A quarter-century of gingerbread White Houses and other feats
Reading master pastry chef Roland Mesnier's All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, you can't help but wonder how the last five presidents still managed to fit into the Oval Office by the end of their terms. Surprisingly, Mesnier's life before he got to the White House was at least as interesting as the years he spent satisfying the dessert palates of the world's leaders.
Following in his brother's footsteps, Mesnier left his small village at age 14 to enter the traditional French apprenticeship system. With an incredible drive to master new skills, he moved on to some of the world's finest hotels and pastry shops. He cooked in the legendary kitchen of London's Savoy, discovered how to create sugar sculptures despite the intense humidity in Bermuda, introduced an entirely new set of pastries at one of the oldest hotels in the U.S. without the staff even realizing that they'd been "retrained" and began winning award after award for his work.
From this illustrious beginning, Mesnier moves on to describe the events, the desserts and the people he encounters throughout his White House tenure. Aside from a couple of near-misses (one with a marzipan figure of a "sleepy" Mexican), Mesnier successfully created extravagant desserts reflecting national cultures, cuisines or historical events, from a chocolate military aircraft carrier for George W. Bush's birthday to "five white doves made from lemon sorbet placed on a nest of fresh fruit, each with a sugar olive branch in its beak" served to Yitzhak Rabin to signify the Oslo accords. Packing 25 years of desserts into one book can occasionally begin to read like a laundry list, and it's slightly odd to hear someone wonder if a planned barbeque will be cancelled when discussing the early hours of 9/11. But being executive pastry chef at the White House is no ordinary job and Mesnier follows his own golden rule to a tee: "Never forget where and for whom you are working."
Megan Brenn-White graduated from the chef's training program at the Natural Gourmet School of Cookery and is the author of Bake Me a Cake (HarperCollins).