James Hemings: America's First Chef

American Culinary Founding Father


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It’s high time people know about Chef James Hemings (1765-1801), the talented, enslaved chef owned by Thomas Jefferson. Hemings’ enduring impact on popular American eats and the development of high-end cookery and restaurant dining in this country has been all but eclipsed by Jefferson’s prominence. Being born Black, enslaved, and Jefferson’s “property,” it’s no big surprise that centuries later he’s almost invisible.

Thanks to more Black culinary historians and culturally-inspired chefs finally being featured in mainstream food media, plus the work we’ve been doing at the James Hemings Society (JHS), Hemings' story is finally being told in a number of ways.

A Hidden Culinary Pioneer

As a culinary historian focused on Black culinary artisans’ key role in the makings of America’s cuisines, cocktails, etc, I’ve worked for years with JHS founder (and foremost expert on the life and work of James Hemings in France) Chef Ashbell McElveen to found the organization. With James as its namesake, the goal is to create educational initiatives aimed at ending historic erasures. The exclusion of someone as significant as James Hemings from American culinary history is a lie of omission, as is the exclusion of countless other Black contributors to American foodways, from agriculture to industry.

Vanilla Ice Cream

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Many folks are still startled to learn that our nation’s first classically trained Chef de Cuisine—an innovative culinary creator and influential cooking instructor instrumental in introducing iconic dishes we might even take for granted today—was an enslaved Black American from Monticello. Macaroni and cheese, vanilla ice cream, French fries, crème brulée, meringues, whipped cream—the list goes on. Many are surprised to learn that a man they've never heard of introduced so many iconic dishes to America.

French Fries

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Food That Helped Shape a Nation

Macaroni and cheese is a great example of a once-exclusive, expensive dish composed of ingredients accessible to only the wealthy abroad and here in America. It took imported cheeses, cream, butter, handmade or imported pasta, and servants (or slaves!) to make it properly and to scale. Chef Hemings learned variations of this European elite dish during his years of culinary training in France. Nineteen-year-old James accompanied Jefferson there in 1784 after he was appointed commerce minister. It became a fast favorite, variations of which James prepared for Jefferson’s hospitable tables at his residences along the eastern seaboard, from Virginia to New England.

Macaroni and Cheese

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Perhaps most famously, James prepared a multi-course meal in New York City during The Compromise of 1790. It was the culmination of a number of clandestine political dinner meetings Jefferson hosted with guests Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in what was then our nation’s capital. The meeting was theatrically depicted in the popular "Hamilton" song “The Room Where It Happened.” Had James not been so hidden in American history, he might’ve been a character in the biggest musical of all time. The amazing multi-course meal facilitated the resolution of so many seemingly insurmountable disagreements and helped determine the fate of a fledgling nation.

Creme Brulee

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Chef James was also one of the nation’s most influential early culinary instructors. His transfer of knowledge ultimately impacted Black cooks, caterers, and chefs who were instrumental in developing American dining. At Jefferson’s behest, James trained his brother Peter and other plantation cooks for years. A signature French-Virginian cookery imprint was born, one that would also find its way North via the Great Migration.

Engraving of Monticello

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Generations of Black American cooks became the stewards of now-iconic dishes like macaroni and cheese in their classic forms. No longer exclusive to White masters or wealthy employers, but for themselves. These dishes were usually for special occasions, celebrations, or holidays, despite contemporary, quick and easy versions sold in a box (created by Kraft during the Depression). Today, mac and cheese is a ubiquitous main or side dish made in homes of all hues and found on American-themed menus worldwide.

Celebrating Hemings' Legacy

Now’s a perfect time to make a classic version of macaroni and cheese: February 2021 marks the 225th anniversary of James Hemings receiving his manumission deed from Jefferson. In the month that would fortuitously become Black History Month a century and a half later, James Hemings was granted his freedom on February 5, 1796. JHS is featuring a range of celebratory content throughout 2021 to “Raise a Glass to Freedom!” with toasts and talks acknowledging James Hemings' lasting legacy.

Hands whipping cream

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There’s more to Chef Hemings than just delivering calorie-laden deliciousness. Below are a few highlights worth noting for anyone of his era, especially an enslaved Black person:

  • Hemings was the first American Chef trained abroad in France by the most notable chefs in the Classical French Culinary Arts. He ran the kitchens of Jefferson’s residence on the Champs-Élysées, overseeing meals served to the notables of Europe. This made him the first American chef to be head cook at an American diplomatic embassy.
  • On July 14th, 1789, he was navigating the rues of Paris when masses of French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and witnessed revolutionary transition firsthand. This was after living through America’s Revolution in bondage and in service to the author of its Declaration of Independence.
  • At a time when illiteracy was imposed and brutally enforced on all African-heritage people, James was not only literate but fluent in English and French both spoken and written. The latter he learned during his five years of culinary training and apprenticeship in France. There’s a strong indication he surpassed Jefferson, who’d learned French in the states but preferred to speak English throughout his ambassadorship.
  • James was responsible for the introduction, early innovation, and instruction of apprentice cooks on “potage” stew stove technology, the great grandfather of the modern stove in homes today. It was through James that Jefferson recognized the importance of renovating the Monticello kitchen upon returning from France.

There’s a lot more to learn from James Hemings’ complex, creative life and legacy. Stay tuned for the documentary “The Ghost In America’s Kitchen” (Cornerstone Pictures Production) due out later this year, plus a new season of my nonfiction podcast episodes featuring James as a recurring character.