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Soul Food: Chefs

African American Cookery: History & Resources

Notable African American chefs

Jefferson Evans

Jefferson Evans was the first African-American graduate of Culinary Institute of America, class of 1947.  The Jefferson Evans Award was established by the Black Culinarian Alliance (BCA) in 1995 in honor of Chef Evans


Leah Chase

Photograph of Leah Chase Leah Chase is known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine.  She has been the recipient of numerous awards.   Chase was born in 1923 to Creole parents in Madisonville, Louisiana.  Chase moved to New Orleans to attend high school.  After high school she worked in the Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter and is currently chef at Dooky Chase Restaurant.





Chef Joe Randall

Chef Joe Randall is the owner of the nationally acclaimed cooking school in Savannah, Chef Joe Randall's Cooking School.  According to Randall. he started the school in 2000 "as a facility where I could use the food of the South, the Low Country, and the Atlantic Georgia Coast as a vehicle to dispel the myths and misconceptions many visitors and locals alike held about Savannah and her cuisine."


Sallie Ann Robinson

Sallie Ann Robinson, a native of Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, is a celebrity chef and cookbook author known for her efforts to preserve the sea island's Gullah culture.  Robinson worked with other natives of Daufuskie Island during the late 1980's to launch Daufuskie Island Day, an annual event that pays tribute to the culture of the island natives.


Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis was a chef, culinary teacher and cookbook author.  She was born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia and learned to cook from her Aunt Jenny.  "They used a wood-fired stove for all their cooking and didn’t have measuring spoons or scales, so instead they used coins, piling baking powder on pennies, salt on dimes, and baking soda on nickels. Edna could tell when a cake was done just by listening."  In 1948 Lewis opened a restaurant in New York City with John Nicholson, Cafe Nicholson.  The restaurant, known for its Southern style of cooking, was a huge success.  Lewis left the Cafe in 1954.  Over the years, she lived and worked in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.  Lewis did all her own cooking up until 1999.  She has received numerous awards, including the first James Beard Living Legend award in 1995.  Lewis died in 2006 at her home Decatur, Georgia.


Patrick Clark

Patrick Clark, an award winning chef, died from congestive heart failure in 1998 at the age of 42.  Clark trained and worked in England and France and then returned to his native New York City to cook at several restaurants. He "fused his French culinary training with a love of Southern cuisine to become a passionate innovator of American regional cooking."  In 1980, he became well known as the original chef of Odeon. He was also a chef at Regine's and Cafe Luxembourg.  Prior to his death, Clark was Executive Chef at Tavern on the Green.


Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is an Eco Chef, food activist, and author of several books including Vegan Soul Kitchen. "His goal is to teach young people and people of color that they can eat healthy, fresh, seasonal food and even meat free if they want to. He remembers cooking food from the garden with his sister, his parents and grandparents. He also notes that when he was growing up, meat was just a part of the meal rather than the central component." Bryant was born in 1976 in Memphis, Tennessee and graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. He currently lives in Oakland, California.


Sylvia Woods

Sylvia Woods, author and "Queen of Soul Food," was the founder and owner of the famous Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem since 1962.  She received many awards. The Woods family created the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation that provides scholarships to children in Harlem. Woods retired on her 80th birthday and turned over her culinary accomplishments to her children and grandchildren. Sadly, Woods died on July 19th, 2012 at the age of 86.


Rufus Estes

Rufus Estes was born a slave in Murray County, Tennessee in 1857. In 1911, he published his own cookbook, Good Things to Eat as Recommended by Rufus. Estes had worked for years as a chef for Pullman, a private railroad company. It was there that he was noticed for his culinary expertise.  He prepared meals for the famous and wealthy, including American Presidents.  In 1907 Estes became chef of the executive dining for U.S. Steel Corporation.  He died in 1936 (?) and was referred to in a local Chicago newspaper as "one of the best known chefs of Chicago."


African American chefs in the White House


Presumed portrait of Hercules, George Washington's enslaved cook, by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Hercules was born around 1755 and was one of Washington's slaves.  He was the head cook at Mount Vernon by 1786. Hercules' wife was Alice, a "dower" slave for Martha Washington.  They had 3 children.  This is noted in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census.

James Hemings

James Hemings, born a slave in 1765, was the first professional African-American chef. When he was 9 years old, he was sold to Thomas Jefferson. James was the older brother of Sally Hemings. Jefferson took Hemings to Paris where he learned how to become a chef.


Hattie's Chicken Shack

Hattie (Gray) Austin opened her famous Hattie's Chicken Shack in Saratoga Springs in 1938.  Hattie had no record of her birth but thought she was born around 1900.  She died in 1998. She was raised in Saint Francisville, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge.  "It wasn't just serving good food and fun that has made Hattie so well loved. It was also what Hattie did in the community. In addtion to donating to many local charities throughout the years, Hattie also helped many young people, giving them work when no one else would, helping them through school and even taking them into her own home and nuturing them like family."  ( Although Hattie sold the restaurant, southern and Louisiana cuisine remain on the menu choices, including her famous fried chicken.