Chef Roland Mesnier has watched modern American history unfold in butter-cream, sugar syrup and phyllo dough. The former White House executive pastry chef, who will visit Richmond this fall for two fundraising events, served under five presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.
For Mesnier (pictured with the Clintons), food and modern history are of a piece. For instance, he was in the chocolate room at the White House preparing for a congressional picnic when he received word of a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. It was Sept. 11, 2001.
"Ten minutes later, somebody grabbed me by the arm and threw me out of the shop, saying, ‘Run! Run! There is a plane coming for the White House!' " Mesnier recalls. He could smell the smoke rising from the Pentagon while he waited across the street at Lafayette Park, surveying the sky. "That afternoon, the entire government was supposed to be on the lawn of the White House," he says. "Three to four thousand people — the entire Congress, vice president, president, everybody."
Mesnier, 66, grew up poor in post-World War II France. The seventh of nine children, he was sent to work at a pastry shop at age 14. There, he labored for $5 a month (plus room and board) and learned the trade that would one day take him across the Atlantic and into the executive kitchen.
Of his White House confectionary creations, Mesnier says, "They were all high-stress." The petits fours that he served at a 1984 state dinner with Li Xiannian, then president of China, were featured in U.S. News & World Report. His mousse was flown on Air Force One from the White House to Moscow during the first President Bush's visit to the Soviet Union in July 1991, and his lemon-sorbet doves, each with a sugar olive branch in its beak, were served at the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinians in 1993.
Mesnier will be in Richmond for two Hospital Hospitality House fundraising events — a White House tea on Sept. 27 and SAVOR the White House on Oct. 1. "It is going to be orchestrated just like if you were at the White House," he says of the SAVOR event. The pastry chef plans to share stories from his 26-year career. He may even spill a few secrets. "President Clinton had an allergy to chocolate, dairy products and flour, but he loved sweets," Mesnier divulges. "I had to do dessert every day for him, and I did a lot of new creations, but he did not always follow his diet. Sometimes he would eat a big piece of chocolate cake … He was not exactly the most disciplined man."