the arrangements and the details for a child?
Roland Mesnier: Yes, in those years, because in those years school, the regular school would be finished when you're 14 years old. Then you had to go to a college or something, for the people who had the money or who could afford it. But we couldn't do that.
So, anyway, usually the mother, mainly the mother would go to town, select a nice place and go talk to the owner, and start a contract. Usually it was a three-year contract. And you'd be living with those people, eating there, and everything.
Sheryl Julian: So did all of your brothers and sisters do this?
Roland Mesnier: Not all of them. The only one was the one who was a baker and pastry chef, and then myself, you see.
Sheryl Julian: And the others?
Roland Mesnier: The other ones learned like to become an electrician, a mechanic.
Sheryl Julian: Yes, I mean, did they all– They all took a trade.
Roland Mesnier: They all did trade, yes.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, so part of your arrangement was that you got room and board. You were a few towns away from where you were, a few villages away?
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: And you earned 300 francs a month.
Roland Mesnier: No, no, no. When we started–
Sheryl Julian: You earned zero.
Roland Mesnier: Was one dollar for the month. One dollar. And then every six months they would raise it a little bit. But at the end of the three years, you may have earned 300 francs, towards the end, you know what I'm saying. But that was it.
Sheryl Julian: Was it enough money to go to a movie? Could you take a girl for a coffee?
Roland Mesnier: When the girl knew what you were doing, she was gone. [laughter] She needed a bus ticket to go home. She said, "I met that loser. What do you think I'm going to do with this one here?" No, no, no, oh, my goodness. You don't know how poor we were. We were really poor people. And the only thing we did is work. Then you had some free time, was work.
Sheryl Julian: Well, were you expected to send some money home, no matter what you earned?
Roland Mesnier: Some. And we had two-and-a-half months during the school vacation, and they would send me to a farm to work with a cow.
Sheryl Julian: Before the apprenticeship.
Roland Mesnier: Before, yeah. So we'd be moving manure. You know, before I would go to school in the morning, I would go to a farm and move manure. And you want me to attract a girl? [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: Okay.
Roland Mesnier: What cologne you are wearing today? [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: So when you went off to do the apprenticeship, what were your responsibilities? You knew how to shovel manure, but what did you know about baking?
Roland Mesnier: About baking? First of all–
Sheryl Julian: Well, you had worked for your brother.
Roland Mesnier: The first year that you went for your apprenticeship there, they didn't let you touch any pastry. They made you do clean the floor, go to the shopping for the pastry shop, get the butter, the lemon, the chocolate you needed to work with. But the first year, the boss needed to trust you. He wanted to see if you act responsible. And if you didn't, that didn't last long; the boss would send you home, and that was the end.
Sheryl Julian: So what did acting responsibly mean?
Roland Mesnier: Meaning, if the boss said, "Tomorrow, I want you to start at six o'clock tomorrow morning," then you show up at five-thirty. That's responsible. And if the boss sends you to buy a dozen of apples, he's going to check them when you bring them, and if half of them are rotten, that's not being responsible. So that's what they mean by responsible.
Sheryl Julian: So after the first year?
Roland Mesnier: After the first year, then they would let you start to do some, like the little tartlets; you were allowed to touch those. Then you move like this. But then when the third year came in, by then the boss either totally trusts you or he had sent you back home to mama.
Sheryl Julian: And in the meantime, is your mother telling you, "You better do well"?
Roland Mesnier: Mother and father. And they would come to town and check with the owner of the shop, say, "How is he doing? Is he nice? Is he respectful? Does he really do some good work?" And whatever the boss of the shop will say, that's what your outcome would be.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, it's like a report card.
Roland Mesnier: Exactly, exactly. Yes.
Sheryl Julian: So when you were 17, you took an apprenticeship exam, I read.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: Who administers it? What is that about?
Roland Mesnier: That was organized by the pastry owner and pastry chef of the town. And you would go one day to one of the biggest pastry shops that could accommodate all of us. And you got a piece of paper telling you what you needed to do. Like, "Today, you're going to make puff pastry. Make a five-pound block."
Sheryl Julian: And are they watching you while you're making it?
Roland Mesnier: [laughter] Oh, they watch you like a hawk. And then they would say after that, "Then you have to make génoise or cake, butter cream," different things like this. And then after the end of the day, you would line up on the table all the things you needed to make, and then those chefs came to look at it, touch it, taste it, and give you a grade.
Sheryl Julian: Like The Great British Baking Show.
Roland Mesnier: Well, they came after. [laughter] They copied us. We didn't copy them. But just to tell you, this was serious. Now, when I did that, we were 22 apprentices.
Sheryl Julian: In this little town or all the towns around?
Roland Mesnier: No, no, not in my little town, in a bigger town where I learned and all that. We were 22, and I graduated– guess what?
Sheryl Julian: Number one, I hope.
Roland Mesnier: Number two. Because the number one was always the apprentice from that particular place.
Sheryl Julian: Ah, okay, the fix was in.
Roland Mesnier: Well this guy– well no, the guy knew the place very well. But when we went that day, we didn't know that pastry shop, we didn’t know the oven, the refrigerator. We had to find out about everything.
Sheryl Julian: Okay.
Roland Mesnier: But I graduated number two, which I was very, very happy with that.
Sheryl Julian: So it goes without saying that all these formulas were in your head. You didn't have a notebook.
Roland Mesnier: Well, yes. Oh, yes. Definitely, yes, yes.
Sheryl Julian: At some point after France, after this apprenticeship, you went to West Germany, or you had a stop in between?
Roland Mesnier: No, after that I wanted to learn languages, that was in my head, to learn languages, because I knew that people start to travel more and more and I'm going to be confronted with different languages. So I wanted to learn. And I wanted to learn different pastries. So I said, where do I go? And I didn't know anybody who could coach me, if you will; that didn't exist. People didn't do that in those days. You went on your own.
So I decided that I was going to go to Germany because I heard a lot of good reports about the German pastry. And the Germans are very organized. And I wanted to learn that, the organization, the everything, everything. And then from there on, I went first to the town of Hanover in northern Germany, and then after that I went to Hamburg. So I went to two different towns in two years.
Then after that, I had to come home, by the way, to do my military service. Those years, every young man had to go to the military service. Oh, do I miss those days! [laughter] I wish you would go, I really wish. Because you know what? I learned more in those pastry shops and those places with those masters. I learned more than I would have learned in any university or whatever school you choose. We learned right there working with those people. So we really, really knew what we were doing and what we were learning.
Sheryl Julian: So I'm going to fast forward through some of your CV. You were in London at the Savoy Hotel, at the George V in Paris, at the Princess Bermuda where you met your wife Martha. And then at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. I've been there a couple of times; a beautiful place.
Roland Mesnier: I tell you, I always selected where I'm going to be working next. Selection, now I know how to do this, this, this. What do I need to learn? Let's say I'm weak in chocolate work. So let me get a job somewhere where the master is the best in chocolate work. That's how I'm going to learn. And it did work for me very, very well.
The money I was making was barely sufficient for me to live on. I'll give you a quick little story about Germany. When I came to Germany, I could not speak a word of German. The only thing I had in my pocket was an address of someone in Hanover that spoke French, that I never met before. Somebody in Paris gave me this address; said, "Go see this man." This guy was selling a tractor from McCormick Company, so he was not a pastry guy. [laughter] Obviously.
Anyway, when I arrived in Hanover, I have very few coins in my pocket.
Sheryl Julian: That would never happen in your kitchen, that sound.
Roland Mesnier: No. I would be over there with the rolling pin. [laughter] Anyway, let me tell you, that story is very important. Very important because today nobody lives like that. When I went to those people, there was a young couple. They had two young daughters that were like seven or eight years old. They never saw me before, they don't know anything about me. I knocked on the door. The young lady came out, the wife, and she spoke French also and said, "What do you want?" I said, "Okay, let me introduce myself."
Sheryl Julian: You hadn't written them a letter.
Roland Mesnier: No! Nothing! I couldn't afford the stamp. So anyway, she said, "What do you want?" "What I need is a place to stay." And the husband had joined her by then. "And then I want you to help, please, to find a job. I'm sure you know the beautiful, the best bakery or pastry shop in Hanover." So the guy looked at me, said, "You know, I will help you. You seem sincere, you seem nice, I'll help you. You can stay with my family for a couple weeks until you find someplace to stay." That was incredible. Today they will have called the cops on me. [laughter] It's true, I'm telling you the truth!
He said, "Tomorrow, Saturday" – I still remember like yesterday – "I will take you downtown to the best pastry shop of Hanover, which is right across from the Opera. And we will go see the chef." We get there, meet the chef. The chef, for some of you who never met the old German guy, you know their language is not exactly the language of love. [laughter] He was pounding on the table and with his rough language here is what he said. He said: "Okay, I want you to come back tomorrow morning at five o'clock, and I'm going to give you a job to do. If it's not done right, I put you back on the train to France." That's it. There was never a discussion about money, vacation, no way, no way.
So the next day I come and five o'clock in the morning, it's Sunday, the chef is not there. Nobody's there. I know what he was doing. It was a trick to see if I'm really hungry for the job, you know what I'm saying? He wanted to test me. Because if I had left, he'd say, "Good, he's gone, we don't need him, that's it."
I stayed there. I sat on the floor, on the cement floor, and the chef arrived at eight o'clock that morning. Then he took me to the little shop and he wanted me to coat, to dip chocolate candy in chocolate. Now, I was in luck. I believe God looked over me all the time because during my apprenticeship every year for the holidays we had to dip those chocolates – one ton every year. By hand.
Sheryl Julian: So this was your test.
Roland Mesnier: So that was my test. Of course, I wanted–
Sheryl Julian: That test you became the valedictorian.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: So, how did you hear about the pastry chef job under the– in the Carter White House?
Roland Mesnier: Well, weather was during the–
Sheryl Julian: You were at the hot springs. At the homestead.
Roland Mesnier: At the Homestead, yes. That was during the energy crisis. We had a lot of people from Washington and even from the Pentagon that would be flying with the helicopter to the Homestead. They would be landing right on the golf course. And lunchtime we made a lot of buffets because we were very busy. So I used to go check the buffet, see how is everything. So I bump into some secretary from Washington that was connected somewhat with the White House.
And one lady approached me one day, said, "Listen, you do beautiful pastry and I've tasted your stuff. It tastes good. You know Mrs. Rosalyn Carter is looking for a pastry chef." I said, "Good, keep looking." [laughter] "You don't want to go?" I said, "No, I have no desire. I don't want to go to Washington because they are crazy over there. I'm not going. I'm not going." And I was nice when I say I was crazy.
So anyway, following weeks, the same woman came back. She said, "Have you thought about what I told you?" "No, I don't want to go to Washington, I'm telling you, I love it here." I did love the Homestead, I loved this place. And we were still doing things the way it's supposed to be done.
So they went back to Washington and the following week they came back again and then they bring me this time a stack of paper. Saying, "This is the employment papers for the White House. Please, will you fill them in?" I said, "Okay, I'll do that." So I said, then I get rid of her after that, for good. So I filled out the paper, I said, "Here it is."
So we were getting close to Christmas. I get a phone call in my house in Hot Springs, Virginia, which is really the end of the world; there's nothing there. And this is Mrs. Carter's secretary. She called me, she said, "Roland, listen, I know you've been talking to some of my friends. Have you ever been to the White House?" I said, "No, never." "Don't you want to come for a tour?" I said, "Yeah, I think I'd like to do that."
So okay, we decide on the date and everything. So I had to drive all the way from Hot Springs to Washington. I was driving a green, avocado-colored Dodge Dart. [laughter] Remember? The Dodge Dart? It was not a pretty car, and most times didn't arrive at the destination. [laughter] So I left very early to make sure I'd be downtown.
And I arrived in front of the White House. The guard came to me, said, "Okay." I said, "Listen, I have an appointment to see the First Lady." "Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay." He opened the door, he said, "Go right in. Park your car under the colonnade." You know the beautiful colonnade? I said I'll be damned, I'm starting to like this thing. [laughter] If I get a job like this, I probably will take it. We'll see.
And then we toured the White House. During the tour, who should appear? Mrs. Carter. And, you know, she was a class act, that lady. First of all, let me tell you, she was a very, very pretty lady. In those years, she was young, very, very pretty. And she pulled me aside to a side room with her secretary, and then we talked about different things. And then she said, "You don't want to be the pastry chef here? Come on, we'd love to have you here." So after a while, I said, "Okay, I'll give you five years." "Five years?" "Yeah." "Good, good, good."
But then Mrs. Carter's secretary told me– told not me, told Mrs. Carter, said, "Listen, you cannot hire this man. He's not an American citizen." I was on a green card. But that's not the same. She said, "You know the press is going to be on you. A lot of bad stuff will come up. Do not hire this man." And Mrs. Carter said, "No, I'll take care of it. I want him, and I want him bad!" [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: So did she make you a citizen?
Roland Mesnier: Of course! [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: Oh, very nice.
Roland Mesnier: Of course. What do you think she meant when she said, "I want you bad"? [laughter] She meant citizenship. And the day it happened, I didn't even know it was happening. I was working in the White House kitchen when a dude showed up from nowhere, tapped me on the shoulder. He said, "Do you see the black limousine out there? Get in." I took off my hat, I went into the car, took me downtown in some offices. There's this guy there behind the desk asking me questions about the American government. I said, "I don't know what you want, but I don’t know nothing." [laughter] He was getting really upset. Then he said, "Do you know who the President is?" I said, "Of course, I feed him every day. [laughter] His name is Jimmy Carter." "Good, you passed the test." [laughter] "Get back in the car."
I still don't know what's going on. This guy takes me to Alexandria, Virginia, to the courthouse. When I arrive at the courthouse, there's a lady there with a Bible. I looked at her, I said, "Who died?" [laughter] She said, "No joke, no joke. Put your hand on the Bible and repeat after me." Blah, blah, blah. "Congratulations, you are an American citizen." I said, "My lord, my lord, my lord. God is good one more time."
So I called my wife and said, "Are you having an affair?" She said, "An affair? What is wrong with you? What, are you crazy?" I said, "I don't know, last night you went to bed with a Frenchman and today you're going to go to bed with an American citizen. I don't know, there's something wrong with this picture." She said, "I hope you'll tell me more about that because it's very, very strange."
Sheryl Julian: From all the photos in your books, it looks like the dinners that you were cooking for were typically round tables in a very large room for 10 or 12. And in the pictures that I saw, a butler is holding a platter for people to serve themselves. Was that your style of serving?
Roland Mesnier: Well, that was already in the White House when I got there. That's what they call I believe, what do they call the service, not English–
Sheryl Julian: À la française?
Roland Mesnier: No. There's another name.
Sheryl Julian: À la russe.
Roland Mesnier: That's not important.
Sheryl Julian: À la russe.
Roland Mesnier: That service remained with me to the very end of the White House because I was able to convince the First Lady that by doing those beautiful platters, when you come to the dining room with that, it's a shock. That if I bring you a little plate with what they do today, what is this, what is this? It's a joke! It’s a joke!
Sheryl Julian: Well, would there be like they have in The Crown, are there two or three butlers per table serving? Because number 12 is going to get a mess.
Roland Mesnier: No, no, no, hold on, hold on. There were three butlers for dinner per table. The main dessert with one butler. This butler will be carrying in his hand a spoon and a fork. And then he will start going around the table, bring the platter to you. Now, it was resting, it would be resting on the edge of the table, so there's no weight there. So he gives you the fork. I like that because you took whatever you want. And all my desserts, every platter was loaded with fresh fruit. Plus other things, ice cream, whatever. A lot to choose from. So when you get that, you have a choice. When I give you a plate, that's it.
Sheryl Julian: But when you get to the person number 12, after 11 people have served–
Roland Mesnier: But no, no, wait a minute. Number 12 is not taking the last dessert. If there are 12 people at the table, there is enough dessert for 14 or 15 people. No, no, no, you cannot have one person having the last dessert. And it did work well.
What I like is it gives you a choice because I see how many times I go to a restaurant and they bring this ridiculous plate. And then what is on the plate? I don't like it. So what am I going to do, just look at it? This is why I fought at the White House for that. I told the First Lady, "Why you don't want–” I said, “because it's not because the restaurants do it. The White House, first of all, is not a restaurant, it's not a hotel, it's a private home." Okay?
So guests that come to the White House, they should be serving themselves to what they like, and that's it. And if they don't care for it, then it's too bad. [laughter] That's it. When you're invited to someone's home, what do you do?
Sheryl Julian: Okay, so now we're going to dish a little. Do you know that American expression, dishing.
Roland Mesnier: Oh yes, of course, I'm an American. [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: You wrote that every President comes into the White House and says he doesn't eat dessert, and that lasts about two weeks. So you're there to cook whatever anybody wants. So what were some of the nightly favorites?
Roland Mesnier: Okay, this is when it gets tricky.
Sheryl Julian: Just entre nous.
Roland Mesnier: Entre nous, oh, yeah. This is when it gets tricky. You have to develop a system that you find out what the new President when they come in, and First Lady, like and dislike. Without going to bother them with it. The President and First Lady, they have other things to do than find out what, you know. So you have to make the life easy for them. So my trick was simple. They eat tonight, they're having dinner tonight. I'm going to make one certain style dessert. Let's say tonight I'm going to start low on the totem pole and I may make for them custard, a dessert based on custard, crème caramel or something. And then make it pretty; making it pretty is very important, very, very important. Because you know most people– I know me, I eat with my eyes first. And if the platter is not pretty, then forget it, I'm done.
So when I bring the dessert to be served, I remain on the floor till the very end. And I wait until the butler brings back the plate. And I see how much they ate, what they ate, and so on.
Sheryl Julian: I once read that Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in California used to check every plate.
Roland Mesnier: I would check every plate.
Sheryl Julian: You would, too.
Roland Mesnier: Well, I checked the plate when they come back from the dining room.
Sheryl Julian: Right, that's what I mean.
Roland Mesnier: Oh, yes, of course, of course.
Sheryl Julian: On the way to the dishwasher.
Roland Mesnier: Yes, yes, yes. And that's how I knew. And then I knew if they didn't eat very much, then I said, okay, that we have to not do it again, not in that style, go somewhere else. Until you really knew what to give them.
Sheryl Julian: So what were some of the favorites?
Roland Mesnier: It depends with every President.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, name one and name a favorite.
Roland Mesnier: Well, if you go with President Carter and Mrs. Carter, they love the classic European dessert like a mille-feuille, a Napoleon.
Sheryl Julian: Just on a Tuesday night, there'll be mille-feuille?
Roland Mesnier: Oh, yes, but of course!
Sheryl Julian: Well, I guess if you've got a pastry chef.
Roland Mesnier: The mille-feuilles don't have to be that big now. You give small portion. Small portion at the White House is a must because you feed them every single day, lunch and dinner. So we had an executive chef at the White House; he didn't stay there very long. He used to cook steak for the President and First Lady that would be about like that. So one day I went to him, I said, "Sir, are you trying to kill the President?" [laughter] "Or are you trying to feed him?" "What do you mean, what do you mean? Oh, you're a pastry chef, you think you know everything." I said, "Slow down, bubbie, I'm already here 15 years. And I think they're quite happy with what I give them. So maybe you want to listen a little bit? Because I think the way you're going now you're not going to be here for very long." And that chef was there maybe six weeks. [laughter] My prediction was correct.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, so you've written that Mrs. Reagan was your most demanding boss.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: But you liked that.
Roland Mesnier: See, I'm going to correct you, and please forgive me. She was not demanding. Mrs. Reagan knew. She had experience on what was good. And her experience, because she, remember, ran the Governor's Mansion in California, she had already quite a lot of experience. With her husband they traveled all around the world, staying at the best hotels, and so on.
So Mrs. Reagan, the idea of a dessert for her was maybe a dessert that would be that tall, that round; how do you say, three bites. And that dessert better be the prettiest thing she has ever seen. The color had to be perfect. The flavor had to be perfect. The consistency of the dessert: if you, let's say, made a custard like this small and then she'd take her spoon and the damn spoon is bouncing back, she said, "Take that out of here. I don't want it. Don't give me that again."
Because she had– her only friends were rich people. She was invited to those homes so she saw and tasted a lot of good dessert. And she told me at the beginning, the dessert has to be a certain way, blah, blah, blah, like I told you earlier. And the taste was so important. So, so important. But small. Small. So, she–
Listen, I gave dessert to Mrs. Reagan for eight years. And she had dessert every meal. As a matter of fact, some meals she would tell the butler not to give her a main course, but just to give her a dessert. [laughter] Now, for some of you who have seen Mrs. Reagan when she came and when she went home, I believe she lost some weight in between.
Sheryl Julian: That's what eating dessert for dinner will do. [laughter] Okay. I'm going to give you some events and then I want you to tell me the story behind it. 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to the White House and the kitchen had to be certified kosher by a rabbi before you began cooking. So you couldn't mix milk or meat. You decided for dessert to make an orange sorbet cake, of course without dairy. But the rabbi couldn't clean the ice cream machine.
Roland Mesnier: No, no, no, let me tell you correctly. The rabbi, his name was Rabbi Caviar; I remember the name like yesterday. He was on my back all evening long to make sure I don't use something wrong. The only thing with the sorbet, the sorbet had to be frozen in a machine that never had dairy before.
Sheryl Julian: I see, okay.
Roland Mesnier: Okay, now, I find out – because that is going to be difficult to find – I find out that a chef in town just received a brand new sophisticated machine from France.
Sheryl Julian: Wasn't that Jean-Louis?
Roland Mesnier: Yes. Now, my friend Jean-Louis, which is no longer my friend, by the way. [laughter] Well, I'll tell you what he did, and you tell me if that was honest. Because Jean-Louis and his reputation, you may not be aware of it, but I am. I called him, I said, "Can I come and freeze my sorbet in your machine?" "Oh, yeah, sure."
Sheryl Julian: With Rabbi Caviar accompanying you?
Roland Mesnier: No, I told the rabbi, I said, "This machine never had any dairy in it." He said, "Okay, fine." So I went to the Watergate, froze my sorbet. Coming back, put the cake together and everything. Now, the next day in the Washington Post, Jean-Louis Palladin made the kosher dessert. I was non-existent. Do you think I carry him in my heart, honestly? I know a lot of people love him. If you love him, I don't care. [laughter] That's your problem, who you love. But I'm telling you one thing – he's a very dishonest man. I could tell you all the stories that he did.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, we won't hear them tonight.
Roland Mesnier: I'm not going to go. I'm not going to go.
Sheryl Julian: Afterwards, with a glass of wine. 1985, Prince Charles and Lady Diana visited Mr. and Mrs. Reagan, President and Mrs. Reagan. And she loved peaches, which you were going to incorporate into the dessert, but you had to have an element from the Prince as well.
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, what did you do?
Roland Mesnier: That was the plume, the tree plume, which is the coat of arms of Prince Charles. And that needed to be done with sugar. All week, every night with the dessert, I put some goddamn plume on top. [laughter] I mean, that was really getting crazy because they gave me some picture of the plume and this and that. So Mrs. Reagan was laughing at the plume that I made because they were ugly. But I continued, I didn't give up. This is when I came up with the idea of making my own mold. That's why the book that we have now, there is a picture of me in a carpenter shop carving a piece of wood, two pieces, so I can make my plume.
Sheryl Julian: And they were made out of–?
Roland Mesnier: Sugar. Those pieces of wood, I would put a piece of Saran wrap on top, put my warm sugar on top of it, take the next piece of carved wood with a piece of film on top of the other and press as hard as I could so that it will have the shape of the plume. And it would bend a certain way and glued. And those, she loved those plumes. As a matter of fact, I made them many, many times after that when Prince Charles came to the White House.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, 1991. You decided in the middle of winter, for a state dinner for Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik of Denmark in the Bush White House to make a hot raspberry soufflé. What did you do?
Roland Mesnier: Well. That was that day that I thought I will not be at the White House very long. [laughter] Things were not going my way. Mind you, not my fault. I will tell you. Raspberry soufflé, I have a recipe for raspberry soufflé. I find it exquisite because that dessert could pass for a diet dessert. My soufflé has no flour in it, no butter in it. It is simply made with egg white and fresh raspberry puree and a little bit of sugar. Very low sugar. That's it. Ladies and gentlemen, this is more than a diet here, okay? That's hospital food! [laughter]
So anyway, I needed to have 25 soufflés made.
Sheryl Julian: And large ones.
Roland Mesnier: Large ones. They were that size. They're more tricky than the little ones. So anyway, I made seven soufflés, tested, retested the recipe. Checked it again, redo it. And I came to a recipe that was fabulous. Soufflé came up nice and it would not fall; it stayed there and everything. And the taste, when you ate that soufflé what you tasted was fresh raspberry in your mouth, that was it.
So here comes time for the dinner, dessert. I knew what time to start the recipe, everything. That's a lot of egg white to whip. I think we were whipping 90 egg whites at a time. And several times because you needed to fill 25 of those pans. And so, I started to whip the egg whites and the egg whites don't do anything. They don't even become foamy. I said, what is going on here?
Threw everything away. We started cracking eggs. Some people from the kitchen were helping me. We started again. Whipped the egg whites. Now, remember, there is a queen coming for dinner, okay? [laughter] I don’t have to– You understand what I'm talking about, eh? So this is no Mickey D's menu here.
So we do it again. Same scenario! Egg whites don't come up! I was sweating bullets, I swear. My hat was totally wet. I said, what's going on? Now, after the second try, I overheard the executive chef and the assistant chef talking about the mayonnaise that they made that morning in a machine. Now my first thought said, do I go kick their asses now or later? [laughter] I mean, honestly, honestly. You know they could have told me, warned me. Because I wasn't there when they did that, so I did not know about that. They could have said, "Roland, be careful, make sure." That's all I needed.
So we washed the machine, everything. We start. Now at this time, I have lost a lot of time. I'm going to be late. And at the White House, you cannot be late. When it's time to go serve the dessert or the main course, the only words the butler wants to hear is "pick up, pick up." Don't tell them any excuses.
So this is where I will come to something – experience. Experience. So that's why when I see young guys these days, they're 19 years old, and they call themselves executive chef, I said, yeah, you go tell your story to somebody else. [laughter] Because you have zero experience at 19. Zero experience! At 25, you still have zero experience! At 30, you're still an idiot. [laughter] All right?
So now, I'm telling you, if I did not have the experience I had, I was going to make up some time by turning every stove on high heat and starting the soufflé right on the gas stove, not on the pan or anything, right there, to give them a boost to get them up. And you know what? To make a long story short, when the butler came to the kitchen that evening, "pick up, ready to go, there it is.” You know? [applause]
And that is all due to the experience that you have. And I'm so proud of that because we made it happen. Nobody even knew the problems we were having. And I had nothing to do with it. Just because those stupid chefs had no decency whatsoever and no professionalism because they could have told me nicely that they used the machine to make mayonnaise.
So just for you who are going to go into the food business, remember that story, okay? Because that can happen to you. It happened to me.
Sheryl Julian: Okay. Now, you have a new book on gingerbread…
Roland Mesnier: Yes.
Sheryl Julian: Which began in 1969 for First Lady Patricia Nixon. Explain your process of building a gingerbread in the White House, the week that you started and where you were working.
Roland Mesnier: Yes, yes, yes. Well, you know, first of all, Christmas at the White House is a big deal. You use so much stuff and everything. But then the gingerbread. Okay, now, the gingerbread house at the White House was not started by me; it was started by a German chef. His name was Hans Raffert. A very good chef. But he is the one because gingerbread really came from Germany or Austria, those countries. They do a good job on that; they know what they're doing.
So the chef that did that at the White House, he made the same style house every year. A-frame. Boom. Boom, a front and a back. And then he used to go to a German store and bought some German cookies and stick them on the house. It was pretty; nothing wrong with the house. But it was the same thing every year.
So when he retired, they came to me, said, "We want you to take over the gingerbread." I said, "Okay, I'll do what I can." And the first year I did a gingerbread village, which was different from the A-frame house.
So when you're going to do a gingerbread, to come back to your question, you need to have a plan first of all – What kind of a house are you going to make? Okay? What are you going to put around the house? What is going to be the theme that you're using? I decided to have a theme that is very close to the First Family, something that they love, something that is in their life. And I decided I was going to do every year a house that meant something to the Presidential family.
So when I started that, after the village, when I started that, the first year I made the house where Bill Clinton was born. When he saw that house – I told you earlier, I told some people about people having tears in their eyes – President Clinton had more than one tear coming down his cheek when he recognized the house where he grew up in Arkansas. The next house, that was the house where Mrs. Clinton grew up.
Now, Chelsea, because they never had a home, I had to figure out something else. So for Chelsea, I used the Nutcracker theme by doing a house that don't mean anything to anybody, it's just a house, but then decorated with the Nutcracker and a scene of the Nutcracker.
Sheryl Julian: Because wasn't she a dancer? Didn’t she dance in the Nutcracker?
Roland Mesnier: Exactly. We made the dancers out of sugar. And one of the dancers, one of the lady dancers looked just like Chelsea. I have the picture to prove; I'm not just running my mouth here. [laughter] This is the truth, this is the fact. You're going to look and say, oh, my goodness, this is Chelsea. Yes, it's Chelsea.
So every year that I made – I made, I believe, 17 gingerbread houses – but every year, there was a meaning behind each house and a theme.
Sheryl Julian: But then you would spread– wouldn't you start at the beginning of November, before Thanksgiving?
Roland Mesnier: The house? Yes, we started very early. And then we keep enlarging, to put all the things around and so on. So that became really big.
Sheryl Julian: And you made it actually in the White House, rather than in the kitchen. Didn't they give you a room?
Roland Mesnier: Yes, we used a room where they display china and stuff. We covered the floor and everything so we wouldn't dirty anything too much. And yeah, that's where we did it.
Now, the problem is, how do you transport that house to the main dining room in the White House? So we had to use a truck. We had to use a truck to load the house on that, drive on the street, come back in the front and bring the house in the White House. So that was quite an ordeal, let me tell you; that was quite a job.
Now, one year a theme that we did, which I was very happy with, we did the White House. Beautiful, it came out really great. But then, the Clintons had a cat named Socks, remember Socks? Black and white cat. And I love cats. I miss my kitty; I should have brought here one with me tonight. They're so sweet, they're so sweet. And so, we were doing the big White House and we made out of marzipan 25 miniature cats and we placed them everywhere. [laughter] On the roof, in the trees, everywhere. So we called the House of Socks, not the White House.
Now, I have a picture that is in my book, the Christmas book, of the real Socks did jump on the table and he's proceeding of licking the icing off the House of Socks. [laughter] And that picture is so beautiful, so beautiful. And I was happy for him. I said, If you want, baby, I'll make you a big batch of icing. [laughter] But don't fall in it because we may find you again.
Sheryl Julian: And finally, Chef, I was always told that a cuisine chef can't make patisserie, but a pastry chef can cook anything savory well. Is that true?
Roland Mesnier: Yes, yes, it is partially true. It depends on the person. It's not always the case. Because it's very simple. A pastry chef, like myself and many others, we learn how to decorate. Cooks, they just slap it on, you know what I'm saying? [laughter] I'm sorry, I don't mean to offend anybody. But it's partially true. So the presentation is so-so, you know what I'm saying.
So, but if you've been a pastry chef before, you can use some of the technique that you use with sweet and transfer it into the cooking. There's many chefs that are in Washington still that have stolen – I can say stolen from me – so many techniques. And they're still using them today. Though they will never admit it! They will never say, "Oh, thank you, you know that's from you." No, they're not going to admit that. But that's fine, that's okay. I don't need that, you see.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, so now we're going to take audience questions. And I think there are microphones that you can come up to the microphone and ask Chef anything you'd like. We'll start over here, sir.
Q: Yeah. Hi, my name's Bob. I'm from Boston here. I have a question that might seem a little, I don't know, strange, but did you have to learn if people were allergic to things and make sure that they didn't get that particular thing they were allergic to, or if they were diabetics, or–
Roland Mesnier: That's a good question. That's a good question. But let me tell you, I didn't have to learn anybody because they told you. They yell it at you, "I'm allergic!" Who is not allergic today? You know? Anywhere. I've never seen anything like it. Everybody's allergic. I never take anything about allergy, I don't have any allergy. And if I may have some, I don't care, I continue to go. But everybody's allergic! I said, is there one normal person left? [laughter] I don't know, I don't know!
I mean, you know, as I said, I told you about my house where I grew up – no electricity, no running water. We had no money to buy anything. What my mother caught, she cooked it. And that was it. You eat or you don't. But every day today, you have to listen about– so many times allergy– I don't even pay attention, to be honest. [laughter] If they tell me they're allergic to butter, I put more butter in the– [laughter]
Sheryl Julian: Over here? Yes, please.
Q: When you're in the White House and different chefs have little domains of what they're doing, how do you all work together so that you're cooperating?
Roland Mesnier: Well, working together is a big problem, especially chefs and pastry chefs don't go along together very well. You know, as we say in the kitchen, You don't mix the dirty towel with the serviette. [laughter] You know which one is which.
Anyway, my first seven years in the White House, I worked in the kitchen with the cooks. I didn't have a pastry shop. I'm the one who created the first pastry shop at the White House. I don't know if you know that. Nobody will tell you that.
Sheryl Julian: Chef, you should explain that in big kitchens, pastry is separate from savory.
Roland Mesnier: Yeah, most of the time we have a different room, different thing. Because you work with different products and everything. So after seven years enduring the cooks, I wanted to work with chocolate and the executive chef said, "I've got to brown my lamb chop here." Boom, there goes the gas. Good luck with the chocolate, okay? I mean, that didn't work together.
Anyway, I made it happen. And after seven years I went to my boss at the White House and I said, "Here, I have a request to make. If I cannot have my own bake shop, pastry shop, I will leave. You do whatever you want; I already have a job waiting for me. I will leave." And my boss looked at me, said, "Yes, you will have it." And then he came to me and asked me to look for a space in the White House where the pastry shop is today.
But I am the one who designed the pastry shop. I bought the equipment for that. And all the equipment was bought– we had to take a window out of the White House facing Pennsylvania Avenue, and with a crane you see the refrigerator and everything going up to that window. And I have the picture to prove, again, because people today, they don't always believe you. [laughter]
Q: Hello, Chef. I'm Ray. I wanted to thank you, first of all, for sharing both in your book and here today of yourself. I'm guessing that just as we look with our– eat with our eyes first and then taste, that part of what got you hired at the White House is your colorful personality that you've shared with us today.
Roland Mesnier: Oh, I don't know about that. [laughter]
Q: My question is actually, I wanted to continue the raspberry soufflé story. Had you not figured out how to get those eggs to rise, what the issue was, do you have a go-to dessert that you would have done instead?
Roland Mesnier: With that particular dessert, there is no faking anything. Either you can make it or you don't. Now, I knew where the problem was after I discovered that they had whipped– made mayonnaise in the machine. Now, it was up to me to recollect in my head all the situations that I had in the past. That's why I tell everyone tonight the experience. And I said, oh, yeah, when I was there, we had that, I saw the chef doing this; that's how I was able to catch up.
Because in a case like– you know, I could already see me having to go to – I think Barbara Bush was at the White House then – and tell her, "Mrs. Bush, there's going to be no dessert tonight." I don't know what would have happened. But I tell you what, I know I was so afraid. I was so– My heart was broken. I really didn't know. Except I tried every trick that I had learned during my career. And that saved the day.
And that soufflé was very, very good. I mean, really. And you talk about a dessert, people who look for a dessert with low calories, dessert – it has no egg yolks, no butter. Just egg whites, a little sugar and raspberry puree. You go find a dessert like this. I have several desserts like that that I save for special occasions, like I saved that for when I have a kosher dinner because for a kosher dinner it would be totally okay when I can't whip the egg whites where I did whipped cream before. So I need to buy a new machine, you know.
Q: Thank you, Chef.
Roland Mesnier: You're welcome.
Sheryl Julian: Thank you. Over here?
Q: Good evening, Chef. Thank you for joining us tonight. I have heard an anecdote or two that during some difficult years of the Clinton presidency, that for instance Mrs. Clinton may have ordered some more chocolate-y–
Roland Mesnier: I know where you're going. I've got your number, man! [laughter] No, but you are right, you are correct.
Q: I'm very curious how maybe historical events or things like that might have been tied to what your diners may have been ordering, what guests at the White House were looking for.
Roland Mesnier: Well, the guests of the White House do not order anything. The guests, I was told at the beginning, that what the First Lady decides to serve, that's what you're going to eat. You know? Don't go say, "Oh, I would love a cheesecake tonight." No, no, no. The First Lady has all the plans, and that's what it's going to be.
But what you're referring to now is actually a very funny story. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I need to tell you that the stuff I put out there, it's all true. I don't make up stories. I don't take stories from magazines. I don't take stories from books. Everything I put out there, I lived it or I was part of it. Because so many chefs have wrote books that you can’t even– is not even worth the paper they're written on. So just to tell you. And that's the fact. I am factual. I am not politically correct, but damn it, whatever I put out there, you can check it and recheck it, and you will not find– I mean, I've been doing that now for a long time. I have yet to have a person– because I say to people, if I say something wrong, please confront me, you're going to do me a favor. I really want that. I like that. Make my blood boil, you know? [laughter] Good for you!
Anyway, the story you talk about. President Clinton is a nice man. I like him. Sometimes. [laughter] And he has what do you call it, diet problem.
Sheryl Julian: Weight problem?
Roland Mesnier: Not weight problem. He can't eat certain things.
Roland Mesnier: Allergy, thank you! You should get a job, be a man. [laughter] I created a cake for him and that cake is excellent. It's in Dessert University, my first book. It's called Low Calorie Strawberry Cake. And it's a total specification of the thing that President Clinton can eat. So I made a 12-inch cake. You talk about a cake; I mean, this cake is strawberry, strawberry all the way. And the butler, I have to tell you, the butler who served the cake, his name was Sam. A good friend of mine. And I have to say that all the butlers at the White House are gentlemen of color. I say that because it's relevant to the story.
So I gave him the cake. I said, "That's the cake for the family." Sometimes the family's together, sometimes not. So he went and served the cake. And President Clinton ate half of the cake by himself. [laughter] A 12-inch cake, ladies and gentlemen! He doesn't fool around when he's at the table. [laughter]
Anyway, the next day I do another dessert, maybe a pie or something. And I did not know that story because the butler told me later. So I saw the butler. I said, "Sam, tonight there is a pie for the family." "Oh, okay." He said, "You know we had a problem last night with the strawberry cake. The President ate all this cake. So when I served him that pie, he said, 'No, no, no, I don't want the pie. I want you to find the leftover strawberry cake from last night.' Yes, sir." So he said, "Roland, I went and looked everywhere in the White House." Because normally whatever food is left over has to be saved for security reasons. That is the going way. If something happened, they need to have part of the food so they can analyze it.
Sheryl Julian: For evidence.
Roland Mesnier: Yes, for evidence. "So I came back and I said, 'Mr. President, I'm sorry, but I can't find your cake.' 'What?' He said, ‘Roland–’ you should have seen the President. Pounding on the table, 'I want my god damn cake! I want you to find my goddamn cake. Please get me my cake!' I can't, Mr. President, it's gone. 'That's impossible, that's impossible.' He said, 'I'm paying for that damn cake and I can't even eat it!'"
So the butler said, "Roland, I got so scared I turned white." [laughter] That's true, that's a true story! "I turned white. He scared me so much."
So anyway, we launched an investigation. And we came up with the conclusion – we did that much better than they do on Capitol Hill; it didn't take us that long – and anyway, after analyzing everything, we decided that Al Gore was the guy who took the cake. [laughter] But we can't prove it, so don't say anything, okay? We can't prove it.
But anyway, the President this time was eating alone. There was a while he ate alone a lot. Even the dog wouldn't eat with him. [laughter] So I'm sure you can remember which time it was.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, yes, do you have a question?
Q: Chef, thank you so much for this glimpse into your world. Do you have a favorite story? With all the President and all the First Ladies, do you have a favorite story we might not have thought to ask about?
Roland Mesnier: A favorite story. On what?
Q: Something about their life or their food preferences. In all the years with all the Presidents and First Ladies, any secret stories?
Roland Mesnier: Yes, of course, there's many stories. But it has to be the right story, you know what I'm saying? You know the story that I use a lot is how the press mistreats the President and First Lady sometimes. And this one happened with George W. Bush when he was President. You know the Pope came to Washington, DC. And you know the Pope wears his hat like this. [laughter] Am I right or am I right?
Anyway, President Bush took him on the Potomac in his boat and they went on the bridge and the hat got knocked off into the water. So the Pope said, "Oh, that's okay, I'll go get my hat." "No, no, no, Monsignor, I will go get your hat," the President said, "I will be right back." So President Bush walked on water to go get the hat and the headline the next day: "President Bush Can't Swim." [laughter]
So that was one. But there's many. You see, I have great stories, but I have to be careful where I'm going with that because some of them are not totally kosher, if you know what I mean.
Sheryl Julian: Yeah, R-rated.
Roland Mesnier: R-rated. Nothing that you haven't heard, but you know.
Sheryl Julian: Okay, is there a question here?
Q: Yes, please. Chef, I've got a few-part question. Answer what parts you feel like. First, I was wondering, from a security perspective, are ingredients inspected when they first arrive at the White House? And now do you think that a couple security agents go to McDonald's and watch the preparation of a hamburger for the current occupant of the White House?
Secondly, I was wondering, do you allow people to [inaudible] in the White House? And also, do you have any particular tests that you run potential cooks or sous chefs through?
And lastly, I was curious if you research in your years in the White House any of the favorite dishes of past Presidents to bring to special dinners?
Roland Mesnier: Yes, that I do. I go way back in history to see what possibly they ate those days, how they fixed it, and all that. It's always helpful to know.
But now the most interesting part of that question here is the security thing. How can you bring food into the White House without getting any incident? And I think the White House has the best security system. Very simple. And I can even tell you without having to kill you. [laughter] This is something. But the security system is very simple. If you work for me, let's say, at the White House, and I give you $5 and I said, "I want you to go to the store and buy me ten bananas, but I want you to (a) don't talk about the White House to anybody; and (b) if you use a credit card, it has to be from somebody who has never been in the White House. Or better yet, use cash."
That was our security system. And it works well because you go to Safeway or Giant, you pick something on the shelf. You come to the cashier. Of course, if you go with my jacket here, they're going to find that strange. But you don't do that. If you go simple with your everyday clothes and pick something up and pay for it, this is very secure. Nobody has any idea where the food is going. Am I right? So this is, I find, the best system we had.
Anything else? Anybody else?
Sheryl Julian: Behind you.
Q: This is being broadcast live and hopefully will be seen by many young chefs. What do you tell people who aspire to be a pastry chef and maybe some day get to the White House or other very important places to cook?
Roland Mesnier: You know. One thing I love to do is to talk to aspiring young chefs. I used to love to talk to them because they listen to what you said. Today not so much. Today they want to tell you what to do, and they've never worked in a kitchen before. So with a guy like me, that doesn't fly. [laughter] Something is going to happen. You understand what I'm talking about here.
Especially today, young chefs – and you probably have heard it; I'm sure you watch TV, some cooking shows and stuff – when you ask those young guys "who is your mentor," "Oh, I don't have a mentor. I'm self-taught." You're self-taught? I'll be damned. [laughter] Did you came out of the womb with a whisk in your hand? [laughter] Is that what you mean? Nobody taught you anything?
You know, a guy who talks to me like this is done, he's finished; don't even come in my kitchen. Because this is the younger generation. The attitude has gone from bad to worse. Everybody wants to be a star. They watch the Food Network. Oh, yeah, I want to be a star! Now, let me remind those young people that somebody needs to clean the floor at the Food Network. Somebody needs to do that, too. Probably them it's going to be one day. But you cannot make sense of what's going on today. And I get very frustrated.
Now, if I find a person that really shows me that he's dedicated to the profession and makes sense, I will give that young person anything for that person to become really good in what he does. But when a guy tells me he's self-taught and he never worked anywhere else, I say, you know what, I don't have time to waste with you; you're too smart for me.
Sheryl Julian: So when someone comes into the White House kitchen who you're thinking of hiring what is the test that you give them?
Roland Mesnier: No test. No test. I just talk to them a little bit. I want to know where they come from, with whom they've worked before, who was their boss, their chef. And if he comes from a place that has a great reputation and I know the person spent some time – I don't mean by some time two weeks, I mean more like maybe a year or so – then I say, well, this person must be trustworthy, I will give it a chance.
When I was pastry chef at the White House, I was very, very tough with the staff, very tough. And I was lucky because most of my staff was part-time; meaning, if I want to fire them, boom, on the spot. I didn't have to do anything. Anything. And I fired a lot of them, let me tell you. Never come back to the White House.
And, you know, one thing I couldn't stand is those people who came to work, if I said to you, "I want you to work tomorrow at eight o'clock for me. I mean, eight o'clock, I want you working in the kitchen. I don't you to haul in with a Coke in your hand or a cup of coffee. Because if you do, you're going to be sent home." If I give you a time, this is when you start baking. And the same when I said the day ends at such time, don't leave before that.
And I was very, very tough on those people. Very, very tough. Like I didn't want anybody to bring anything on the work table that can be spilled somewhere, like a glass of water or Coke or whatever. If you want to drink water, that's why you have a break worked out in your schedule. So during your break, I don't care what you do; you can drink a case of Coke if you want, I couldn't care less. But I don't want to have to throw stuff away because of you being really– not thinking.
So you have to really put in those people some good thought here. This is a job. This is not the Food Network where they amuse themselves and put PVC pipe into cakes. You know that.
Sheryl Julian: So you had an assistant who stayed with you a lot of the time that you were there, ten years or so.
Roland Mesnier: I had one assistant that stayed– now the one who is now pastry chef at the White House, I brought her. This young lady came from Ohio in 1993. And she's now the pastry chef at the White House. And she's very, very good.
Sheryl Julian: And the first woman pastry chef.
Roland Mesnier: First woman pastry chef to have that job. And I worked very hard at that because she was very deserving. And I talked to her about that before, way before I left the White House, I said, "Are you okay taking the job?" I gave her a recommendation, everything. And when I gave my notice to Mrs. Bush, first thing she asked me, "Do you have somebody to take over?" I said, "Well, you know, Mrs. Bush, you know Susie, she's very good. She's okay to take the job." "Yeah," she said, "she's very good. We are fine. We're going to give her the job."
Another problem, a few weeks before me leaving, Susie comes to me, she said, "You know, Roland, I just can't do that job. I don't have what it takes. I can't do it." I said, "Come on, we talked. You said yes." "No, but I can't do it." So we started looking for other guys and whoever came in between, who wanted to have my job, that was a total disaster. We had people that came, and if you had seen– we had a guy that came fixing dessert for the President, you know what he made? Popcorn! [laughter] Popcorn, ladies and gentlemen! Outrage! Outrage! So needless to say, he never got the job.
Now, the other guy who came behind, I was supposed to get for them all the best ingredients they wanted. So this guy called me, he said, "Chef, for my testing I'm going to have for the President in a couple days, I want the best peaches you can find. Beautiful peaches." I said, "No problem, I'll get them for you. How much do you want?" "A whole case." Get him his peaches. And the day they came for the testing, I was not allowed to be there. I could not be in the same room.
So this guy comes in. I didn't know what he was going to do, but I know what I would have done with beautiful peaches. So the next day when I come to work, I asked, I said, "What did he do?" "Oh, he made a peach pie." I said, "And for that he needed beautiful peaches?"
And then, when he was finished with the peaches, because they were nice and ripe, ready to use, he shoved them under the table and left them there for the night, for the entire weekend, as a matter of fact. So those peaches were rotten when I came back on Monday. I said, that's the guy who wants my job? I said, no. No.
And then Susie, my assistant there, she came back to her senses. She said, "After seeing that, I think I can do the job." [laughter] I said, "For god's sake, I know you can do the job! You can do the job even asleep compared to those turkeys."
Sheryl Julian: Finally, tell us the story of the last day at the White House in the pastry kitchen when you left and there was no one around. You were feeling, I think, a little forlorn.
Roland Mesnier: Yes, you know, 26 years in that place. And I loved that place. I believe the White House was a job made for me. I had so much fun doing all these creations and things. For me, there was– most of the time it was not even work; it was really doing what I love to do. I'm a chef that loved to bake, to cook. Now, today's chef, if you want to find them, you go to the airport waiting for the plane for Las Vegas. That's where they are. They're not in a kitchen. We had a chef come into the White House. He couldn't find the stove. [laughter] I'm not kidding you, ladies and gentlemen!
So, you know. So anyway, my last day was very difficult to leave. But I said, I'm going to leave this job the same way that I found it when I came in. First of all, I cleaned up the kitchen, totally, totally. Did all the pots and pans. After 26 years. I put everything away. And then, nobody was to be seen in the White House. I couldn't see anybody. My assistant, they all had disappeared.
The pastry shop is up. I went down to go out, to go home. Then suddenly, here comes all my people out to say goodbye. And they were waving their whisks to say goodbye. I was very upset for them; I didn't want them to do anything like this. I don't like things like this. Not for me, I don't. Some people do, but I don't like that. But that was what they wanted to do.
Sheryl Julian: But you loved it.
Roland Mesnier: Well, of course, because they were the people that I spent many hours and through many different, difficult moments at the White House. And I'm still friendly with all of them. I still see them from time to time. I don't go to the White House very much anymore. I used to, but I want to remember the White House the way I left it. And that's a good feeling.
Sheryl Julian: Good, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Roland Mesnier: Thank you.