COMMANDER IN CHEF
Born in the tiny French village of Bonnay (population 140), he was the seventh of nine children. His father worked for the railways and his mother was a homemaker. He remembered she was a “wonderful cook.”
His older brother Jean got a job working in a patisserie in Besancon, and Roland went to visit him. He was so entranced by the shop that he decided being a pastry chef was what he wanted to do.
When he left school aged 14, he got a 3-year pastry apprenticeship at Patisserie Maurivard in Besancon. He turned up with a cardboard suitcase and just 5 francs in his pocket. He was paid very little but got free bed and board. He worked from 6 am to 8pm, six days a week. He spent his first year scrubbing floors and washing pans.
But after a year it was decided it was time to teach him to cook. “You never forget when you make your first croissant.”
After three years, he passed his exams and went to Paris. He worked in a shop near the Grand Opera and learned the skills of puff pastry and chocolate.
At the time Germany was considered more sophisticated than France in pastry making, so Roland went to Hanover, and later on Hamburg, where he learned marzipan techniques. He also learned to speak fluent German.
In 1967 he was appointed Head Pastry Chef at the Princess Hotel in Bermuda. It was there he met Martha Whiteford, a schoolteacher from West Virginia. They were married in 1969 and were to have one son, George.
In 1976 he went to the USA to work at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.
In 1979, he saw a vacancy for ‘Executive Pastry Chef’ at the White House in Washington DC. He was interviewed by Rosalynn Carter, the first lady. His predecessor had been keen on traditional, heavy puddings. Rosalynn told Roland she wanted, “more fruit.” He promised her lighter fare and the job was his.
He was given a tiny kitchen to work in and a limited staff. Up to his appointment, the White House had a habit of buying food in from Washington restaurants. Roland determined everything would be made on site (even the ice cream).
The Carters were fairly frugal, but it was under the Reagans that he truly flourished and came into his own. He was given a large new kitchen and a bigger staff.
He kept meticulous records, determined to supply food that the president’s family actually enjoyed. He felt his food could provide brief escapism to those who lived in the White House. “That was my role in the White House – to provide delicious food and put a smile on the face of the first family.”
He insisted he taste every dish that left his kitchen. He said, “Perfection is no accident.” He kept meticulous notes on what was left on the plates so he could adjust accordingly next time.
He also was very close friends with the White House butler ensuring that conversations about the food could be reported back to him.
He was a specialist in sugar work, creating amazing sugar sculptures – and yet most of his work was low calorie. A noted food critic called him, ‘The King of Sugar Work’.
His biggest challenge was helping image-conscious presidents keep their waistline whilst all enjoying his creations.
He started the tradition of creating a gingerbread White House each year for Christmas. His creations got bigger and bigger until they became a whole village. His last one, in 2003, was so large it wouldn’t fit in the White House lift.
He began planning for Christmas in June.
He felt Nancy Reagan was the hardest person he ever worked for. She complained about everything. “If she didn’t complain, that was a compliment.”
Once she rejected three desserts he had suggested for the visit of the Queen of the Netherlands. On the Sunday night (for a Tuesday banquet) she demanded 14 sugar baskets exactly 8 inches in diameter, each covered with 6 sugar tulips and filled with sorbet and fresh fruit. She told him, “You have two days and two nights.”
He succeeded. He said, “It was another test, and you know it makes you strong. Mrs Reagan pushed me to be who I became.”
In his 25 years at the White House, he never repeated the same dessert twice. He boasted that a bad dessert had never left his kitchen. He said the secret to success was to be relaxed – too many chefs are uptight and suffer stress. He said he took a glass of wine before cooking. “If all else fails, finish the bottle.”
He once made over 1500 cookies single-handed. He said cookies were his most regular order, usually for about 300 at a time. He understood people would steal things and was quite happy if these things were his cookies – “as long as these cookies were actually made in the White House.” He noted more cookies were stolen at Christmas time and was told people used to hang them on their trees as decorations.
There were strict rules working in the White House. One of these was that any food that was donated as a gift was destroyed for security reasons. He broke this rule on just one occasion.
In 1987, the President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev came on a visit. He gave two enormous tins of the highest quality Russian caviar. Roland discussed this with the other chef. He said, “I don’t know about you buddy, but I’m willing to die for what’s in that tin. So I’m taking one home and you can have the other one.”
He always tried to cater his food to suit the president’s guests. For the Emperor of Japan he made sushi-filled sugar baskets. For Queen Elizabeth 2nd of England he made chocolate coaches. For the President of Kenya he made amazing sugar-spun giraffes.
In an interview he was asked what kind of dessert he would like to be. He said, “I would like to be a big, fat doughnut.”
He retired in 2004 after 25 years in the White House, saying a quarter of a century was enough. “You don’t think about free time or spare time because your time is at the White House. Any time you are needed you have to be there. It could be Christmas Day, Easter, your birthday, your mother’s birthday, your child’s birthday…The White House always comes first”.
He had immense pride in his work. “I would hope that everything we did was not your average dessert.”
He went on, “Whatever comes out of here, comes out in the name of the First Lady and the President. We’re not here to promote ourselves, we’re trying to help the guests have fun.”
In the end he did 26 years and served 5 presidents. He noted that Democrats ate more than Republicans – and ladies ate more pastries than men.
President George W. Bush said they would all miss his jovial laughter and quick wit. His magical creations would also be missed – ‘The Dessert Sorcerer’.
In retirement he wrote a book called ‘All the President’s Pastries’. In it he noted he was jokingly called the ‘Commander-in-Chef’.
And he revealed some secrets. He said the Carters would prefer a very ripe, smelly cheese (he called it ‘mouldy’) which they would dip savoury things into. He was amazed the Carters hated peanuts, as they had made their money from farming them.
He said Ronald Reagan had a chocolate craving but Nancy wouldn’t let him have any. When she was out of town he would make President Reagan a special chocolate mousse.
He was disgusted by the Clintons favourite – a Coca-Cola flavoured jelly studded with black glace cherries.
He estimated he had done 1200 state dinners (or barbeques) in his time at the White House.
In retirement he continued to do cookery demonstrations.
In 2021 his wife Martha died. Suffering from cancer, Roland moved into assisted living accommodation in Burke, Virginia, where he died.
RIP – Roland-Inspired Pastries