Once people find out I was the head pastry chef at the White House for 25 years, they can’t wait to hear more.
“What was it like, baking for the president?” “You had to fix the most extravagant desserts every night, didn’t you?”
I admit, I was under the same impression when I first walked into the White House for a job interview one cold December morning in 1979. I was ushered into the famous Map Room. Mrs. Carter was seated in one of the red velvet armchairs. She invited me to sit next to her. We chatted for a while. Then she asked, “Roland, if you were to become the head pastry chef here, what sorts of desserts would you serve?”
I did not know her well enough then to know her tastes, so I told her what I myself liked to end a meal: “Simple desserts, based on fresh seasonal fruit.”
That same afternoon I was offered the job. Ah, I thought, perhaps feeding the First Family is not so different from the way my maman fed our family back in the village of Bonnay, in western France.
With nine children to raise, my parents did not have much money. But that didn’t stop Maman from cooking the very best for us. Everything had to be fresh, fresh, fresh! We kept chickens, rabbits, goats and sheep, and our vegetables and fruit came directly from our garden.
Though the chores were punishing, we never went hungry. And every time Maman baked cherry tarts, I was the first to run to the kitchen and breathe in the sublime aromas.
“Someday I’m going to be a patissier,” I’d tell Maman. I could not imagine a more wonderful calling than making pastries!
My parents understood. When I was 14, they sent me to apprentice with a pastry chef in the nearby town of Besançon. It was there I learned the art of decorative chocolate.
I went on to work at the Régence and the George V hotels in Paris, a pastry shop in Germany known for its marzipan, the Savoy in London, where I learned sugar sculpture, then the Princess, a resort in Bermuda.
Everywhere I worked, I saw that the right food could make people feel at home.
Yes, even in the White House. Of course, I created magnificent cakes and towering soufflés for formal dinners. But many nights, I found myself serving simple, down-to-earth desserts.
The Carters preferred Southern dishes like pecan pie with homemade ice cream or silky chocolate cream pie—President Carter’s favorite. I also kept a supply of sugar cookies on hand for 12-year-old Amy.
She loved to bake cookies in the family’s private apartment. I would send up the ingredients. She’d mix the dough, pop the cookies in the oven, then set off roller-skating. Inevitably she’d forget all about them. Smoke would be seen rising above the White House, while an acrid smell filled the corridors, sending Secret Service agents scurrying to my pastry kitchen. I’d direct them to the apartment.
The following morning Amy would sheepishly appear in my kitchen, explaining that she was supposed to take cookies to school. I’d hand her a bagful. “Thanks,” she’d say with a grin. I chuckled, knowing it would happen again.
Each family had their favorites. The Reagans loved having hamburger soup (their invention) on TV trays in the study. But no plastic for them, only the best china and silverware. Afterward, I’d bring President Reagan’s signature dessert—orange flourless chocolate cake.
Mrs. Clinton loved theme parties. One year, for her birthday, she asked me to bake a cake harking back to the 1950s. I created a jukebox with a sugar-sculpted couple dancing on top and chocolate LPs around the sides. “Roland, you’ve outdone yourself!” she exclaimed.
The Bush family was as big as my own. During George H. W. Bush’s term, his grandkids visited often and stopped in my kitchen for some of their grandfather’s favorite chocolate chip cookies.
It turned out to be true, what I thought that winter day I landed my job at the White House. Baking for the First Families was not so different from baking for my own family, for anyone I care for. I gave them desserts with a taste of home in every bite.
Try Roland’s Silky Chocolate Cream Pie (Tarte au Chocolat)!
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