clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

America’s First Celebrity Chefs Were Black

A Black History Month dinner series celebrates Hercules Posey and James Hemings, who cooked for two of the country’s earliest presidents and made valuable contributions to American cuisine

A wooden plate with black-eyed pea pancakes, pepper jam and fermented greens
Hemings & Hercules explores American history through dishes like black-eyed pea pancakes inspired by Hercules Caesar, George Washington’s chef
Gari Askew/Hatchet Hall

As a young black girl growing up in the melting pot of Brooklyn, New York, my classmates often teased that I had “no real culture.” I couldn’t point directly to a country of origin the way they seemed to. I had no connection to extravagant carnivals and colorful flags. And the divide widened when it came to food; next to the bangin’ beef patties, jollof, and rotis of my Caribbean and African classmates, my grandmother’s mac and cheese and collards felt standard and unspecial. To my peers, I was “just American,” with nothing to distinctively mark as my own. Dinner last Thursday night at Los Angeles’s Hatchet Hall showed me the lie.

Seated at Hatchet Hall’s family-style table, my hands criss-crossed with other diners’ as we passed around deep dishes of smoked pork crown roast, mashed rutabaga in cultured butter, creamy mac and cheese, and beef-fat potatoes. “Can you put a little mac on my plate?” we asked. And “are you finished with the rutabaga?” The meal was reminiscent of dinners at my grandmother’s house, brimming with the kind of comfort foods that make you fantasize about going home and hitting your pillow. And over three hours and eight courses, every inspiration was entirely American, and specifically contributed to our country’s culinary history by black folks. The dinner was one of a series Hatchet Hall started in 2019, called Hemings & Hercules in honor of Hercules Posey (whom the supper club refers to as Hercules Ceaser) and James Hemings, America’s first celebrity chefs and the enslaved property of two of our earliest presidents.

Hemings & Hercules is the brainchild of Martin Draluck, Hatchet Hall’s young, black chef de cuisine. Draluck was introduced to Hemings and Hercules while doing research for the restaurant’s supper club, Fuss & Feathers, and was moved to create a series around the chefs. “I thought their stories were hidden gems, and a part of history more people needed to know,” he says.

Hatchet Hall, a 128-seat restaurant in the Culver City section of LA, has been telling stories through its wood-fired “Heritage American” food since it opened in 2015. In 2018, chef-owner Brian Dunsmoor created the supper club to explore the recipes and techniques of America’s earlier days. The name Fuss & Feathers is inspired by General Winfield Scott, a known food enthusiast nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” for his insistence on military formality. Scott’s legacy is complicated by his military tactics, including his role in President Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal” policy, and his leadership in the Mexican-American war.

“When we kicked off Fuss & Feathers we really wanted to pull the blinders back on American cuisine, even if some of our history included negative connotations,” Dunsmoor says. “We did a lot of research when looking into a name for Fuss & Feathers — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Abraham Lincoln all had controversial associations tied back to history. The goal of the series has always been to try to give credit to the people who influenced our foodways including Natives, Africans, Caribbean and Europeans who all contributed to American cuisine.”

Hercules worked for George Washington for 30 years, between the president’s home and Philadelphia and his plantation in Mount Vernon, before he escaped in 1797 during the chaos of Washington’s birthday celebration. Hemings, meanwhile, the brother of Sally Hemings, cooked for the third president of the United States for 24 years. Hemings & Hercules is shining a necessary light on these chefs’ creations, and those from countless, nameless black cooks putting it down in the White House kitchen and America at large. The contributions those chefs made to our culinary tradition are essential to American culture, but their stories are often obfuscated by history.

“The bottom line is these chefs and cooks are responsible for food we still eat today in American culture, not just black culture,” Draluck says. “Everyone wanted to know what the president was eating. What was on his table? Hemings was sent to Europe for culinary training, and he brought back knowledge of how to use the sous stove, which was the precursor to the stovetop. He brought back recipes for mac and cheese, ice cream, waffles, and so much more. If you pick these dishes apart, you see all these influences.”

When Jefferson was appointed minister to France in 1784, he took Hemings with him. Only 19 years old at the time, Hemings’s task was to master the French style of cooking. While in France, Hemings apprenticed with well-known French caterers and pastry chefs and became the chef de cuisine at Hôtel de Langeac, America’s first royal embassy. He was paid a wage of 24 pounds a week, comparable to free white servants at the time, and yet he was still considered property. Under French law, Hemings could have claimed his freedom at any point, but he didn’t. Hemings ultimately negotiated his freedom on the terms that he taught others at Monticello how to cook in his French-Virginian, or Lowcountry, style, often associated with seafood-rich dishes of Southern coasts. After Hemings left Jefferson, Edith Fossett, an enslaved cook on Jefferson’s plantation Monticello, traveled to the White House to teach Jefferson’s new white chef Hemings’s Virginian-French fusion, and from there it spread worldwide. “Our dinner series allows us to give credit where it’s due,” says Draluck.

A man cooks black-eyed pea pancakes over an open hearth
The supper club theme was the brainchild of Hatchet Hall chef de cuisine Martin Draluck.
Gari Askew/Hatchet Hall

With few remaining menus or written recipes from Hercules or Hemings still around, the Hemings & Hercules dinners are mostly “inspired” by these chefs’ cooking. Draluck spent the better part of a year researching to develop the menu. “Just like so many inventions by black people in America, the history has either been washed away or wasn’t recorded,” he laments.

The dinner itself is a means of documentation and preservation, and it unfolds like a carefully told story. At $100 a seat, the meal is served in the restaurant’s “Family Room,” a private space tucked behind a barn door near the entrance. There’s a spirit of calm and warmth in the room. It feels familiar. The tablescape features dripping candles and dried flowers, and at each place setting sits a detailed timeline of Hemings’s and Hercules’s lives in relation to major historical events. In the background, Donny Hathaway croons. “Music-wise, we try to keep it as black as possible,” Draluck says.

Draluck greets the room at the start and end of the dinner, but much of the night is moderated by a Hatchet Hall team member named Andre, who guides us through the meal employing oral storytelling with historical anecdotes along the way. As Andre tells the stories behind each dish, I feel a sense of pride, especially when he emphasizes words like “us” and “we,” as in “We brought this food here.”

Dinner opens with silver-dollar-sized black-eyed pea pancakes, served alongside a pepper jam and a small side of vinegary fermented greens. This particular dish is a nod to the black-eyed pea fritters enslaved Africans would eat in the fields and an ode to Hercules, who Draluck says would’ve cooked more “rustically” than Hemings. After the black-eyed pea pancakes comes cured salmon on a small, charred plank of wood. Fishing was a lucrative practice on George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, and it required massive amounts of slave labor to clean, preserve, and pack the fish into salt barrels. Fish was also a significant part of the enslaved workers’ diet.

Then there’s the pepper pot, most traditionally known as a thick stew of beef tripe, vegetables, and pepper. The one served at Hemings & Hercules is a juicy beef and vegetable broth made with fresh vegetables, and is a reference to the influence of French and Caribbean culture in Philadelphia following the Haitian slave rebellion and the French Revolution. As the story goes, Hercules was a flashy guy who could often be spotted in Philadelphia’s market — one of the largest in the world at the time — dressed in fly threads, walking with a gold-handled cane. Hercules purchased his looks with money earned from selling leftovers and kitchen waste, which was a privilege sometimes given to those in his position. As we sipped the soup directly from small wooden bowls, we were encouraged to imagine the aroma of the pepper pot sold in the market Hercules perused for produce.

The chicken roulade that makes up another course is based on a dish Hemings cooked for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton as they came to the Compromise of 1790. As Charles A. Cerami writes in Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening That Changed America, Hemings served “Capon stuffed with Virginia ham and chestnut puree, artichoke bottoms and truffles with a bit of cream, white wine, and chicken stock,” along with “a calvados sauce made with the great apple brandy of Normandy.” Hatchet Hall’s recipe is rendered nearly identically to Hemings’ dish.

As we dine on roulade, Andre underscores that this food shouldn’t be discounted or overlooked as “slave food.” The dishes and preparations by these chefs were sophisticated and complex, and required real culinary prowess. Food historian Adrian Miller, author of the The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, confirms the influence of black cooks at the highest levels of American culinary tradition. Even after slavery, however, many of the cooks in the White House continued to be hidden, as European chefs were hired to cook for high-end affairs and the inaugural banquets reported on in the press.

Hemings and Hercules were the beginning of a long history of black chefs in the White House, and soul food dishes typically associated with black culture were a favorite. Says Miller: “There’s a very strong undercurrent [of Soul Food] throughout the White House history. If you had Southern-born presidents, the Southern soul food influence was strong to the extent that those foods overlap. Greens and things like possum and pig’s feet were served.” However, Miller notes that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s preference for European food shifted the direction of White House cooking. “1960 is where you start to see the break, and African-American White House chefs move into the rear view.”

We cap off the dinner with Hemings’s Snow Eggs. One of only two surviving recipes attributed to the chef, the dessert is an English custard with poached egg whites made to look like little eggs. It’s served with a small leaflet containing Hemings’s recipe and directions on one side and Draluck’s reinterpretation on the other.

Seeing Draluck’s version of Hemings’s dish made me regret never learning my grandma’s recipes. Because like those of Hemings, Hercules, and now Draluck, her recipes held stories — stories of my people, our history, American history. Those cooking techniques have deep roots that, although entwined with the thorns of slavery and injustice, are no less worthy of being claimed with pride by black Americans. The taunts the kids on the playground tried to throw at me were baseless. I think of the toast one of my fellow diners made at the start of our meal, just before we each packed a black-eyed pea pancake with jam and greens. “Happy Black History Month, ya’ll,” he said. “This is America, not the one they propagate.”

Glynn Pogue is a travel writer and essayist from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.