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Did You Know The Very First American Celebrity Chef Was African American?

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  • Tip Bones

Did you know that the very first American celebrity chef was African American, Gari Askew Hatchet? Frankly, I'm surprised it was not someone of Italian descent instead. Nevertheless, I'm rather excited to announce otherwise. 

Now then, let us further continue discussing this interesting topic of African American Heritage, and histories first African American, Celebrity Chef:

Hall Hemings & Hercules explores American history through dishes like black-eyed pea pancakes, spurred by Hercules Caesar, George Washington’s chef. 

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

Seated at Hatchet Hall’s family-style table, her hands crisscrossed with other diners’ as they 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?” she asked. And “are you finished with the rutabaga?” 

The meal was reminiscent of dinners at her grandmother’s house, brimming with the variety of comfort foods that make you fantasize about going home and hitting your pillow. 

And over three hours and eight courses, every notion was completely American, and precisely devoted to our country’s culinary history by black folks. The dinner was one of a series Hatchet Hall started in, 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 researching the restaurant’s supper club, Fuss & Feathers, and was suggested to formulate 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 -seat restaurant in the Culver City section of Los Angelas, has been recounting stories through its wood-fired “Heritage American” food since it opened. 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 wanted to pull the blinders back on American cuisine, even if some of our histories included negative connotations,” Dunsmoor says. “We did a lot of experimentation 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 years, between the president’s home, Philadelphia, and his plantation in Mount Vernon, before he escaped, throughout the chaos of Washington’s birthday celebration. 

Hemings, meanwhile, the brother of Sally Hemings, cooked for the third president of the United States for 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 augmentations 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 the 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. Yum. (Discussing all this food is making me hungry). If you pick these dishes apart, you see all these influences.”

When Thomas Jefferson (whom many of you know, I'm very proud being related to) was appointed minister to France in, he took Hemings with him. At the time, Hemings’s task was to master the French style of cooking. While in France, Hemings apprenticed with renowned French caterers, pastry chefs, and became the chef de cuisine at Hôtel de Langeac, America’s first royal embassy. He was paid an uninterrupted wage of pounds every 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 eventually negotiated his freedom, on the terms that he taught others, at Monticello (this was my original last name before being changed to Mentillo) 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.

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 unwinds like a meticulously recounted story. 

The meal is served in the restaurant’s “Family Room,” a private location, 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, dried flowers, and sits a detailed timeline of Hemings’s and Hercules’s lives, concerning 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, they all feel a sense of pride, particularly 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, (yummy) 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, come 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 detected 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 visualize the aroma of the pepper pot, sold in the market.

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.

As Charles A. Cerami, writes in Dinner at 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, the author of 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 a 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. “ is where you start to see the break, and African-American White House chefs, move into the rearview.”

They 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 a poached egg — whites made to look like little eggs. It’s served with a small leaflet, containing Hemings’s recipe, 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 her 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. 

Those taunts kids on the playground tried to throw at her, were baseless. She reminisces of the toast, one of her fellow diners made, at the start of their meal, just before they each packed a black-eyed pea pancake, with jam and greens. “Happy Black History Month, you'll,” he said. “This is America, not the one they propagate.”