Posts tagged #President's House

America's First Presidential Chef Was a Slave

His name was Hercules and he was the first chef to serve an American President and his guests. Visitors to the George Washington's table wrote about the unforgettable meals he created and fellow chefs stepped aside when he walked through the market. Yet he was slave.

Yes, a slave in the household of a general, who fought for freedom so gallantly, he was elected the first president of America, the world's daring and still evolving experiment in self-determination.  He was a slave in Philadelphia, the open city of brotherly love, founded on the Quakers' universal principles that all people should be free and equal.

Yes, Hercules was a slave but a slave who never surrender his identity or profession to enslavenment. Originally brought to George Washington's country estate of Mount Vernon as a child slave from Washington's wife Martha's home, he was initially viewed as too weak and small for field work and so was assigned to the household kitchens.

There he learned to prepare the dishes most enjoyed by the future president and his visiting neighbors. Because hotels as such did not yet exist in America, the landed gentry of Virginia entertained largely on their estates so twenty guests for dinner was not unusual. At Mount Vernon, Hercules learned how to handle it all and the resulting creativity enabled him to experience a growing sense of self identity that would later bloom for the talented young chef in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, not Washington DC, was the first capital of the United States.  The District of Columbia was at this time a swamp slowing being drained for future construction. The soaring capital dome and the gleaming White House were then only drawings on an architect's desk.  So for the sake of order and stability, the first president of the nation resided in Philadelphia, waiting for the buildings (and the new govenment) to be established.

The Philadelphian house selected for the new President (and where Hercules would live and work for seven long steam-filled years) had hosted the rich and famous before. Originally built in 1760 by the rich widow Mary Lawrence Mastersy, it had previously hosted Richard Penn - the grandson of Pennsylvania's founder, Commanding General Howe of the then occupying British forces, Major General Benedict Arnold while still an American patriot, the elegant first French Consul John Holker and finally the successful merchant Robert Morris in 1785.     

This was the house that Hercules entered when he was summoned from the kitchens of Mount Vernon to those of Philadelphia. And while Washington was asking that the house on Market Street be enlarged, Hercules found the kitchen there was smaller and the responsibilities larger - and far more historic then ever before.

Undetoured, Hercules soon set to work ordering the kitchen and his staff of eight. Like any great chef, he demanded order and absolute cleanliness in his kitchen. Every pot was shined and hung in its proper place. The produce was always purchased fresh every day and stored with care.

White aprons and clean hands were his order for the day, every day. Sloppiness and dirt were viewed as second only to the sin of indifference.

In short, though a slave, Hercules ran his kitchen as a professional because he was one.  The standards he set still continue to this day in the gleaming modern (but not much larger kitchens) of the White House in Washngton D.C.

Hercules' standards of professionalism extended beyond the kitchen.  When he walked in the markets or strolled on the shaded streets after dinner, he dressed in elegant black and wore shiny silver buckles on his shoes. He held his head high for both his race and his profession.  Those he passed commonly nodded their heads in his direction as a sign of respect for his legendary talents and his courage of presence though he was, as all knew, an unfreed slave.

In the teeming markets and shops of Philadelphia, Hercules met many freed slaves and he longed to join them in the liberties that the new Constitition had so boldly promised. Year after year he work and saved the side money he was allowed to earn through extra jobs.  

When told finally to return to Mount Vernon as Washington's presidency ended, he chose instead to melt into the supportive freedom-loving atmosphere of Philadelphia and claim his freedom. At last he was free. But at a cost.

As an escaped or "run away" slave, he was always subject to recapture. To be free he had to be invisible, something no chef can be to his staff or vendors. To survive he had to set aside the skills of a lifetime and faded into history.

Behind him he left a legacy of standards, hallmarks of quality and professionalism that every chef is free to claim as his own each time he puts his whites, turns to his staff and says, "Gentlemen, let us begin. Our guests are arriving." 

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011