Moving into the White House has got to be a daunting task. All those rooms and corridors to navigate. All those staffers’ names to remember. All those previous executive orders to rescind. But, decisive though he appears to be, President Donald Trump has not yet appointed a White House chef.
The current Executive Chef at the White House is Cristeta Pasia Comerford, a native of the Philippines and a former contestant on Iron Chef America (she and her teammate, Bobby Flay, whupped Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali). Comerford has been Executive Chef at the White House since 2005.
Of course, the Trumps can bring in their own chef, and a few days ago the Hollywood Reporter wrote about three likely culinary contenders with close ties to the new First Family. Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been top chef at Mar-a-Lago, but in an interview with the Reporter’s reporter, Beth Landman, Vongerichten hedged about accepting the post if it were offered. As the head of a restaurant empire, Vongerichten said, “I have to focus on my restaurants and I have them globally, including in China. I would be concerned about being perceived as political.” Joe Isidori, who catered the Donald-and Melania wedding, also has expressed more interest in running his restaurants rather than tackling the White House job. But another possible candidate, David Burke, who operates the restaurant at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Washington, D.C., appears interested. The White House, he said to Landman, is “not a restaurant, so you don’t have to make money and just think of the resources — you could get anything you want.”
For our first president, the issue was not finding a chef, it was keeping him.
George Washington’s chef at Monticello was a slave named Hercules (c.1754-sometime after 1797). He came to Mount Vernon in 1767 and worked as the ferryman. By 1786 he was the chef in the Washingtons’ kitchen. How he made such a dramatic transition is a mystery — in the case of Hercules, as is true of almost all slaves in America, there are large gaps in the story that we just can’t fill. We do know that Hercules had talent, and George and Martha were delighted with the meals he turned out for the family and for their guests.
Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, grew up knowing Hercules — he called him Uncle Harkless. Of Hercules’ skill as a chef, Custis described him as “a celebrated artiste… as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.” Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who had a passion for French cuisine, Washington favored traditional American fare, but of a very high caliber, and that’s what Hercules delivered every day.
So when Washington was elected president, he brought Hercules to New York, and then to Philadelphia. Washington entertained distinguished foreign guests on Tuesdays, and Congressmen and their wives on Thursdays. At these 20-course dinners the food was splendid, but conversation usually lagged. Washington demanded a level of formality that stifled conversation, and it didn’t help that he resented being obliged every Thursday to dine with his political opponents. One frequent guest to the president’s residence lamented that dinners with the Washingtons were “remarkably dull affairs,” and reported that GW had a habit of displaying his displeasure with his guests by drumming the edge of the table with his silverware.
And Philadelphia presented Washington with another problem: Pennsylvania law granted freedom to any slave who lived in the state for six consecutive months. GW got around this by rotating his slaves, shipping them back to Mount Vernon for a time, then bringing them back to Philly. Hercules was part of this rotation, yet by and large he appears to have enjoyed himself in Philadelphia. Washington permitted him to sell scraps, cooking fat, and animal hides, which netted him about $100-200 per year. He spent a great deal of his money on fine clothes. In a portrait believed to be the Washingtons’ chef, and said to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart, Hercules wears a toque, the classic tall chef’s hat, and a white-on-white silk vest.
Then things went awry, and again, we aren’t certain about the details. One version says that Hercules began saving to buy his freedom. All we know is that GW shipped his chef back to Mount Vernon where any thought of emanicipation was a day-dream. Furthermore, instead of returning to the kitchen, Hercules was sent into the fields to dig clay for bricks and to do heavy landscaping work in the Mount Vernon gardens. By winter of 1797, Hercules had had enough. He ran away on February 22 — Washington’s birthday. And Washington, for all of his political, social, and military connections, was never able to find him.
Note to President Trump: Don’t tick off a great chef.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
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