Personality Profile - Monticello's Cooks

James Hemings

James Hemings was nineteen years old when Jefferson decided to bring him to France "for a particular purpose." Hemings spent the next three years as an apprentice with a variety of French caterers and cooks, and then he took charge of the kitchen in Jefferson's residence on the Champs-Elysées. His creations were served to authors and scientists, and a succession of European aristocrats from the Duc de la Rochefoucauld to the Princess Lubomirska.

From Trainee to Trainer

Drawing of French Bakery, or patisserie.Back in America, James Hemings was Jefferson's chef in Philadelphia and at Monticello. When he asked to be freed, his manumission was made contingent on training another Monticello slave in "the art of cookery." His brother Peter was thus the next head cook at Monticello. (A Frenchman, however, became the next chef in the President's House when James Hemings declined the post.)

"Choice" Meals

Soon, African-American apprentices from Monticello were at work in Washington under Jefferson's chef, Honoré Julien. Edith Fossett and Fanny spent several years at the President's House, and took over the Monticello kitchen on Jefferson's retirement from the presidency in 1809. There, they transformed what Jefferson called "plantation fare" into "choice" meals.

Sharing Skills

The skills and recipes that came to Monticello were passed from one family member to another, so that when Edith Fossett's son (and James Hemings's great-nephew) Peter Fossett became free in 1850 and moved to Cincinnati, he used some of those same talents to build up one of that city's most successful catering firms.

--condensed from an essay, "From Plantation Fare to French Cuisine," by Senior Research Historian Lucia C. Stanton, Monticello, Volume 4, No. 2 (Fall 1993).

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Image Credits

  • "The Patisserie," from L'Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers of Denis Diderot.

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