No, I am not speaking of the Hercules we all know from classical mythology. I want to introduce you to one of the earliest American chefs, in fact, George Washington’s executive chef! Meet Hercules, a slave from 1770 to 1797.
It might have been a long day in the executive kitchen, but when it was over, chef Hercules hit the streets of Philly in his finest looking for the place the fashionable people were known to congregate, on Market Street. His attire was different than any other slave, but this revered chef had a flair for fashion and knew what he wanted, which is how he became one of the most famous chefs in the early American republic.
He stepped out in his blue velvet-collared coat, shined buckles on polished shoes, while atop his head, the enslaved cook wore a tricorn hat, and a long watch-chain dangled from the side of his black silk pants. A gold-headed cane firmly in hand, he drew considerable attention as strangers gawked and those known to him bowed. They admitted he was the dandiest, most polished gentleman of the time.
Historians are as enchanted with him today, which is a testament to his charisma and culinary skills. The author of Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine, Kelley Fanto Deetz, says Hercules might have been the first celebrity chef in America. His culinary skills and status were recognized nation-wide, and he was a very confidant, proud man. “He demanded perfection from his staff in the presidential kitchen and he commanded attention and respect from the public as well– something unheard of for enslaved laborers of his period.” she writes.
Although the history is sketchy about when exactly Washington moved him from his house slave to the kitchen, Washington’s 1786 diary entry mentioned him as a cook and within three years, he promoted him to head chef.
Hercules was very precise and disciplined, mastering cooking techniques and skills such as hearth cooking, according to Adrian Miller, author and James Beard award winner who wrote The President’s Kitchen Cabinet.
Cooking in a fireplace was his biggest skill according to Miller, who added that he would have had to learn how to tend a cooking fire, what utensils to use, how to change the elevation of cooking vessels hanging in the fire to get the desired cooking effect, and how to cook in warm ashes. He also ran an orderly, sanitary kitchen and his underlings knew they were in trouble if they didn’t meet his exacting standards.
He was known to be mild-mannered outside the workplace, but possessed surprisingly iron discipline, shining the most at dinners Washington hosted for members of Congress says Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, who wrote a memoir many decades after his father’s death.
In it he also stated that these dinners Washington hosted would be hectic and crowded affairs, but under Hercules, it was orderly as his underlings flew in every direction trying to execute his orders, while Hercules seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.
Whatever specialties Hercules perfected were unfortunately lost to history, but Deetz speculates they were probably “typical colonial fare, kicked up a notch.” Foods like oyster stew, braised fish, custards, puddings and fresh breads. All he knows is they made Hercules famous and even his leftovers were a hot commodity.
He reportedly made decent money as well, which he put to good use on his fashionable clothes, enabling him to enter prominent social circles and garner a great amount of respect. He behaved like a freeman, and enjoyed popularity and fame, eventually paving the way for his escape. That’s a story for another day.