The month of February is also known as Black History Month in the United States. It is observed across the world as a way to honor the history and hardships of the African American community. At Lee n’ Eddies, we thought it would be impactful to search for some of history’s best African American chefs. What we found was striking. Below, you will find the stories of 7 incredible African American chefs from the past and the present. We hope you will take the time to read about these incredible people and their contribution to history.
African American Chef: James Hemings
Let’s start with James Hemings. He was born in 1765 in the state of Virginia and became a slave to Thomas Jefferson at only 8 years old. At this time in American history, a young African American slave was not able to determine what his own future would look like. The only person who could make such a decision was his owner – Thomas Jefferson in this case.
Jefferson decided that James would accompany him to France for the primary purpose of training in the culinary arts. In fact, James Hemings is the first American to train as a chef in France! Through all of this, James was able to learn new languages, travel, read, and write. James also cooked the famous meal between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton which is now immortalized in the popular musical “Hamilton”.
What many people don’t know about James Hemings is that he was the chef who introduced many popular French foods into the American diet. These meals include European-style macaroni and cheese, French fries, crème brulé. James and Jefferson worked closely with each other for many years and eventually created the kitchen Jefferson always wanted. On February 5, 1976, James Hemings finally received his freedom and went on to become a distinguished professional chef in America.
African American Chef: Zephyr Wright
Now let’s talk about Zephyr Wright. She was born in 1915 in the state of Texas and became a maid and cook for Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson in 1942. She initially took this job as a way to pay for her college education but ended up staying with the family for the duration of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.
Zephyr cooked such delicious meals at the Johnson house that it quickly became a popular meeting place for the congressman and other politicians. The men most enjoyed when Zephyr prepared her delicious chili con queso and peach cobbler.
Over time, Zephyr became very close with Lady Bird and even became the personal chef for President Johnson during his time in office. It was during his presidency that she shared her experience with discrimination to the President. Many people believe that Zephyr played a key role in President Johnson’s decision to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, after he signed the document, he turned to Zephyr and handed her the pen. He said that she deserved it more than anybody else.
African American Chef: Abby Fisher
Up next is Abby Fisher. She was born in the state of South Carolina in 1831. Her mother was an enslaved woman to her father, a white farmer. From the time Abby was tall enough to reach the stove, she worked in the plantation’s kitchen. She quickly developed strong culinary skills and would go on to use those tools after they left the South, and slavery, behind.
Abby was best known for cooking delicious Southern-style food. More than anything else though, Abby was revered for her pickles and preserves. In fact, Abby won the bronze medal for best pickles and sauces and silver medal for best assortment of jellies and preserves in 1880.
Once she made a name for herself as a gifted chef in San Francisco, Abby was bombarded with requests for her recipes. While she was eager to share her knowledge with others, she never had access to a formal education. Luckily, Abby was a strong and courageous woman. She did not let this obstacle stand in the way of her publishing a cookbook. In 1881, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” was published for the first time and Abby became one of the first African American cookbook authors.
African American Chefs: Larry and Jereline Bethune
Now, we will share the story of Larry and Jereline Bethune. They first opened the Siesta Club in 1942 in Montgomery, Alabama. It started as a nightclub but later transitioned into a restaurant named “Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit”. Brenda’s became a pivotal location in African American history as it was the unofficial center for the local civil right movement.
In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. Her action sparked bus boycotts around the city and the staff at Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit helped organize parts of the boycott. Even after the bus boycotts ended, Jereline quietly taught other African Americans to read. Her efforts helped many people pass their literacy tests and overcome voting oppression during the Jim Crow era.
Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit is a pillar of the Montgomery community. They were an integral part of the bus boycott movement nearly 60 years ago and are still family-run and operated today. They continue to serve customers their famcous ribs, pig ears, and chopped pork.
African American Chef: Darryl Evans
Next up, we have Darryl Evans. He was born in 1961 in the state of Georgia. Darryl became a certified working chef in 1991 and began his career as executive chef at the Cherokee Town and Country Club. This club has been named the very best private club in America since 1997.
Darryl is most famous for being the first African American to participate in the International Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. There, he earned three gold medals and one silver medal.
Sadly, Darryl passed away in 2014 at the age of 52. He was inducted into the African American Chefs Hall of Fame for all his accomplishments in the culinary world.
African American Chef: Robert W. Lee
Now let’s talk about Robert W. Lee. He was born in 1911 in the state of Georgia. As a young boy, Robert observed a man who went in and out of the Biltmore Hotel and eventually discovered he was Eugene Bruauier. Bruauier was a French chef at the hotel and quickly took Robert under his wing. After 13 years of training with Bruauier and several years working in other hotels around the country, Robert joined the U.S. Army.
After being discharged from the Army, Robert returned to the Harrisburger Hotel where he was eventually appointed executive chef. He managed the kitchens with a staff made up entirely of African American chefs. He trained many people for culinary careers and even lectured at the Pennsylvania State University School of Hotel Management.
Robert received a medal from President Franklin Roosevelt during the war for the large number of troops he taught to cook.
African American Chef: Mariya Russell
Finally, we’re going to share the story of Mariya Russell. She was born in 1989 in the state of Ohio. After high school, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to study at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. After working at several well-known restaurants, Mariya was asked to head the omakase Kumiko and Kikkō.
At Kumiko and Kikkō, Mariya cooks in the omakase style. Essentially, she controls the dining experience for guests. She has thorough conversations with everyone and guides them towards dishes they may not have requested otherwise.
In 2019, Mariya Russel became the first African American woman to earn a Michelin star. She has said that she feels honored and overwhelmed to be in this position, but that she is baffled by how long it has taken for a black woman to break through the barriers.
Hopefully, you found the stories of these men and women to be as impactful as we have. It’s humbling and inspiring to hear their tales of tribulation and triumph. We hope you will continue to observe Black History Month in your own way and that this article can play a role in that celebration.