Franette McCulloch — A Life Well Lived, One Layer at a TimeTweet
NOTE: Click photos to enlarge.
When we think of cake, one might think of Marie Antoinette’s famous line, “Let them eat cake,” a line most likely never spoken by the Queen of France, but attributed to her, as the story goes, in response to being informed that her peasant subjects had no bread and were suffering in starvation.
Historically, the craft of pastry making dates back much farther than 18th century France. In fact, the ancient Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians each produced filo-style pastries as a part of their cuisine. There is even evidence the ancient Egyptians produced a variety of confections by dipping a cake made from baked flour into honey, accented with toppings of dates and desert nuts.
Although medieval cookbooks contained lists of ingredients, they lacked detailed descriptions. But for many culinary historians French pastry chef Antonin Carême (1784–1833) is considered to have been the first modern master of pastry making.
For young Franette McCulloch, such history would seem a distant world away from the Southern California City of Compton, where she was born into a post-World War II world of soldiers returning home to an economy struggling to accommodate the huge influx of men searching for work. Compton is one of the oldest cities in Los Angeles county and was settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in the wake of the rapidly depleting gold fields.
Prior to Franette’s birth, her mother sang opera and worked at a local school teaching music. As a young child, finances in Franette’s home, a motel actually, were a challenge, and while the family struggled with the basics, her parents would eventually divorce. Franette’s time in Compton was to be short-lived as circumstances required that she move in with her grandparents in Lynwood where she lived until the 7th grade.
Lynwood has a somewhat colorful history. Back in 1902, a successful businessman, C.H. Sessions, acquired about 400 acres in Southern California where he established a dairy and creamery. His wife’s maiden name was Miss Lynne Wood and so it was agreed the place would be called “the Lynwood Dairy and Creamery” which was located at what is now Sanborn and Long Beach Boulevard in Los Angeles County.
Later, in 1929, Pacific Electric installed a P.E. train Depot on the corner of Long Beach Blvd. and Fernwood Avenue. That building still exists today and there is a plan to designate it as a historical monument. The PE Railway adopted the Lynwood name from the dairy and creamery. Eventually, the Lynwood Company was formed in 1913 selling 100 x 800 residential lots for $500 to $800. Buyers were treated to lunch in a circus tent!
Even at the early age of 5, Franette was busy expressing her creative talents by crafting detailed clothes for paper dolls. There were also some early signs of an interest in the culinary arts, illustrated by her masterful crafting of truly mouthwatering mud pies and cakes decorated with flowers from her Grandmother’s garden. Her creative drive continued to flourish, eventually developing into a serious dream of one day being a successful clothing designer.
In the 7th grade, Franette made a quantum leap creatively when she began making clothes for other people. Demand among her peers grew steadily while Franette’s talent for design began to flourish. In her junior year, she made her own Prom dress and requests from classmates rolled in. The Beatles absolutely dominated the music charts leading up to Franette’s graduation. Songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “She Loves You”, and “Can’t Buy Me Love” propelled the rhythm of the moment, while the Nation in mourning continued to recover from the recent assassination of JFK.
Later on, as a senior at Whittier College, Franette entered her first design contest, for which she was the only contestant from a liberal arts college and not a design school. In her limited years of watershed moments, this would rank highly for her as she was selected as the semi-finalist. Her creative passion fully ignited, Franette was well on her way to a brilliant career as a fashion designer.
Not so fast. Life has a funny way of intervening, and following College, while fans flocked to see Mia Farrow in the smash hit horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, Franette’s career dreams veered sharply and directly to the back burner when she married the handsome US Naval Officer beau she’d been dating. Soon, the newlyweds were off to an exciting life as a military couple. It is a life which is often transient, requiring frequent reassignments which can be somewhat limiting in terms of non-military career development for spouses. While stationed in Hawaii, she worked in the makeup department at Liberty House, a popular a department store and specialty store chain founded in 1849, with locations, at the time, throughout the Hawaiian Islands and on Guam, as well as several locations on the United States mainland.
On Aloha Fridays the prestigious make-up artists from the esteemed New York office would come in and the employees were generally expected to wear a muumuu (or muʻumuʻu) for the occasion. For those unfamiliar, the muumuu is a large, unflattering dress which didn’t seem very fashionable to Franette and so she decided to shake things up by creating beautiful, more tailored dresses, from colorful printed fabrics. Her designs were an instant hit with her associates, many ordering similar dresses for themselves.
The young couple travelled frequently due to the US Navy’s reassignment policy, landing them eventually in London where Franette’s husband would be stationed for 2 years. London was a bustling city, a shining example of an international melting pot where almost everything, from the museums and historical landmarks to the city’s legendary double-decker buses, is highly regarded, except, that is, for the food. If Big Ben’s bell indeed tolls for a great sorrow, it is most likely British culinary fare.
Among the many interesting aspects Franette learned of married life, at that time, was the expectation that one’s spouse would have a delicious, gourmet dinner waiting on the table for the hungry Naval Officer husband who would be yearning for anything but typical British bangers and mash. Driven partly by her own creative inertia and inspired by the desire to support and encourage domestic bliss, Franette took a sincere interest in mastering the finer nuances of international culinary arts. To enhance her somewhat limited skills at kitchen craft, she decided to attend the distinguished London extension of the Cordon Blue, where her creative talents finally found the perfect outlet.
The next reassignment brought Franette back to the United States and the Alexandria, Virginia area where she enrolled in the nearby Maryland-based L’Academie de Cuisine, one of the nation’s top culinary schools, prior to ending it’s 41-year-history in December 2017. It so happened, at that time, that the executive pastry chef at the White House, Roland Mesnier, was teaching a pastry course at the school, which Franette recalls was much harder than any course she had ever experienced. “While Roland was somewhat self-absorbed, “recalls Franette,” he was a detailed and thorough instructor who’s passion for creating masterful cuisine was evident in his presentation. Franette excelled in this fertile and highly creative environment.
During this period, and following her divorce, Franette worked 3 jobs just to make ends meet, and finances were very tight. She was assisting with teaching a course at the school, running a private catering business, and thanks to catching the attention of Roland Mesnier, she had been invited to work part-time in the White House kitchen 2 to 3 days a week. This was a significant opportunity and another watershed moment on Franette’s remarkable journey. The White House, of course, has a storied history. Following 8 years of construction, the White House was completed in 1800, one year after President George Washington’s death. So the first residents of the White House were the second U.S. President, John Adams and his wife Abigail.
1983 was a big year by any standard. Central New York State was hit by a 5.2 earthquake, a suicide bomber launched an attack on the U.S Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, US unemployment reach a staggering 12 million, and Franette McCulloch entered the White House for the very first time. At first, arriving to work at the White House seemed almost surreal to the wide-eyed young woman whose culinary career began by decorating mud pies with flowers from her grandmother’s garden. A virtual labyrinth of living history, the White House features 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. Designed by James Hoban, an Irish immigrant who came to America following the Revolutionary War, the inspiration for the most famous residence in the world was the Leinster House in Dublin.
As remarkable a place as the White House is, Franette’s sense of awe and amazement at being a part of that history would soon be subdued with the reality of the job at hand. The White House kitchen, after all, was a cramped room of stainless steel filled with smells and the sounds of shouts, clanging pots and clinking glassware. An atmosphere of controlled chaos prevailed while the initial romance of the experience quickly gave way to the ever-present sense of urgency imposed by the endless culinary demands of the busiest residence in America.
After 3 exciting and demanding years of working part-time at the White House, Franette learned that the Usher’s (manager’s) office had decided to expand the White House kitchen staff by establishing a new full-time position.
“I was there so often as a part-time chef,” explains Franette, “the management decided it was in everyone’s best interest to make me full-time. They determined that the transition from the Reagan to the Bush administration offered the perfect window to do it.” Government being what it is, this act required presenting a budget for approval by Congress. The position was soon confirmed and Franette quietly became the very first female chef in the history of the White House, possibly the best-known residence in the history of the world. It was, by any standard, an extraordinary accomplishment for the girl from Lynwood who began her design career, crafting dresses for paper dolls.
Beyond Ronald Reagan’s well-known obsession with Jelly Belly jelly beans, he very much enjoyed sweets such as chocolate brownies, chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake. It seems Nancy Reagan, known at the time for being very involved in the meal planning at the White House, ran quite a tight ship, keeping a close eye on everything consumed by her husband, the President of the United States.
Each Monday morning, she would carefully review and approve the menu for the week using a red pen to strike anything she deemed to be inappropriate for the 40th President of the United States, from the menu. Words such as mousse, ice cream and anything “chocolate” were readily banned. Ronald Reagan’s passion for chocolate (and who doesn’t have such a passion right) was well-known to the White House kitchen staff, but under Nancy’s watchful eyes, chocolate was absolutely a forbidden indulgence. With all due respect for Nancy Reagan’s wisdom on the matter of sweets, Franette felt the hard-working POTUS deserved an occasional break from the carefully monitored and highly restricted access to any and all foods derived or otherwise extracted from cacao. In an act that can only be described as pure mercy, Franette undertook to cleverly disguise a significant quantity of the heretofore banned chocolate in the form of a treasure chest, filled with chocolate mousse and literally overflowing with succulent fresh raspberries, calling the luxurious and absolutely sinful desert, Raspberry Treasure, taking great care to omit the term “chocolate”. The ruse worked brilliantly and Nancy approved the wildly inappropriate delicacy for her husband’s consumption. “Truth be told,” gushes a smiling Franette, “we knew well in advance that Nancy would be in New York for a shopping trip and planned for the dessert to be served in her absence.” Indeed, Nancy Reagan would be away on the very day Franette’s Raspberry Treasure was served to the 40th, and most appreciative, President of the United States.
On January 20th, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush took the Oath of Office, administered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and he and his beloved wife, First Lady Barbara Bush became the next occupants at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the first 2 weeks following the Inauguration of the 40th President of the United States, Phil Collins smash hit song, Two Hearts, dominated the Billboard 100 Chart, a fitting tribute to the First Couple.
Just two years into the Bush Presidency, Franette recalls a stroll through the historic, White House Rose Garden, intoxicatingly fragrant and bursting with color in the Spring, but now barren in the winter months, which provides for a candid view to the curious onlooker of a large picture window into the Oval Office. “It was just prior to the start of Desert Storm, the 1st Iraq invasion,” she recalls, “and I glanced for just a moment into the Oval Office window through which I caught a glimpse of his face, etched with the deep and painful seriousness of the decisions facing him at that moment. The weight of the world rested squarely on his shoulders and I had glimpsed the effect of that weight in the eyes of the single most powerful person in the world. It was a sobering moment for me.” On January 16, 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the start of the Iraq invasion, called Operation Desert Storm.
The White House is a bustling parade of brunches, luncheons, afternoon teas, endless banquets honoring dignitaries, foreign leaders, industry giants and celebrities, so it’s easy to imagine the incredible demands this activity places on the White House staff, especially the White House kitchen staff. Everyone must eat!
And of course there are the occasional weddings which tend to be events of extreme pressure and detail. From the table settings, china and silver, to the crystal, flowers, menu and place cards, everything must be planned to perfection and there are no margins for error. And so it was when it was announced that the President’s only daughter, Dorothy “Doro” Bush LeBlond, was to be married at Camp David. It would be a grand, but somewhat low-key, family event and the bride, Mrs. Bush and her Social Secretary wanted to see examples of cakes from the White House pastry corps, comprised of Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier and his protégé Franette McCulloch.
While Roland had his positive points along with substantial talent as a pastry chef, humility was not his strong suit. Roland and Franette set about preparing their sample cakes for scrutiny by the bride, the First Lady and the Social Secretary. After much contemplation, careful scrutiny and thoughtful tasting, Franette’s example was chosen for the occasion, much to Roland’s consternation and ego-crushing dismay.
Just thirty-minutes by helicopter from the White House, Camp David is a rustic getaway located in Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, Maryland. The facility, nestled in a wooded setting, offers many outdoor and indoor activities including a golf driving range, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, a swimming pool, skeet range, nearby fishing and horseback riding. Guests are given golf carts for their transportation around the retreat.
Dining at the White House follows the tradition of “French Service” wherein platters of food are walked around the table by the butlers and offered to each guest individually. Meals at Camp David, however, tend to be less formal, with guests being served in much the same manner as they would in a traditional restaurant.
At brunch, prior to the wedding ceremony, certain protocols were to be observed. The practice of placing more food on a tray than there are guests at the table is a traditional courtesy to assure the last person served is not uncomfortable taking the last item on the platter. It was well-known at that time that Barbara Bush had an affinity for English muffins, and for private meals they were always offered, so in keeping with tradition there was at least one extra English muffin at the table and perhaps fifteen chairs, including an empty one to the right of the First Lady. Barbara Bush always insisted on their being an extra English muffin!
When the Social Secretary entered the kitchen to make the announcement that lunch was to be served, Franette went out to the dining room to review the service where Barbara Bush, seeing and tracking every movement in the room, caught her eye and immediately called out to her, “Franette, come sit here,” motioning for Franette to sit next her in the extra chair. Barbara Bush was that way. “My heart skipped a beat at that moment,” recalls Franette, “while I quietly prayed that I could remember proper table manners.”
Another protocol requires that the Host/Hostess at a table always be served first and then the butler continues service to the left. “I was seated to the right of the First Lady who, on that day, took 2 muffins, so that when the platter reached me it was empty. Without missing a beat, she took one of the muffins from her plate and put it on mine.”
At the wedding, the official White House photographer appeared in the kitchen, anxious to take the official photos of the wedding cake that Franette had so carefully crafted. Determined to steal at least some of Franette’s moment in the sun, the omnipresent Roland Mesnier stood closely looming over her shoulder at just the precise moment the photographer began shooting — the original White House wedding cake photobomb specialist! Despite Roland’s intrusion, it was still Franette’s moment to bask in the glory of what would be one of her many crowning achievements. “The wedding was truly a family event,” Franette explains, “with all of the Bush grandkids entertaining us by singing a special song for their grandmother that they had written and composed together for the occasion.”
Following Bush 41, and the First family, came William Jefferson Clinton along with Hillary and young Chelsea Clinton. “It was a different atmosphere,” Franette recalls, “Hillary took good care of Chelsea during the Lewinski scandal but the stress of it all took a toll on everyone for sure.” The trials, tribulations, hearings and scandals aside, Chelsea’s 16th birthday was to be a very special event and would require Franette’s uniquely creative talents to insure the teenager’s birthday cake would be anything but ordinary. The Clinton’s, however, refrained from offering Franette even a single suggestion.
Left to her own imagination, Franette, recognizing the life-altering moment every teenager experiences upon receiving their first driver’s license, crafted a fantastically realistic Jeep out of chocolate for the top of the cake. Roland asked her to create something that really captured the importance of the occasion. “Turning 16 is a very important event in a young person’s life,” explains Franette, “so I hand-painted a perfect, full-sized DC driver’s license onto a thin white chocolate rectangle as a compliment to the Jeep, complete with a hand-painted photo of Chelsea, using special food color. The cake was instantly a huge hit!”
In his final letter, Dated January 20, 2001 to his successor, Bill Clinton wrote, “Dear George,
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.
Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.
You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.
The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible.
My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.
And thus began the Presidency of George W. Bush and Laura with their 2 daughters. Being part of the White House staff over the course of 4 Presidencies, you get to know the families, some better than others, and it’s always an emotional experience saying goodbye when they leave. You’re literally witnessing an event in American history, a changing of the guard. “I don’t think I truly recognized the full weight of the events as I was witnessing them,” recalls Franette, “until many years after I’d left the White House.” As had been the case with Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, although not so much with Hillary Clinton, First Ladies tend to have more influence over the kitchen staff and with Bush 43, so it was with First Lady Laura Bush. “I sensed,” adds Franette, “that my time to move on had arrived.” Franette left the White House after nearly 2 decades of memories, friendships and inspiration most us can only dream about.
So, what does retirement mean for the first female White House Chef in American history? Well over the years, Franette learned about finances and the importance of saving and investing wisely. “Some of those early years when I was working 3 jobs, including cooking at the White House 2-3 days a week,” Franette explains, “were pretty lean years financially. I knew that one day I would want to retire and be able to continue enjoying a comfortable lifestyle while continuing to explore my passion for creative design. Investing wisely, buying property and working with an experienced financial advisor have made it possible for me to travel and pursue my passion for turning flea market bargains into vintage treasures. While some people want to buy everything new, I love giving new life to hidden gems I find at estate sales, garage sales and flea markets.”
Her latest project, remodeling a second home in California, has provided Franette with a tremendous opportunity to create exactly the style she was looking for. She took the original home, which sits on barely a quarter acre, down to the studs, then rebuilt every room with the intention of retaining the old-world charm, while adding a touch of contemporary panache.
“I started out thinking it would just be a simple remodel,” Franette says smiling, “but every wall that came down seemed to lead to another one that needed attention. At first, I thought, what have I gotten myself into here, but then I really started having fun with it. I can only imagine the fun architect Julia Morgan must have had designing Randolph Hearst’s estate in San Simeon, California, a project which eventually took 28 years to complete.”
When Franette isn’t immersed in her current remodeling project, she spends time searching the web for vintage treasures she can bring back to life under the careful supervision of her dog Buckley when he’s not accompanying her on one of her frequent nature walks. Franette loves reading good books, and, on occasion, testing out an enticing recipe. “I thought my days at the White House,” Franette concludes, “were the most epic and fulfilling times I would experience in my life. The truth is, despite my amazing experience being the first female chef in the White House and meeting Presidents, World Leaders and all the celebrities, my simple life today, creating, designing, dining with friends and taking walks with Buckley, is truly the icing on the cake.”