Talking with the White House’s former executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier was among the most exhilarating interviews I have had in a long time. I felt like I was chatting with an old friend, even though I had never met him. Having served five administrations and handled everything from small teas to state dinners for 800, his road to the pinnacle of his career challenges anyone to strive for the best you can be.
How does one even get to be a White House chef? He began his career working in restaurants and hotels, not in cooking school. Chef Mesnier believes that true learning begins on the job, not in a textbook. Rather than equating success with celebrity, he says with great vigor, “It is not about being a star, it is about taking pride in your work!”
In 1979, the White House managed to finally recruit Chef Mesnier after he turned down several previous offers. He loved his job at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, because of the creative license they gave him. But after meeting Rosalynn Carter, he decided that he would go to the White House.
Chef Mesnier recalls that taking the White House position was very challenging because it is “tight to navigate.” There was no room for mistakes; he had to get it right the first time, which was very intimidating. He had to do his homework and learn about dietary restrictions, religious considerations, and get it right the first time for the guests.
The most challenging events to prepare for were the state dinners hosted by the Clintons, where the guest list varied from 150 to 200 people to groups as large as 800. Working with only one full-time assistant in a very small kitchen, these large parties brought huge challenges. His day started at 5:30 a.m. and lasted long after the last guest left. It was a serious job and the highlight of his life.
Chef Mesnier wanted every White House guest and dignitary to find something from his or her homeland when the dessert course arrived. The state dinner with 800 in attendance was for India, and he made 800 lotus flowers and 80 white chocolate tigers. While there was pressure to achieve for every event, this particular party was among his greatest challenges.
He counts himself a lucky man to have studied with chefs around the world and in the finest hotels. The older chefs with whom he studied were tough, he recalls. There was no discussion; you either did it correctly or got out. And with repetition he saw improvement and perfection.
Nancy Reagan was his greatest non-chef mentor. She inspired him with her classic taste and effortless class. Mrs. Reagan instilled in him that the White House food would be the very best, and if the guests were not wowed by the food, then it was a failure. She didn’t want hotel or restaurant dishes—she wanted the White House to stand alone in its excellence and to serve food unlike anything the guests had ever had before. Dessert had to be colorful, artistic, grand, and garnished with fresh fruit.
A special treat – see below for Chef Mesnier’s recipe for Mrs. Reagan’s favorite Coconut Chocolate Bars.
In his new book, The White House in Gingerbread, Chef Mesnier presents the recipe for his signature eggnog and other masterpieces, like his Cherry Trifle—one of his personal favorites. All of his recipes included in the book were developed at the White House.
After retiring from the White House, he said he worried for months about what they were serving for dessert. “When you are the longest running executive pastry chef of 26 years, it is your passion,” he says.
To inspire excellence and perfection among young people, he now speaks all over the world. He says he’s busier than ever.
Chef Mesnier is coming to the Birmingham area on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 5, where he’ll speak at a coffee and dessert brunch at the American Village. For this special engagement, attendants will get a behind-the-scenes look at how America’s first families have celebrated Christmas. I will be there to meet this great man. His passion for perfection and commitment to making our White House the best challenged and encouraged me, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in person.
The White House in Gingerbread is not about politics; it’s about pride and passion for your craft. Each First Lady selected her particular style and the themes for each event. Chef Mesnier was then responsible for turning that vision into a reality and executing it masterfully. His job was to make it work, without excuses.
Chef Mesnier’s commitment and passion inspired me today. When I finished the interview, I was proud to have spoken with him. When we hear stories from great people like him, it makes us all strive to do our best and never stop learning.
Chef Mesnier is generiously offering a copy of his book to one lucky reader. Leave a comment below about what inspires you to achieve your best, and we will randomly select one of you as the winner on Friday morning. And if you’ll be in the Birmingham area on December 5, I hope to see at American Village so you can also meet Chef Mesnier in person.
What inspires you to achieve your best?
Nancy Reagan’s favorite Coconut Chocolate Bars
Components for Petits Fours
Crust – 2 recipes pate sucree (recipe below)
1 recipe Coconut Filling (recipe below)
½ cup bitter orange marmalade – purchased
1 recipe Chocolate Ganache (Chef Mesnier uses the recipe included with Ronald Reagan’s Souffle Cake; we have included a favorite from Cooking with Paula Deen)
- ½ cup sugar
- 8 w oz unsalted butter, softened
- ½ Tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 tsp grated lemon zest
- Pinch salt
- 1 large egg
- 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- Butter 16x12” baking sheet. Turn chilled dough out onto floured surface and roll 1/2-inch thick into roughly 18x14 rectangle. Working quickly so dough does not get too soft, fit dough into prepared pan, trim with a sharp paring knife as needed to fit the dough perfectly in the pan.
- Chill for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400 and blind bake the crust – do this by placing a piece of aluminum foil or parchment onto entire surface of the dough, weigh down with dried beans. When dough is half-baked, remove beans and foil and finishing baking until dough is fully cooked through.
- Remove pan from oven and reduce heat to 300.
- 4 cups sugar
- 12 egg whites
- 5 ½ cups grated, unsweetened coconut
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- Place a large stainless steel bowl over pot of simmering water.
- In the bowl, combine egg whites, coconut, salt and vanilla. Stir constantly until mixture is very hot but not yet simmering, stir in flour.
- 16 (1-ounce) squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- In a medium saucepan, cook all ingredients, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Use immediately.
- 2 recipes for Pate Sucree Shell
- 1 recipe Coconut filling
- 1/2 cup orange marmelade
- 1 recipe Chocolate ganache
- Once the crust is cool, spread marmalade evenly over the crust then spread coconut mixture over evenly over top. Bake until golden, 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven and let cool completely on wire rack.
- Pour liquid ganache over cooled coconut mixture – smooth it evenly with a spatula and refrigerate overnight.
- To cut, dip sharp, chef’s knife in hot water, wipe on clean towel and cut into 60 equal size bars, reheating and drying the knife as necessary. Bars can be kept in airtight container at room temp for 2-3 days or frozen up to a month.