Remember: America’s first black chef

Posted: May 26, 2005 in Uncategorized

To be more precise, Rufus Estes was America’s first black chef with a cookbook.

I thought it would be fitting to highlight some of the historical aspects of this holiday weekend. Memorial day of course is a time to remember those that died for this country(I will feature one or two of those brave people over the weekend), but it is also a time for family get-togethers and good-ol’ conversation.

So while you are already dreaming of Mama’s sweet potato pie, “Unc’s” fried fish, “Sis’ ” ‘tayetah” salad, etc. , let’s pause for a moment and learn a little bit about someone who what “throwing down” before any of us were born.


Rufus Estes was born a slave in Murray County, Tennessee in 1857. The name Estes was not a family name, but that of his master, D.J. Estes, who owned his mother’s family, including his six older brothers and two older sisters. As a young boy during the Civil War, Estes had to work hard carrying water and tending the cows, since all the older boys left to fight with the North. Two of his brothers died in the war, and his mother, suffering greatly, moved the family to Estes’ grandmother’s home in Nashville in 1867. Estes attended school there, but left after one term to take care of his mother, milking cows and delivering meals to field laborers to earn money for her.

At age sixteen, Estes began working at a Nashville restaurant. When he turned twenty-four in 1881, he left home to work at 77 Clark Street in downtown Chicago (presumably a restaurant) for a salary of ten dollars a week. From 1883 until 1897, he worked for the Pullman railway car service, and catered to many of the prominent figures of his day, including Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, Ignace Paderewski, the Polish pianist and politician, President Benjamin Harrison (1889 – 1903) and President Grover Cleveland (1884-1888, 1892-1896) who was responsible for ordering the U.S. Army to crush the Pullman strike of 1894. That same year, no doubt in response to Pullman’s wage cuts, the catalyst for the strike, Estes set sail from Vancouver on the Empress of China, visiting Tokyo while in service with Mr. and Mrs. Nathan A. Baldwin. After leaving Pullman permanently in 1897, Estes took charge of a $20,000 private rail car owned by railroad tycoon Arthur Stillwell. He managed the car even as it changed hands, until 1907, when he became chef of the Chicago subsidiary companies of United States Steel Corporation. He published his cookbook in 1911.

  1. CHEF CHRIS B. says:




  2. Denise Adams says:

    This is was interested. I never had heard of Mr. Rufus Estes.

    Thank you.

  3. Malik says:

    Thank you for making this infomation known. I feel enlighten and inspired I am even more determined to achieve my executive chef certification now. We don’t hear about us much in the culinary arts and food industry in such a powerful and positive light.


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