A son of Elizabeth Hemings, James Hemings was nineteen years old when Jefferson decided to take him to France for the "particular purpose" of learning French cookery. Hemings spent the next three years as an apprentice to a variety of French caterers and cooks before taking charge of the kitchen in Jefferson's residence on the Champs-Elysées. His creations were served to authors and scientists, and a succession of European aristocrats from the Duc de La Rochefoucauld to the Princess Lubomirska.
Despite being legally free while in France, Hemings returned to the United States and took charge of Jefferson's kitchen in Philadelphia. Here again, his status as a slave in a state where slavery was illegal was in doubt, and in 1793 he and Jefferson struck a deal: James would be granted his freedom after he had returned to Monticello to train another slave in "the art of cookery."
In 1796, having fulfilled his end of the bargain, James left Monticello as a free man. His brother Peter Hemings took his place as the next head cook at Monticello. In 1801, the newly elected Jefferson tried to get James Hemings, then working in a Baltimore tavern, to come to Washington to serve as presidential chef. For unknown reasons, Hemings declined this post, although he spent that summer running the kitchen at Monticello. A month after his return to Baltimore, word reached Jefferson that Hemings had died, an apparent suicide.