White house pastry chef Rolland Mesnier with First Lady Nancy Reagan

Getting to Know a White House Chef (and a Giveaway)

Phyllis Giveaway 43 Comments

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!”

White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

Chef Mesnier with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The Bushes were the last presidential administration Chef Mesnier worked for before retiring in 2004.

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 surveying the dessert table for a White House event with Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton.

Chef Mesnier surveying the dessert table for a White House event with Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton.

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?

Southern Lady Nov/Dec 2015 cover

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)

Coconut Chocolate Bars - Pate Sucree Shell
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  1. ½ cup sugar
  2. 8 w oz unsalted butter, softened
  3. ½ Tbsp pure vanilla extract
  4. 1 tsp grated lemon zest
  5. Pinch salt
  6. 1 large egg
  7. 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  1. 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.
  2. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
  3. 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.
  4. Remove pan from oven and reduce heat to 300.
The Ribbon in My Journal - Phyllis Hoffman DePiano https://www.theribboninmyjournal.com/
Coconut Filling
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  1. 4 cups sugar
  2. 12 egg whites
  3. 5 ½ cups grated, unsweetened coconut
  4. 1/2 tsp salt
  5. 1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
  6. ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  1. Place a large stainless steel bowl over pot of simmering water.
  2. In the bowl, combine egg whites, coconut, salt and vanilla. Stir constantly until mixture is very hot but not yet simmering, stir in flour.
The Ribbon in My Journal - Phyllis Hoffman DePiano https://www.theribboninmyjournal.com/
Chocolate Ganache Frosting
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  1. 16 (1-ounce) squares semisweet chocolate, chopped
  2. 2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  3. 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  1. In a medium saucepan, cook all ingredients, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Use immediately.
The Ribbon in My Journal - Phyllis Hoffman DePiano https://www.theribboninmyjournal.com/
Coconut Chocolate Bars - Assembly
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  1. 2 recipes for Pate Sucree Shell
  2. 1 recipe Coconut filling
  3. 1/2 cup orange marmelade
  4. 1 recipe Chocolate ganache
  1. 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.
  2. Pour liquid ganache over cooled coconut mixture – smooth it evenly with a spatula and refrigerate overnight.
  3. 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.
The Ribbon in My Journal - Phyllis Hoffman DePiano https://www.theribboninmyjournal.com/

Comments 43

  1. What always inspires me to achieve my best?? Ultimately first, the Word of God…whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; Ecclesiastical 9:10. .Next would be all the wonderful ladies in my life who love to bake and cook. Thanks for this post…very inspiring!!

  2. My husband inspires me to achieve my best because he is my biggest fan and he is my biggest inspiration. He started over again with his own business at the age of 57 and has been a success.

  3. The students I reach as a guest lecturer for the class, “Preparing to Meet the Firms,” a college level class consisting of students from a number of disciplines. The majority are very interested and are eager to apply what they learn. My secret desire, is an opportunity to look in on the behind the scenes of a State Dinner.
    Always enjoy Christmas at the White House on TV.

    Happy Holidays.

  4. In short, I aim to do everything as unto the Lord. And further inspiration comes from grace-full others I have met and been blessed by, and from beauty in the world around us. Your blog is an inspiration often, as are the ideas and articles in TeaTime and Victoria! So thank you for publishing these. I would love to see what this creative yet humble chef has accomplished…so nice of him to offer the book!

  5. How wonderful you got to meet a master! Thanks for the chance at his book. I am sure it will be a delightful read. What inspires me? Beautiful pictures, wanting to make my friends feel as if they are indeed the most precious people (they are!), and my grandmother who always told me to do my best. Because if you do, then it will be good enough!

  6. Children are my inspiration in that I teach art part time at a Christian School. Those beautiful children love us teachers so much. Having had lunch at The White House during the younger Bush’s administration, I can attest to the deliciousness of the desserts.

  7. I come from a long line of family cooks, my mother and both grandmothers whom I knew well, and their mothers and grandmothers before them. There was always fresh food on the table, and enough to feed anyone who would drop in. There is nothing that makes me any happier than to set food out and people filling their plates and eating. Do I do this often? Not as often as I’d like, but when we have family get togethers I cook most of the dishes. The Lord has blessed me with the desire to do my best in whatever I do, whether it is cooking or something else. Thank you, Phyllis, for sharing your interview with us. It had to be an awesome experience.

  8. What a wonderful experience for you to meet Chef Mesnier, Phyllis!
    He is a very interesting and talented man…. not to mention his kindness
    for giving one of his books to a very fortunate woman. The recipe looks
    delicious and a delightful holiday addition.
    I look forward to reading The Ribbon In My Journal always. I admire you
    and have been inspired by you in so many ways.
    You are truly a kindred spirit.
    Marilyn T.

  9. I am not a cook although I’ve managed to keep my family from starving over the years. I am a firefighter and a paramedic. I am inspired to do my very best when I look into the faces of the people that have called on me for help because they are having the worst moment of their lives. Failing is not an option because somebody’s life may depend on me being my very best.

    Wanda Durrett

  10. I love reading about chefs and their work. My passion comes from making things that make someone else happy. To see a smile on their face for a fond memory to reoccur. Would love to win a copy of his book.

  11. Baking has always been my passion! When my grandmother came to ths country, she and my grandfather had a small neighborhood bakery. I suppose my love of turning out a fine crust was instilled in me. When a teen, I perfected my banana cream pie which I still make today for my grandson. Still use the same taped together Betty Crocker cookbook. At eighty-two, there’s nothing I like better than getting these old hands in a bowl of dough!

  12. I have worked in a kitchen preparing for huge dinners, but we had a staff of at least five and sometimes twelve. Chef Mesnier is truly a champion doing all that work in a small space and with a very small staff. I admire his tenacity, endurance, and skills. Very few people understand the tremendous effort that goes into a grand feast.

  13. I’m inspired during the holidays to make special dishes for the special people in my life. Have always enjoyed the White House shows on TV during the holidays.

  14. My Mom was a great cook and she made the most delicious cookies, pies, breads, cakes (Lemon chiffon, my favorite) and wonderful Holiday dinners. She taught us to always use fresh ingredients and think twice before watering down soups, sauces or gravies, just do not do it.. She learned how to cook in the Logging Camp Cook Shack and the loggers loved her cooking. Our family did as well, and we were so fortunate to learn from her. My sisters and I love to bake and compare notes as to how we remember Mom’s recipes.

    I really enjoy reading your Ribbon In My Journal, thanks.

  15. Cooking for my family inspires me. I love to make meal time special. Even now, with the children grown, I love to cook for them when they come to visit. I feel it’s important to carry on family traditions and recipes that have been handed down from our parents and grandparents. I also enjoy trying new recipes and starting new traditions. I think the time spent around the dining room table make for lasting memories.

  16. I am so inspired by Chef Mesnier, it is always wonderful to hear about people who value giving their very best, every day, in everything they do! What inspires me to do my very best? To make our world a more lovely, gracious place to live, to add value and joy to people’s lives. Whether those people are my family, my friends, my neighbors or my clients, I feel blessed to be able to spread a little joy where I can. It’s what I love most about you, Phyllis, you do the same. xo Lidy

  17. I am inspired by the wonderful traditions of my past. So many of the dishes are one’s I no longer see or read about. It is important to me to keep these good bites going. Such as my grandmother’s datenut roll all wrapped up in a damp tea towel. So delicious. I would love to win this book. What a extraordinary man.

  18. Answering the question….what inspires me to achieve my best?…..That’s fairly easy, I just love to see the joy and the pleasure a well-made cake, pie, treat, anything I make brings to others. I don’t even need for them to know it was me that created it and brought this to them. In fact, it’s even more pleasurable for me if I do it anonymously. Just seeing the happiest and the joy is all I need to inspire me to keep going in what I do. I just love baking, it makes me so happy.

  19. What inspires me to achieve my best is aspiring to create joy in others. Nothing compares to creating a very special treat and seeing the glee on their faces anticipating the taste to meet the presentation. You can see that in the faces in each of the White House pictures. I would love to create some of Chef Mesnier’s delicacies to see those faces at my table light up as they do for him. How nice of him to provide a book to one of us,
    My Thanks,
    Pamela Jo

  20. Oh I am SO envious of you. I would LOVE to meet and spend time with this chef. He seems like such a fun and interesting person. I’ve seen other interviews with him and have his first book. He seems a real treasure and I’m sure the White House greatly missed him when he retired. I know he’s done some classes at the school of King Arthur Flour and just LOVE to take one with him in the future.

  21. Chef Mesnier has come to Warren, Ohio 3 times to speak at our Town Hall Series. He is absolutely wonderful! He comes to the luncheon afterwards at a lovely restaurant for those who pay extra for the lunch and takes questions. What a personality he has!! I have his previous books and will get this newest one one. His autobiography is so interesting as it expands on how he grew up in a large family in a small village I recommend reading his autobiography/memoir as it really expands on the details of his life and growing up in a large family in a small village. Good luck to all who enter this contest–if you don’t win, go to the library and check out his books!
    Everyone who attends the event at the American Village is in for a real treat!

  22. Wonderful opportunity for Chef Mesnier to have served these beautiful dishes in the White House. I’m happy to put on my chef hat with my grandchildren wearing theirs and prepare some desserts, etc. and see happy family faces when we serve them.

  23. I am inspired by the creativity of my students, the beauty and talent of those close to us, and joy in the accomplishments of those who succeed despite challenges. What a treat to have this wonderful book featuring such talent!

  24. This is an amazing story of an amazing man. I am inspired by those who continuously give their best…those whose work reflect their heart in wanting to give their best with sincerity and grace. I agree with both Holly and Carmel that God-given talent and faith is akin to good work and giving our best. We honour God when we do our best. Sometimes in a cynical world we need to hear these stories. It gives us some insight to the beauty we need to savor and hold on to. Thanks Phlysis.

  25. People who take the talents they are given and give delight to those around them with their creations! Like the lad with the loves and the fishes in Scripture, we each must look into our bag of gifts and offer them up. We will see amazing things happen and the world will be a better place if each of us would do this! Thanks to Chef Mesnier for using his culinary gifts in this way and inspiring us with his creations.

  26. After teaching for over 32 years, I believe my students became a huge source of inspiration for me. I tried to “demand perfection but accept excellence.” It seemed that through encouragement and repetition they never disappointed. I love marvelous mentors and examples such as the life of Chef Mesnier. I would be delighted to own his book. Thank you for sharing this interview.

  27. What a joy, reading about Chef Mesnier and learning about his days at the White House. Whoever wins his book is going to have a true treasure! Good luck to all!

  28. I was lucky enough back in the 80’s to visit the White House and meet Nancy Clarke, the White House floral designer for several decades. I was taking floral design courses at the time and our instructor miraculously arranged the tour. It was magnificent and Ms. Clarke was a real perfectionist. She was a true inspiration and showed where dedication and love for your job can lead you to. I bought her books about her time in the White House. Would love to have the “White House in Gingerbread” book. I never missed the specials that showed the White House getting decorated for the holiday. Love your blog, Phyllis.

  29. I love trying new recipes. Can’t wait to try this one! What an inspiration Chef Mesnier is to everyone not just young people. Wish I was going to be in Birmingham Dec. 5th! Enjoy the day!

  30. Thank you for this inspiring glimpse into the White House kitchens. The book sounds amazing!
    What inspires me now is hearing mychildren, now 16 and 18, speak with delight and emotion about the traditions that we began establishing many years ago. It could be a special dish that I spent a great deal of time trying to get just right, a tablecloth that never failed to grace the table for a certain celebration, or particular family stories always shared by the fireplace. I now realize that these moments and details were not only noticed, but took on a significance much greater than I had even originally hoped. So bring on the holidays! I’m ready to delight in the hard work, to keep creating more invaluable memories with the people I love.

  31. One of the most interesting days of my childhood was taking a tour of the White House. I love these inside views and would cherish a copy of the book. Thank you for this wonderful story.

  32. When Chef Mesnier’s book “All the president’s Pastries…” came out a few years ago, I requested our library to purchase the book and they gladly did. It was full of interesting stories explaining in great detail the parties, galas and recipes Chef Mesnier was part of while he was at the White House. A wonderful life story and a true processional. Thank you for sharing your interview and offering this prize Phyllis.

  33. My inspiration in life is being interested in a variety of interests and in people. Whether it is a gathering of people interested in cooking, gardening, genealogy, art, entertaining, I always find something I can tuck into my memory box to share with others. I have followed the annual holiday programs on tv that features the White House decorations and gingerbread creations designed by Chef Mesnier. He is such an inspiration to me when I watch the show. I am looking forward to reading his new book!

  34. Today when I read this post it made me think of my sister and her husband who has ALS. Before his diagnosis he was an avid reader. Today I am inspired to try and always help bring a moment of joy into their lives. I would be honored to win this book so that I could pass it along to my sister. I think it would be a lovely story for her to read aloud to her husband and something that they both would enjoy.

    1. I hope you win! As I wrote in my comment, his book about his early life through his becoming world-renowned is really excellent and I think your brother-in-law would enjoy that one very much, too.

    2. Post

      Congratulations, Janet! You are our winner. I hope you and your family enjoy Chef Mesnier’s book. Please check your email for details on getting your prize. Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  35. People are our inspiration! Chef Mesnier is an incredible example. Thank you so much for finding him and his offering this wonderful book as a give-away. Someone is going to be so happy.

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