Black Chef, White House: African American Cooks in the President’s Kitchen


Hidden Kitchens turns its focus on the president’s kitchen and some of the first cooks to feed the Founding Fathers — Hercules and James Hemings — the enslaved chefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Hercules, described as a “dandy,” had eight assistants — stewards, butlers, undercooks, waiters. He cooked in a huge fireplace — hearth cooking. He walked through the streets of Philadelphia in a velvet waistcoat and a gold-handled cane. When Washington was getting ready to leave Philadelphia to return to Mt. Vernon, Hercules escaped. Washington sent out search parties and offered rewards. Hercules was never found.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed minister to France. He took with him his body servant, 19-year-old James Hemings (the brother of Sally Hemings), to master the French style of cooking. Hemings apprenticed with well-known French caterers and a pastry chefs and assumed the role of chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s kitchen on the Champs-Elysees, earning $48 a year. In 1793, Hemings petitioned Jefferson for his freedom. Jefferson consented upon one condition — he must train someone to take his place. After teaching his brother, Peter Hemings, the cooking techniques he had learned in France and at home, James Hemings became a free man.

These stories begin a long connection of presidents and their African-American cooks, including the story of Zephyr Wright, President Lyndon Johnson’s cook who worked for the family for 27 years. Johnson spoke to Zephyr Wright about the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington. She attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Johnson gave her the pen he used to sign the document.