Food So Good, He Wouldn’t Bring it to the White House

Meet Chef Patrick Clark, the Black man who turned down a job as the White House Executive Chef. Bill and Hillary Clinton personally invited Chef Clark to the prestigious role after they tasted his remarkable food at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C. But as we know, money talks and the White House was unwilling to match his current $100,000 salary so he declined the position.

While Clark seemingly made a mistake by not taking the job, the rest of his career proved that he was, in fact, too good for the White House. In 1994, Chef Clark won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Award for the Mid-Atlantic region, becoming the first African-American chef to receive this honor. This would have never been possible had he decided to work at the White House as it is not considered a restaurant.

Patrick Clark was the standard way before celebrity TV chefs. As restaurant-going became a social pastime in NYC, Clark rode a huge wave of popularity. A big man full of personality, he effortlessly attracted the attention of customers and his food never disappointed. His casual yet sophisticated French cooking astonished guests and gained him tremendous notoriety within the community.

New York City is widely known as a food mecca so it comes as no surprise that fierce competition exists among chefs. Nevertheless, Clark rose as the “cream of the crop” as soon as he stepped on the food scene. At age 25, as the original Executive Chef at The Odeon in Tribeca, Clark became the first NYC chef to merge the bistro-style with fine dining.

What made Clark so special was his ability to fuse flavors and cooking techniques in ways that no other chefs could at the time. A Brooklyn native, Clark grew up in a household filled with the spirit of cooking. His father was an accomplished chef in Manhattan who often allowed his son to visit his kitchens.

By age 10, Clark was already experimenting with his own recipes under the direction of his mother, who also had a knack for creating fine dining experiences at their home. Those childhood experiences, combined with his classical training in England and France as an adult, made Clark a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, Chef Clark’s culinary pursuits were cut short by the onset of congestive heart failure, resulting in his untimely death in 1998. Clark’s life work paved the way for future Black chefs by expanding upon standard European techniques to create entirely new styles of cuisine and defying the stereotype of Black people only being able to cook “Black food.”

As a historical side note, Chef Clark was not the first Black Chef to turn down a job cooking for the President of the United States. During the 18th century, one of Thomas Jefferson’s former slaves, James Hemings, also rejected an offer to serve as the Executive Chef at Monticello after Jefferson became president. Hemings, as a slave, had the rare opportunity to undergo culinary training in Paris for 5 years. Upon returning to America, he successfully negotiated his freedom. Read more about his story here.