Robert W. Lee
January 1, 1911 to November 24, 1999
A Legacy To Honor by Chef Joe Randall August 1, 1998
Giving Honor to God and to the thousands of African-American chefs and cooks who came before me, establishing the very foundation for our great cuisine. Without their mastery and contribution, we would have had no basis to forge upon. Chef Robert W. Lee, is one of those worthy heirs to a great tradition of southern cooking we should honor. Chef Lee started his culinary journey in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of seven years old around 1918. An education was not a priority at the time, surviving was the task at hand to be able to work was to be able to eat. His father was deceased and he needed to help at home. While in the streets doing the best he could, he observed a man who went in and out of the Biltmore Hotel every day who appeared to be doing quite well. Young Robert discovered the man was Eugene Bruauier the French chef at the hotel and soon became his personal boy. Chef Lee worked and trained under Chef Bruauier for thirteen years. He then worked at the King and Prince Beach Club on Saint Simons Island, Georgia. Robert moved to Charleston, South Carolina He relocated to Atlanta in 1939 where he worked at the Hotel Henry Grady until he was lured to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania around 1939 by the chef he had worked for in Charleston. Chef Lee worked as a cook at the Harrisburger Hotel until 1942.
He then joined the U.S. Army where he became a mess sergeant and instructor, returning to the Harrisburger Hotel as a cook in 1946, after being discharged from the army. Over the next year, the Hotel experienced a rapid turnover of executive chefs. Finally, Chef Lee was recommended for the position of executive chef which he excepted over the next twenty-seven years.
Chef Lee managed the kitchens at the Harrisburger Hotel, with an entire African-American staff. He trained many young men and women for careers in the culinary field. Lecturing and demonstrating at Pennsylvania State University School of Hotel Management. Chef Lee built a clientele in several restaurants within the hotel and maintained a dedicated following throughout those years. In 1966 the owner of the Harrisburger Hotel died. Chef Lee excepted the position as executive chef at the Blue Ridge Country Club, where he worked until the fall of 1969. He took over as executive chef at the Sheraton Hotel Harrisburg for the Archris Hotel Corporation of Boston. His outstanding achievements in the Culinary Arts were recognized by naming him Chef of the Year from 1970 thru 1979. Chef Lee retired in 1979 and lived with his devoted wife Geneva in Harrisburg, PA until his death November 24, 1999. African-American Chefs And Cooks
Master Chef Will Finally Get His Just Desserts
by Sue Gleiter The Patriot News Harrisburg, PA
When Robert W. Lee was cooking at the Harrisburger Hotel, the lines stretched for blocks from its doors. No other menu in town offered crabcakes, chicken pot pies and chopped chicken livers prepared in classic Southern style by the city’s first African-American executive chef. “Harrisburg, as far as food, was not on the map until I came here,” says Lee, now 87.
The man who put Harrisburg on the culinary map will be inducted into the national Hall of Fame Toques will be tipped tonight when Lee is inducted into the African-American Chefs Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Harrisburg Ramada Inn. Lee was part of a line of African-American chefs brought North by wealthy northern restaurant owners during the 1930s and 1940s. “He infused that Southern flavor and skill,” said Joe Randall, president of A Taste of Heritage Foundation, which sponsors the Hall of Fame. “It was unheard of, of him being an executive chef. There have always been blacks in the kitchen, but executive chefs, they were usually European.” For more than two decades, Lee worked as executive chef at the Harrisburger along North Third Street, where he “made the menus, hired and fired” and trained hundreds of African-American chefs. “We didn’t use cans like the chefs do today,” Lee says. “I’m about the last person who would know about preparation from the bottom.” Lee made all of the food for the hotel from scratch, including mayonnaise and dressings. “When I started, you could buy a hamburger for 25 cents.
Today, everyone is working off of recipes. I did not see a cookbook until I came north,” he said. Today, Lee cooks most of his meals at the North 15th Street home he shares with his wife, Geneva. A recent family dinner included boiled pot with potatoes, carrots and turnips. Looking over photos and newspaper clippings from his career in the kitchen, Lee said he once turned down a shot at becoming a prize fighter. “I had a chance to sign a $35,000 contract, and I didn’t.” His cooking career started in Atlanta, where he raised his brother and sister and worked at the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel at age 9. Jobs would take Lee to Charleston, S.C., and an exclusive club on Georgia1s St. Simons Island. In 1939, Lee crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and went to work at the Harrisburger for $75 a week. It was there he met his “adopted father,” hotel manager James Johnston. “He was a gentlemen. When he gave me the chef’s job, I did not feel qualified, but he gave me the chance with his quarter million dollar business.”
During his World War II Army service, Lee taught cooking and received a medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the extraordinary number of cooks he trained. After the war, Lee returned to the Harrisburger and worked at the hotel until its 1968 closing, then became executive chef at the blue ridge Country Club and the Sheraton Hotel Harrisburg. Over the years, Lee developed an award-winning reputation for his crabcakes, stuffings, hors d1oeuvres and salads. But when Lee won his first cooking competition at age 23, he was denied the opportunity to receive a prize before an audience. “At that time, the blacks could not go to the front to get their recognition,” he said. “I didn’t have much feeling toward it. I was just happy enough to make beautiful hors d’doeuvres.”
Later in his career, Lee was asked to do a cooking demonstration at a York hotel, but was greeted by a sign directing blacks to the rear entrance. Lee threatened to leave until management agreed to let him walk through the front door. Otherwise, Lee said he did not let discrimination slow the progress of his career. He’ll be feted tonight by the Washington, D.C.-based foundation and the City of Harrisburg for forging ahead in an industry once dominated by whites.”It shook me up,” Lee said of his latest honor. Randall and nine other mid-state chefs who worked under Lee at the Harrisburger Hotel will also be recognized after Lee’s induction.
Chef Lee’s Crab Cakes recipe
6 lbs. back fin lump crab meat
1 cup melted butter
12 slices of bread
6 tbsp. finely chopped onion
1 tsp. white pepper
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tbsp. Tobasco sauce
2 tbsp. dry mustard
2 1/2 cups mayonnaise
2 tbsp. Accent Saute finely chopped onion in butter. Dice white bread fine.
Mix well in bowl: melted butter, white pepper, salt, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, raw eggs, mayonnaise and Accent. Add to mixture, folding in lightly, crab meat from which shells have been removed. Place mixture in refrigerator for two hours before making crab cakes.
Weigh and shape into 2 1/4 oz. cakes. Dip in flour–then moisten in egg dip–bread in toasted fresh bread crumbs. Fry in deep fat for 5 minutes at 275*.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 egg
Mix these ingredients well. Serves: 30 5-oz. portions (2-2 1/2 oz. crab cakes).
Robert W. `Chef` Lee Obituary by Sue Gleiter The Patriot News Harrisburg, PA November 27, 1999
Robert W. `Chef` Lee, a retired chef who was honored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died Wednesday in Dauphin Manor. Lee, 88, of 1212 N. 15th St., retired in 1980 as chef from the former Sheraton West in Fairview Twp., and had been the first black executive chef at the former Hotel Harrisburger, where he spent more than two decades. He also had worked at Blue Ridge Country Club. He was an inductee in the African-American Chefs Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Taste of Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. The foundation was founded by Chef Joe Randall, who grew up in Harrisburg and worked under Lee. “He was well-known in the Harrisburg area, especially by young people”, said the Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Allen, pastor of Mount Sinai A.M.E. Church, Edgemont, who will officiate at his funeral. “He gave a lot of opportunities to young folks to learn the art of cooking. He was interested in people and always extended himself to help others.” When Lee was cooking at the Harrisburger, “the lines stretched for blocks from its doors,” Patriot-News food writer Sue Gleiter wrote in a 1998 article. “No other menu in town offered crabcakes, chicken pot pies and chopped chicken livers prepared in classic Southern style.” “We didn’t use cans like the chefs do today,” Lee told Gleiter. “I’m about the last person who would know about preparation from the bottom.” In the same interview, Lee said he once turned down a $35,000 prizefighting contract. He began his cooking career in Atlanta, later working in Charleston, S.C., in an exclusive club on Georgia’s St. Simons Island before starting at the Harrisburger — for $75 a week — in1940. Lee won awards for his crabcakes, stuffings, hors d’oeuvres and salads. When he won his first cooking competition at age 23, he was denied the opportunity to receive a prize before an audience, because he was black. He taught and gave food demonstrations across the country and received a medal from President Roosevelt in recognition of the large number of cooks he trained while an Army cooking instructor and mess sergeant during World War II. Mayor Stephen R. Reed also honored him. He was a member of Harris A.M.E. Zion Church, enjoyed playing bingo and was an avid baseball fan. Surviving are his wife, Geneva Lee ; a son, Avery Robinson, and a daughter, Joann Overton, both of Harrisburg; a brother, Floyd of Atlanta; a sister, Pansy Ervin of Harrisburg; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in Mount Sinai A.M.E. Church. Burial, with full military honors, will be in Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. Viewing will be from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday in the church. Franklin Funeral Home, Steelton, is handling arrangements.