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Former presidential pastry chef Roland Mesnier dies at age 78

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It can be pretty terrifying to show off your baking in front of discerning judges, as any fan of "The Great British Bake Off" knows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF")

PAUL HOLLYWOOD: I don't like the outside of it. I think your piping work is not good.

PRUE LEITH: But I must say, I find it a pleasant cake. If you shut your eyes, it's a nice sponge cake.

SHAPIRO: OK, now imagine doing that for almost 25 years, only your judge isn't Paul Hollywood. It's the first lady.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You now have an idea of how tough a job Roland Mesnier had as White House pastry chef. Through more than two decades of service, he made desserts for five presidents, their first ladies and countless dignitaries and guests. Mesnier died last week in hospice care. He was 78.

SHAPIRO: His life began in the tiny eastern French town of Bonnay as World War II was winding down. He was the seventh of nine children. At that time, everything was scarce. He explained to an audience at the JFK Museum in Boston back in 2019 there was no running water or electricity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROLAND MESNIER: No TV.

(LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: No what you call Blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: But a love for baking was in abundance. One of his brothers ran a bakery. Another had a pastry shop. By age 14, Mesnier became a baker's apprentice.

SHAPIRO: From there, his career took him to Paris, Hamburg and London. Eventually, he became head pastry chef at a Virginia resort. And in 1979, a rep for the first lady approached him with a job offer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MESNIER: You know, Ms. Rosalynn Carter is looking for a pastry chef. I said, good. Keep looking.

(LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: You don't want to go? I said, no, I have no desire. I don't want to go to Washington because they are crazy over there.

(LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: I'm not going.

CHANG: Well, he did go - to the White House. There, Mesnier was exacting and tough. His motto was perfection is no accident.

Bill Yosses was White House pastry chef for seven years after Mesnier retired in 2004. He says his predecessor's work was incredibly creative.

BILL YOSSES: He did not repeat desserts. Every occasion had something new.

SHAPIRO: Yosses says Mesnier was also confident in his pastries - a must in a high-pressure gig like the White House.

YOSSES: Remember, you're often dealing with the social secretary, you know, and, of course, the first family - the first lady herself and the president. So if you can't sell it, you won't be able to really thrive there.

CHANG: After leaving the White House, Mesnier published several books. His first was a memoir titled, rather appropriately, "All The President's Pastries."

SHAPIRO: Roland Mesnier, pastry chef to five presidents, died last week of complications from cancer. He was 78 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.