Chef Roland Mesnier, longtime White House Executive Pastry Chef, mentor and teacher, prolific author, and sought-after speaker, passed away on August 26, 2022, following a short illness. He is predeceased by his wife, Martha, and survived by his son, George Mesnier.
Known best for his years as Executive Pastry Chef at the White House, Chef Mesnier embarked on his culinary career in 1958, on his fourteenth birthday. Leaving home with a cardboard suitcase and five francs, he signed on for an apprenticeship at the Patisserie Maurivard in Besançon, France. He later recalled that it was both “exhilarating and frightening” to leave Bonnay, a village of 150 in eastern France, where he was born July 8, 1944, and raised with eight siblings. His first tasks were basic—scrubbing and cleaning—but he was always gregarious and enjoyed running errands and making deliveries. During the three years of rigorous culinary training that followed, Roland learned to make croissants, pastries, cakes, and chocolates. Before long he received his Certificat d’Apptitude Professionnelle, which over the course of the next few years led him to bigger pastry kitchens in Paris, Hanover, and Hamburg.
With his sights set next on the Savoy, Mesnier arrived in London in 1964. Unable to speak any English, he nevertheless quickly secured the job offer he hoped for—pending a visa, which required a detour back to France and the completion of compulsory military service. The job at the Savoy was waiting for him after his military service, and he later described the hotel as “the launch pad for my ambitions and dreams.” By 1967 he was ready to spread his wings again and, after experiencing his first airplane flight, landed in Bermuda to begin work as a pastry chef at the Princess Hotel.
Exploring the local beaches, Mesnier soon met and married Martha Whiteford, a vacationing American schoolteacher from Fairmont, West Virginia. They welcomed their son George two years later. Content in Bermuda for seven years, Roland decided to return to France, where he briefly worked at the George V hotel before returning to Bermuda. Various hotels in the United States made offers of employment, but it was a letter from the prestigious Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, that finally lured him to America in 1976. Happy at the Homestead, he had no intention of leaving, until he heard that First Lady Rosalynn Carter was looking for a new pastry chef at the White House. After inquiring about the job, he traveled to Washington for an interview with Mrs. Carter in December 1979.
In his later memoirs and cookbooks, Chef Mesnier would recount, moment by moment, his experience interviewing at the White House and the highlights and challenges during his long tenure as Executive Pastry Chef. He held the position at the White House for nearly twenty-seven years, serving five presidents and bringing delicious endings to thousands of small and large White House dinners and events. Admired by first families, official visitors, and his colleagues for his extraordinary talent, he was proud to say that he never made the same dessert twice.
Retiring during the George W. Bush administration, Chef Mesnier published his memoir All the President’s Pastries in both English and French. Two cookbooks soon followed: Dessert University and Basic to Beautiful Cakes. In 2011 he published A Sweet World of White House Desserts with the White House Historical Association, beginning a friendship that continued until the end of his life. A devoted and vocal advocate for the Association’s mission to share and preserve White House history, Chef Mesnier donated all the proceeds from A Sweet World, as well as nearly four thousand photographs, menus, programs, and sketches documenting his career, to the nonprofit organization founded in 1961. The Association’s president, Stewart D. McLaurin, described the chef as an ambitious perfectionist with unparalleled originality who “openly and generously shared the extraordinary story of his life and work with the Association to preserve as part of White House history for future generations.” Marcia Anderson, the Association’s chief of publishing, who collaborated with Chef Mesnier for a decade developing and selling his books, observed, “It was fascinating to watch how the public reacted to meeting him—strangers just handed him their tiny babies, families gathered around him for photos, some would drive for hours to make it to a signing. He was jovial and friendly and could fill a room with happiness.”
Chef Ramsdell described Chef Mesnier’s White House desserts as “legendary and highly anticipated.” He writes, “The small souvenir menu place cards that briefly outlined the dinner for the guest—first course, entrée, salad, dessert and beverages—often didn’t offer clues about the components of the dessert, the sauces, accompanying petits fours, or presentation. There was always a hushed anticipation at the moment of service—the lights might be lowered and the band might launch into an appropriate tune. The dessert presentation—always on large platters for each table—brought oohs and gasps and often applause and cheers. Guests would rise from their seats for a better look. For each dessert, Chef Mesnier often did months of background research on the guest of honor to design a perfect dessert and showpiece: favorite colors and flavors, hobbies, emblems. His presentations often included molded chocolate or pulled and blown sugar, but never modern tools, not even a thermometer. The molds and jigs he used were mostly of his own fashioning. With the loss of Chef Mesnier, an important and rare chapter in culinary history has ended.”
Both during and after his time at the White House, Chef Mesnier was frequently involved in the training of new pastry students. He created the Professional Pastry Program for the (former) L’Academie de Cuisine and taught at schools throughout the United States. He also created and coached for several years the U.S. Coupe du Monde de Patisserie team, which competed successfully every two years in Lyons, France. Chef Mesnier dedicated the gingerbread book to the young up-and-coming pastry chefs, writing, “May it inspire you to be the best you can be. The road to success is paved with experience. . . . Be honest, hard working, dedicated and humble.”
Chef Mesnier received many awards and recognitions for his accomplishments, including the French Legion of Honor.
An energetic speaker, Chef Mesnier was a fixture at holiday book fairs and filled his calendar with speaking engagements and signings across the country and around the world. He shared his home phone number with the book buyers he met, promising to assist as needed when they tried to create his recipes. Delighting audiences with his life story, philosophy, culinary advice, and behind-the-scenes memories of baking for the presidents, he rarely took a day off in the early years of his retirement. Although busy with books and lectures, he found time to enjoy his beloved garden and at the home he shared with Martha and their cats in Fairfax Station, Virginia.