The First Celebrity Chef in America was enslaved! Chef Hercules

My husband and I are “foodies.” We love to try various cuisines, from hidden mama and papa dives to food trucks and even fine dining. We know our Chefs, and I am a Food Network “junkie.” However, before Wolf Gang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, James Beard, Marcus Samuelsson, or even B. Smith, there was Chef Hercules, also known as “Hercules”, “Uncle Harkless” or “Hercules Posey.” 

Hercules Posey was the first celebrity chef in America. He was not just a cook; he was a slave who gained fame as a “Chef of fine French cuisine” and “simple Frontier cooking” for President George Washington at his Mount Vernon home in the 1780s, and his Philadelphia home, in the early 1790s.

Family Life

Hercules was born in 1733 in Washington. He had married a dower slave, Lame Alice, a seamstress at Mount Vernon, and they had three children, Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). Alice died in 1787, leaving Hercules to raise the young children.

George Washington connection to Chef

George Washington may have purchased Hercules in 1767 when he was a 13-year-old. Hercules worked in the kitchen learning under the first lady, Martha Washington’s longtime slave cook, Old Doll, and her daughter Lucy. 

The Washington family appreciated Hercules’s expertise as a cook, and he had special privileges. He made “from one to two hundred dollars a year” by selling the leftovers from the presidential kitchen. Hercules, unlike other Slaves, would enter and exit through the “front entrance” in Pres. Washington’s Philadelphia home. It is believed that Hercules, though still a slave, would have enjoyed occasional company with Black Freemen. Thomas Jefferson’s Cook James Hemings’ was not your average slave; Others would see Hercules walking in the streets of Philadelphia, sporting a velvet waistcoat and gold-handled cane.

“Chef Hercules was a very proud and confident man, whose culinary skills and status were recognized throughout the nation, 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.” According to historian Kelley Fanto Deetz, author of Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.

George Washington’s step-grandson and others in the family would call him Uncle Heckless. 

Writing from George Washington Parke Custis 

“The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless.
He was a dark brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of remarkable history.” – George Washington Parke Custis 

 Culinary Mentors

Hercules also had a culinary mentor by the name of “Samuel Fraunces.” Historians at this time do not know what race Samuel was.

James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s Chef, learned to fuse this new Virginian cookery with fine French Cuisine, which he knew while in Paris. That became another level to Southern cuisine. It was the unique James Hemings fusion that both Washington and Jefferson preferred. Hercules must have learned a thing or two from James Hemings for him to have to title of “Chef of fine French cuisine” and “simple Frontier cooking.” Jefferson’s residence in Philadelphia was just down Market Street from the President’s house.

 Mount Vernon   The kitchen in Mount Vernon (pictured) where Hercules used to cook for George Washington

Foods Prepared

Chef Hercules and the first lady of the kitchen prepared hoecakes and smoked hams and started “British fusion cooking,” which includes more than 1,000 years of English, Irish, Welsh, & Scottish cooking and a hint of Roman influence. They incorporated Native cooking traditions, seasoning it with African spice, flavor, and ingenuity, creating colonial Virginian cookery.

Mount Vernon

Hercules was about 36 when he moved from the kitchen at Mount Vernon to the Philadelphia kitchen in about 1790. A White Chef, “Chef John Vicar,” has been dismissed from Head Chef and Hercules. He worked with eight people, including presidential steward Samuel Fraunces, some assistant cooks (including his own enslaved teenage son Richmond), and several waiters. He cooked in a large hearth, a fireplace filled with cooking equipment. Before taking residence in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania state legislature had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. This law freed any enslaved person who stayed on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six continuous months. To skirt the law, Washington decided to send all of his slaves back to Mount Vernon every time the six-month deadline was about to toll. They would stay at the plantation for a few weeks and then return to Philadelphia to restart the “freedom clock.”

His Escape

A Birthday Shock from Washington’s Chef by Craig LaBan

Hercules did not escape from his privileged post in Philadelphia in early March, as had been widely believed. But in 1796, his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a visitor’s saddlebags. Washington was immediately suspicious because slaves didn’t have money, although Chef Hercules made about $200 a year selling leftovers that the President approved. Hercules felt it was time to escape with his son. On President George Washington’s 65th birthday- 2/22/1797, Hercules decided to escape Slavery and leaving son Richmond and the other children behind, and he did.

Key Points:

  • Hercules was the first celebrity chef in America. 
  • Hercules is also known as “Hercules” or “Uncle Harkless” or “Hercules Posey.” 
  • He was not just any cook. He was a black slave who gained fame as a “Chef of fine French cuisine” and “simple Frontier cooking” for President George Washington.
  • When his wife died, Hercules raised their young children.
  • George Washington may have purchased Hercules in 1767 when he was a 13-year-old
  • his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a visitor’s saddlebags.
  • Hercules made about $200 a year selling leftovers that the President approved.
  • On Washington’s birthday, Hercules fled Washington’s Virginia plantation, where he had been transferred and put on hard labor.
  • According to Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer, it is said that the painting (see photo at top) is maybe chef Hercules portrait, supposedly painted by Gilbert Stuart. Experts have recently dismissed those attributions, and both subject and painter are now unknown.

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Work Cited

Hercules, Chef to President Washington — James Hemings …. https://www.jameshemingsfoundation.org/blog/2017/3/7/hercules-chef-to-president-washington

Hercules (chef) – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercules_(chef)

Hercules, Master Chef (c.1755 – d.) – Genealogy. https://www.geni.com/people/Hercules-Master-Chef/6000000018933399344

The man who fed the first president — and hungered for …. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-man-who-fed-the-first-president-and-hungered-for-freedom/2017/02/24/7897d572-f475-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html

The man who fed the first president — and hungered for …. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-man-who-fed-the-first-president-and-hungered-for-freedom/2017/02/24/7897d572-f475-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html

Meet Hercules, One of America’s Early Celebrity Chefs …. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/hercules-celebrity-chef-george-washington

Slaves in the President’s House: Hercules. – US History. http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/hercules.php

Hercules, il cuoco di George Washington. Con Gilbert …. https://aaaaccademiaaffamatiaffannati.blogspot.com/2016/09/hercules-il-cuoco-di-george-washington.html

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