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Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

Williamsburg chef Marcel Desaulniers, creator of the famous Death by Chocolate dessert and The Trellis, dies at 78 – Daily Press

By Vaseline May31,2024
Williamsburg chef Marcel Desaulniers, creator of the famous Death by Chocolate dessert and The Trellis, dies at 78 – Daily Press

Marcel Desaulniers led a second revolution in Williamsburg, this one with volleys of expertly crafted and impeccably presented dishes. When he opened The Trellis in 1980, Desaulniers went from a name spoken of with reverence by locals to a culinary sensation on an international stage.

He wrote a dozen cookbooks, was a frequent guest on national television, presented two series, won numerous awards and counted legends such as Julia Child as friends. Diners drove for hours to sample his dishes at The Trellis.

Desaulniers, 78, died Tuesday in Williamsburg after a long illness.

The chef grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the son of a widowed French-Canadian mother who raised five other children.

He worked in the kitchen in high school and later enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. He graduated in 1965 and worked in New York City until he left to serve as a Marine in Vietnam. After his service, he returned to work in New York, including at the chic Pierre Hotel, where he was a well-known saucier.

File image of Marcel Desaulniers with his chocolate treats.  (Joe Fudge / Daily Press)
File image of Marcel Desaulniers with his chocolate treats. (Joe Fudge / Daily Press)

In 1970, Desaulniers accepted a position as manager of food production and quality control for Colonial Williamsburg.

“I learned and practiced a specific regional cuisine that has influenced me to this day,” Desaulniers said in the foreword to the 2013 book, “Dishing Up Virginia.”

He later teamed up with friends John Curtis and Tom Power Sr., of The Cheese Shop fame, and opened The Trellis. He remained at the helm for 29 years.

The 200-plus seat restaurant in Merchants Square introduced many guests to Virginia cuisine and updated a centuries-old regional dining style. He created soups topped with Edwards cured ham and entrees with locally raised quail and catfish caught from the James River.

Business casual attire was the norm and a menu presented impressive dishes with accessible ingredients and methods. That also translated to wine; The Trellis supported Virginia’s vineyards early on. The vine-wrapped trellis at the front of the restaurant featured cuttings from Middleburg’s long-gone Meredyth vineyards. Over the years, Desaulniers hosted a popular annual barrel tasting dinner to showcase local food and wine.

File image of John Curtis and chef Marcel Desaulniers celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Trellis restaurant, creating a chocolate chip cookie especially for the anniversary.  Photo by Dave Bowman / Daily Press
File image of John Curtis and chef Marcel Desaulniers celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Trellis restaurant, creating a chocolate chip cookie especially for the anniversary. Photo by Dave Bowman / Daily Press

Chef Sydney Meers, owner of Syd’s Fishpig Cafe in Norfolk, began his culinary journey with Desaulniers at The Trellis in the early ’80s.

“It was amazing what I saw and what I learned,” Meers said. “He kept it quite simple, but it was the presentation that made it.”

Desaulniers sold The Trellis to Williamsburg chef and restauranteur David Everett in 2009. The Trellis closed in 2020 and Everett transformed it into a Northern Italian restaurant called La Piazza, which closed this year. Everett, owner of Blue Talon Bistro and DoG Street Pub in Williamsburg, was a fan of Desaulniers.

“He came in during the golden age of the American culinary movement and the things that were being done in other places, he brought it to this little town when nothing like it existed,” Everett said. “It was just phenomenal.”

Desaulniers, together with his wife Connie, opened MAD About Chocolate, a chocolate café, in 2012 and operated it until 2016. MAD was an acronym for Marcel Andres Desaulniers. For decades, Desaulniers was active with the Virginia Chef’s Association.

A sweet legacy that Desaulniers leaves behind is the Death by Chocolate dessert; he always called it a dessert, not a cake. It was introduced to the Trellis menu in 1982 and was infamous for taking three days to prepare. At its peak, the restaurant sold 100 slices daily.

Inspired by a recipe from Gourmet magazine called Dying for Chocolate, Desaulniers and his then-pastry chef, Donald Mack, created the dish, which weighed a whopping 10 pounds. The dessert was a seven-layer showstopper: cocoa meringue, chocolate mousse, chocolate brownie, ganache, mocha mousse, mocha rum sauce and more. Desaulniers quickly became known as the ‘guru of Ganache’.

The recipe is shared in his 1992 cookbook, “Death by Chocolate,” which has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide.

File image of Marcel Desaulniers, at Ganache Hill, his test kitchen in Williamsburg, with some of his famous chocolate creations.  (Bill Tiernan/The Virginian Pilot)
File image of Marcel Desaulniers, at Ganache Hill, his test kitchen in Williamsburg, with some of his famous chocolate creations. (Bill Tiernan/The Virginian Pilot)

Desaulniers zoomed in on national fame. He has received five awards from the James Beard Foundation, the industry’s highest honor, including Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 1984 and Best Chefs in 1993. Desaulniers was also named to the Honor Roll of American Chefs, Food & Wine Magazine and the restaurant garnered nods from Restaurant and Institutions Magazine.

His books include “The Trellis Cookbook,” “Salad Days,” “Burger Meisters” and “Grilling Maestros,” a companion to his public television series. He also appeared in shows including ‘Baking with Julia’ with his friend Child. Desaulniers also appeared on “Nathalie Dupree Cooks for Family and Friends” and the “Today” show.

Dupree, an award-winning cookbook author and culinary educator, first met Desaulniers in 1978.

“He was always interested in television and in that sense he was natural,” Dupree said in a telephone interview from her home in North Carolina. She became the first woman after Child to host more than 100 shows on public television.

“Marcel was charming, personable and experienced. He just walked onto the set and he was good at what he did. He was a great influencer.”

Desaulniers is survived by his wife, a daughter, Danielle, and other family and friends. His son Marc was predeceased.

In honor of Desaulniers and World Chocolate Day, Cafe Stella Bistro in Norfolk, located at 1907 Colonial Ave., will feature Death by Chocolate from July 7-9.

Patrick Evans-Hylton is the author of several books, including ‘Dishing up Virginia’ and a long-time friend of Marcel Desaulniers. Reach him at [email protected]

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