So, You Want to Be a Chef?
1 Choosing a Career in the Culinary Arts
Choosing a career in the culinary arts begins with an interest in food—but it doesn’t end there. You may love food and love to eat, but focusing your life’s work in the culinary field is a big decision and requires some thought. There are many paths that you can take, and honestly assessing your interests and personality traits will narrow your options. Think about the five passions listed below. If one of them makes you scream, “Hey, I think that’s me!” then you may want to earn a living with food.
Reasons You May Want to Work in the Culinary Arts A Passion for Cooking Food
Do fresh fruits and vegetables make you smile? Does a list of ingredients send your mind spinning with new recipe ideas? Do you scribble down menu plans as you walk through the farmers’
market? Does the smell of freshly ground spices make your tongue tingle? A passion for food combined with a passion for cooking is important if you want to pursue a career as a chef, a sous chef, a pastry chef, a baker, a caterer, or any of the other careers for which the kitchen is your workplace. Besides cooking, these careers require that you be creative and artistic. The jobs are physically demanding. Expect to work long hours standing on your feet.
A Passion for Writing about Food
Do you see a beautifully designed plate of food and immediately think of creative adjectives to describe it? Does an excellent meal end with you sharing your opinions about it with friends? When you hear about a new food product, do you immediately look for more information and want to share it with others? Do you love to experiment with recipes? If your love for food is expressed through writing, then consider a culinary arts career in publishing or other forms of media. Your future may lie in becoming a food critic, a food journalist, or a cookbook author. You may also pursue a career in television or in advertising.
A Passion for Capturing the Physical Beauty of Food
Do you look at a baked apple pie and see a thing of beauty? Does the image of a perfect cluster of grapes mesmerize you? The artist’s eye is required if you’re going to succeed as a food photographer or a food stylist. An understanding of color, texture, and form is also important if you want to excel as a chef, a pastry chef, or a specialty cake designer.
A Passion for Managing People and Events
Do you make lists? Does the thought of organizing a big event send you into squeals of delight? Are you a person who can multitask, manage people, and take charge in any situation without falling apart, getting angry, or collapsing under the stress? If so, then owning or managing a restaurant might be the culinary career for you. Those skills are also important if you want to own a catering
business, run a food truck, or work in television. Chefs should also hone these skills if they hope to run a happy and efficient kitchen.
A Passion for Improving the Food Supply
Does the idea of preservatives in your food make you cringe? When you hear about a salmonella outbreak, does it make you want to figure out ways to prevent it from happening again? Does your heart ache for those who go to bed hungry? Not all culinary careers require that you work directly with food. If you would rather work behind the scenes or in a laboratory, consider working as a food scientist. Food scientists create new recipes, discover new ways to package foods, strive to keep the nation’s food supply safe, and conduct research to improve food quality and productivity.
25 Places Where Culinary Professionals Work
2. Assisted-living facilities
3. Bakeries and pastry shops
5. Catering companies
6. Commissary kitchens
7. Correctional centers
8. Cruise ships
9. Development kitchens
10. Educational institutions
13. Magazine and book publishing houses
14. Military bases
15. Nursing homes
16. Private households
17. Public relations and marketing firms
18. Resorts and spas
20. Retirement communities
21. Sales offices of restaurant equipment or ingredients
22. Specialty food stores
23. Television and radio stations
24. Test kitchens
As you start thinking about a career in the culinary arts, it’s important to consider the many ways your dream can come true. You may go to culinary school, you may be tutored by one or more mentors, or you may be trained through a variety of different jobs. In the following interview, Roland Mesnier tells how he started out as a poor, small-town boy in France and worked his way up to one of the highest culinary positions in the United States, executive pastry chef to the president.
Name: Roland Mesnier
Job: Executive pastry chef, the White House
Awards: Antonin Carême Medal; French Knight of the Order of Agricultural Merit; Légion d’Honneur, the highest honor bestowed on a French citizen; member of Chocolatier magazine and Pastry Art and Design magazine’s (merged and renamed Dessert Professional magazine) Hall of Fame
Education: Doctorate of Culinary Arts, Johnson & Wales University, South Carolina
Outside the Kitchen: Author of many books, including Dessert University; Basic to Beautiful Cakes; All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House, A Memoir; A Sweet World of White House Desserts
Quote by the Chef:
“You must make things happen for yourself. Don’t rely
on others. If you want it to happen, open the doors and do it yourself.”
Quotes about the Chef:
“During our White House years together, Roland could work his magic for a small family gathering or a dinner for six hundred. Everything he ever prepared was made with love and an unfaltering dedication to the art of pastry making and the highest standards of his profession.”
—Hillary Rodham Clinton
“What does Roland Mesnier make with seven pounds of chocolate, six pounds of butter, and lots of imagination? Pure perfection!”
When did you discover a love for baking and want to focus your career in that area?
I was born in the tiny village of Bonnay, France, as one of nine kids. We were very poor, with no electricity and no running water. We only had what we grew in the garden and raised for meat. Both my parents worked all day to bring home enough money for us to live. But we were loved. They were great parents, and we were a happy family. I had two older brothers in the food business. One was a baker and the other owned a pastry shop. When I wasn’t in school, I had to work. I spent my summers working at the pastry shop. There
I saw all kinds of pastries being made. I was mesmerized by the transformation that happened when you took ingredients, mixed them together, put them in the oven, and pulled out a beautiful cake. I was blown away by that. I was about twelve when I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef.
Tell about your journey from working in a pastry shop in France to accepting the position of executive pastry chef in the White House.
When I was around fourteen, I left school and the pastry shop to get an apprenticeship in a bigger town. I wanted to work for someone who made really good pastries. I signed a three-year contract to work as an apprentice at the Bonnot Pastry Shop in Besançon, France. I got room and board and, for the first six months, I made about one dollar a month. For the first year, I cleaned, washed equipment, and worked in the garden. I didn’t cook anything, just did lots of hard work. The owner was testing me to see if I was strong enough, tough enough to be a pastry cook. I worked long days, 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM. The young apprentices worked the same long hours as the grown men. There was no time for amusement, just work and sleep. Eventually I was allowed to make chocolates and cookies, simple jobs. Ah, but then came the day when the owner said I could bake my first cake. Finally he trusted me enough to give me his recipe and let me try. I was so proud! I had been watching others do it, and now it was my turn. His trust in me meant so much, huge.
After three years, I took the state exam, got my graduation papers, and became a pastry cook. Not a chef. Kids today think they can be a chef in six months. No, it takes ten to fifteen years to become a chef, and your salary is only enough to live on. My first job as a pastry cook was in the same city. I worked for a bigger place, a volume shop. For example, on Sundays we got to work at 1:00 AM. We made croissants, thirty-five hundred of them, for the local hotels and other businesses. From there I decided to go to Paris. I
found a job in the center of the city, working in a restaurant with a pastry shop. I learned some new things, but I soon grew bored and started to research where to go next. The executive chef suggested I go to Germany and learn to work with marzipan. In Germany they know how to make beautiful decorations.
I was seventeen and didn’t speak a word of German. But I left my job, my home—I had nothing—and boarded a train for Germany. I knocked on the door of a big, beautiful shop in Hannover and tried to convince them to hire me. It was hard to communicate, but soon I found a translator and that helped. I worked at that shop for one year. I learned to make chocolate candies, German pastries, ice cream, and I got a lot of new recipes. After that, I went to Hamburg, to a family business. There I learned to make different kinds of German pastries. But more important, I learned to be precise. I learned to work fast, to be spotlessly clean, and to do what I was told. No one was allowed to be cocky or they were kicked out. In the first six months of being in Germany, I learned the language and how to read and write it. I knew then that speaking several languages would be important in my career.
At eighteen I returned to France to fulfill my mandatory military service. I was in charge of guns and ammunition and new-recruit uniforms. All the while I was in the service, I was investigating where to go next. I wanted to work in a spectacular place. I chose the Savoy Hotel in London. At the time, it was number one in the world. I wrote letters to the chefs asking for a job. They said, “NO!” I wrote again. They said, “No, no.” I tried again, and finally they said yes. It was a huge coup for me, and I got it on my own, no recommendations from anyone. You must make things happen for yourself. Don’t rely on others. If you want it to happen, open the doors and do it yourself. By the time my service was over, I had all the paperwork done, including my work visa. I left the military on December 22 and arrived at the
Savoy on December 28. I was the assistant pastry chef at the Savoy. While there, I learned English, but most important, I learned what perfection meant. Everything at the Savoy had to be absolutely perfect. I was there for two years.
Finally it was time for me to become a pastry chef. I went to Bermuda to work at the Princess Hotel, a first-class hotel. At the time, it was privately owned by the richest man in the world. I stayed in Bermuda for ten years. I met my wife, Martha, there. Our son, George, was born and went to school there. However, over time, the island became too small for me. I wanted space; I wanted seasons. It broke my heart to leave, but it was time. Bermuda will always be home to me.
From Bermuda I went back to France and worked for a short time as the executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris. But I missed Bermuda and went back as the corporate pastry chef for Princess Hotel International, where I oversaw nine separate hotels. In 1976, when I was thirty-one, I came to the United States. I took a position as executive pastry chef at the Homestead, a beautiful resort hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia. During my fourth year there, White House staff started coming to the resort. Soon they were telling me that First Lady Rosalynn Carter was looking for a pastry chef; would I like the job? I said, “NO!” I was not interested in living in Washington, DC. They tried again, and I said, “No, no.” Two or three times, I turned them down. In 1979 they suggested that I come to the White House for a visit, a tour, just to see the place. I agreed. What I didn’t know was that they had planned for me to meet the First Lady! I was nervous, uneasy, unprepared, and, yes, a bit upset that I wasn’t told in advance. We were introduced and she was the most delightful person I had ever met. Absolutely delightful! We had a short chat, and she offered me the job. I thought, She really wants me to come. So, I accepted, and one month later, my twenty-six-year career at the White House began.
What does the executive pastry chef to five presidents of the United States do each day?
There was no typical day. No routine, like in most places. Every day was up for grabs, anything could happen. The job isn’t for everybody. There really is no glamour to it. You are there to serve at the pleasure of the president and First Lady. It’s tough, stressful, and very high pressure. Your personal life and family don’t matter. The job is all-consuming. Many chefs want the job; most don’t last long. They either quit or get fired. I am proud to be the one who served the longest, twenty-six years. And there was great change with every administration. They were all different, and I had to adapt. It was very challenging.
How did your job change over the years?
The volume of food needed for entertaining increased. And the number of guests increased. Unfortunately, the work space stayed the same. It became difficult, requiring precise organization and planning to get everything done on time. There was less special work, more repetition.
Is it true that you never made the same dessert twice during your twenty-six years at the White House?
Yes, that’s true. I had to be very creative. And I loved it! I got to choose what to make, and I made everything different. The First Family was excited to see what they would get each night. I made interesting desserts every day. It was not a good day if I wasn’t challenged. I guess that’s why the job was perfect for me. I thrived on the challenge. I heard that the president stopped eating desserts after I left; there was nothing exciting going on.
What were your favorite events while serving in the White House?
I loved the family celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries. They were more intimate. I mingled with the family and
felt like I was a member of the family. It was an honor to create something special and meaningful for them.
When and why did you retire from service at the White House?
After twenty-five years, I was tired. My legs were tired; I couldn’t stand for all those long hours anymore. I needed to lose weight and regain my health. It was time. I left in 2004. That lasted nine months, and then Laura Bush called me back. I worked for another six months and left in 2006. She called me back again; I worked for one week and finally left for good in December 2006. That time I insisted I was done. Twenty-six years was enough.
You are an amazing culinary artist. Since leaving the White House in 2004, where have you focused your attention?
I took care of my health and lost thirty-five pounds. I’ve written five books. My speaking engagements have gone through the roof! I don’t have an agent or a manager, but I’m really busy these days. It’s all good. I travel all over, even to China, where I am an adviser to their largest food company. I do a lot of fund-raisers where I reproduce State dinners, even using replica White House china. I did teach some classes, but I do that less and less. After fifty-three years in the kitchen, it’s gotten too hard to stand that long, too physical for me.
Who has helped you most on your culinary journey and how?
All my mentors. Everywhere I went to work, I had great mentors, wonderful chefs who knew their business and took me under their wing, showed me the tricks, and shared their recipes. They prepared me to enter the pastry business. They helped me to become the human being I am today. They showed compassion and a love for passing on what they had
learned. Kids today need mentors more than ever. They are lost. They need someone to take them under their wing and teach them. No chef is ever self-made. Chefs are the product of those they learned from along life’s journey.
What advice would you give a young person who might be interested in becoming a pastry chef?
Being a pastry chef is a great, fantastic, noble profession. You create something from live ingredients and feed it to someone. And it’s filled with love. This is a difficult profession. The reality cooking shows have turned it into a circus! They aren’t mentoring young people; they are deserting them, giving them a false representation of what life as a chef is really like. Young people go into the profession unprepared for the hard work and long hours. Many leave the profession and still have a huge debt to pay off. When I ended my apprenticeship, I had a clean start, no debt. Schools make money on the backs of the students. They aren’t doing a good job. If you must go to school, then choose a really good one. Search your soul; make sure this is what you want to do. This profession means long hours, few rewards, and takes a lot of patience. You need experience. . . . The road to success is paved with experience.
Chef Roland Mesnier’s Recipe
Quick Chocolate Mousse with Crystallized Ginger
YIELDS 6 SERVINGS
I am amazed at the number of unnecessary chocolate mousse recipes out there. Some people will make a sabayon or add butter to make mousse. As far as I’m concerned, simpler is better. There is nothing more satisfying than the combination of cream and chocolate, with a bit of crystallized ginger
added for excitement. This mousse is very good on its own, served from a large bowl or spooned into individual goblets.
Although there are only three ingredients in this recipe, you must handle them carefully for the best results. The chocolate should be a little warm to the touch; otherwise, it may set before you have a chance to fold it into the whipped cream, resulting in a grainy mousse. For the same reason, let the cream come to room temperature before you whip it. If it is too cold, it might cause the chocolate to harden too quickly.
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
2 teaspoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped
6 chocolate cups (optional)
1. Pour two inches of water into a medium saucepan and bring to a bare simmer.
2. Place the chocolate in a stainless-steel bowl that is big enough to rest on top of the saucepan, and place it over the simmering water, making sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the water.
3. Heat, whisking occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted.
4. Remove from the heat and let cool until the chocolate is just warm to the touch, between 95 and 100 degrees on a candy thermometer.
5. Whip the heavy cream with an electric mixer until it holds soft peaks.
6. Add the whipped cream and the ginger to the chocolate all at once and quickly whisk together.
7. Scrape the mousse into a large serving bowl or individual goblets or pipe it into chocolate cups if desired.
8. Serve immediately or refrigerate, uncovered, for up to one day before serving.