Henry’s chef john bolton set the table for fine cooking in charleston – post and courier

Chef John Bolton (right) with Henry Hasselmeyer in March 1977. File/Bill Murton/staff

Even in the wake of a ruinous war, Paris retained traces of its former glamour. The naked dancing girls were gone by 1945, and a rationing system restricted the sale of baguettes, but clothing designers sketched gowns destined for the world’s most elegant women and whipsmart critics swapped ideas over strong espressos. And in the kitchens of the city’s

great restaurants, apprentice cooks still mixed dough for gougeres and strained consomme. At least one of them — John Bolton, the son of Wadmalaw Island farm laborers — couldn’t fathom anything classier.

Bolton had come to Europe as an American soldier. The stillness of German nights unsettled him. He asked a commanding officer why he didn’t hear any cows lowing or dogs barking or birds singing.

“John, these people have been starving,” the man told him. “I don’t think there’s anything crawling that they haven’t tried to eat.”

Later, when Bolton was assigned to clean the mess hall after meals, he’d bag up leftover canned pears and discarded ham scraps, leaving the packages where local children could find them. He didn’t believe anyone should be denied the right to eat in a dignified manner.

It was a conviction he’d developed back home, where the fanciest restaurants were off limits to men with black skin like his. Things worked differently in Paris, though. When Bolton’s military service took him there, he was determined to try what was reportedly the best food in the world. Dressed in his uniform, perhaps with an Eisenhower jacket buttoned over it, he went out to eat. For the first time in his life, he walked into a white-owned restaurant through the front door.

“What struck him was how he was welcomed,” Bolton’s daughter Yvonne Bolton says. “They told him to come in and take a seat.”

The hospitality made an impression on Bolton, as did the magnificent dishes. He wanted to receive people in the same fashion. “This is the kind of restaurant I want to work in,” he thought. So after the war, he took a job there, learning the particulars of classical French cuisine.

Within a few years, he returned to his family in Charleston and an entry-level cooking position he’d previously held at Henry’s, a Market Street restaurant just starting to shed its status as a beery saloon serving deviled crabs. “Plain, hearty (and) simple,” was how Vogue described the modest seafood house in 1938.

Bolton, who was quickly promoted, envisioned something grander. During his decades as head chef, Henry’s became synonymous with style, offering shrimp a la creole, trout Colbert and flounder meuniere, along with clam chowder and coleslaw. “Charleston’s reputation for fine cookery derives mainly from its private homes, not its restaurants,” Southern food authority John Egerton would later write. “But Henry’s is exceptional.”

In recent years, the food world has been slightly more scrupulous about crediting African-Americans for their contributions to Southern cuisine. Famous white chefs now acknowledge their debt to techniques and ingredients borne from the crook of West Africa that was visited again and again by slave ships.

Beyond the benne, rice and okra, though, black Charlestonians also were largely responsible for bringing classical cuisine to the city. As far back as the 1700s, enslaved cooks were sculpting confections suitable for continental courts. And while Charleston diners don’t much remember him now, a quiet family man with a bibliophilic streak helped set Charleston on its current course of culinary ambition.

From Wadmalaw to New York and back

Born to Ella Washington and Edward Bolton in 1925, John Edward Bolton was the youngest of four children. Edward Bolton, a tenant farmer, died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 36. Ella Bolton struggled as a single mother; family lore suggests she may have suffered from a mood disorder that wasn’t then within the realm of treatment. “It was kind of an emotional time,” John Bolton’s daughter Beverly Bolton Smith says. “His mother wasn’t able to take care of him.”

Census records show John Bolton still living on Wadmalaw Island in 1930, but soon thereafter he moved to New York City to stay with his aunt, Mary, a hairdresser who lived on West 129th Street with two older nieces and a nephew. For the rest of his life, Bolton would root for the Yankees, who played just north of his home in Harlem.

“He was definitely a New Yorker,” Smith says. “He liked city life.”

Young John Bolton was less fond of the farm chores he was assigned when he’d come back to South Carolina. From the time he turned eight, Bolton spent every summer with his immediate family on Wadmalaw.

Leon Bolton was struck by how “advanced” his little brother seemed. His sophistication was acquired in school as well as on the streets: Bolton returned as an inexhaustible reader who always kept a book close by. And he wanted his siblings to understand why; to share the thrill he found in stories. Even though Leon was three years older than John, and Mary Pearline was a year older than that, they let John teach them the alphabet. “They learned how to read from Daddy,” Yvonne Bolton says.

Many years later, when Bolton’s children were around the same age, he shooed them away from the television and insisted they sign up for library cards.

“My father, I mean, in other times … I know he was brilliant,” Yvonne Bolton says. “I think my dad would have been a brilliant student had the opportunities been there for him to get his education.”

Instead, Bolton had the choice between farming and finding a job in Charleston. He was hired as a busboy at Henry’s, where he knew a few guys on staff. It’s not clear whether owner Henry Hasselmeyer Jr. took a shine to Bolton then, or got to know him after he came back from Paris as a fluent French speaker. Bolton also picked up a smattering of German during his tour, which endeared him to a second-generation American who never shook his German accent.

“I think him and the owner must have had a really nice and special type relationship,” Bolton’s daughter Carolyn Bolton Bond says. “The man who he used to call ‘the old man,’ Mr. Henry; Daddy loved him.”

“I think some Americans may not have treated Mr. Henry as an equal,” Yvonne Bolton adds. “So they had some commonality.”

Bolton’s relationship with Hasselmeyer was so warm that the restaurant owner felt comfortable leaving unguarded stacks of cash on his office desk. “John Bolton won’t touch it,” he’d reassure worried visitors. “For that matter, if he needs it, he’s welcome to it.” Bolton never received any media recognition during his tenure, but he was quoted in a 1977 profile of Hasselmeyer: “He’s a grand person to work with, I’m not lying,” he told The News and Courier. Hasselmeyer in turn called him “the best cook in Charleston.”

Influential 20th-century African-American chef

University of South Carolina professor David Shields, author of “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine,” is willing to go further than that. Shields has painstakingly reconstructed the lives of forgotten Southern chefs for his forthcoming book, “Culinarians: American Chefs, Caterers, and Restaurateurs, 1794-1919,” a project he’s approached with an activist’s zeal.

“Why is there no hall of fame?” he pleads. “Why can’t anyone name a chef? Yeah, you got one, buddy? Oscar Tschirky? He was a maitre d’! Heck, there’s a hall of fame for clowns. But chefs, no one can recite their history. New Orleans didn’t get famous on Creole home cooking.”

Now that chefs rent their faces to city marketing campaigns and appear in car commercials, it’s hard to remember a time when culinary professionals were as obscure as street sweepers. Yet their names were once so little publicized that Skipper Shaffer, whose grandfather founded Henry’s with the senior Hasselmeyer, says he’s never heard of Bolton.

Shields, though, maintains Bolton has claim to the title of Charleston’s most influential 20th-century African-American chef. He came across Bolton while doing book research, and was able to compile a very brief biographical sketch that pegged Bolton as a bachelor, but established his birth and death dates. “Some have argued that William Deas of Everett’s was the greatest,” Shields writes of the first chef to add roe to she-crab soup. “But Henry’s was the much more famous palace of cuisine and was much more central to the evolution of restaurant dining in Charleston.”

Food writer Matt Lee, whose early exposure to restaurant finery involved steel dishes of Henry’s cheese spread; white-jacketed waiters and local seafood dappled with sherry cream sauce, says, “It was without a doubt the most prominent restaurant in Charleston in the 20th century, and I’m including every era. French culture represented the highest achievement.”

Leonard Bowens worked at Henry’s in the 1970s, climbing the ranks from busboy to oyster shucker to flounder cleaner to fry cook. His brother, Gleen, was a waiter; until recently, Gleen’s nickname, “Kojak the Love Man,” survived in cement outside the restaurant. According to Bowens, Bolton was highly respected by his crew.

Yet what neither Bowens nor anyone else contacted for this story can say is exactly which menu items belonged to Bolton. Did he pioneer Henry’s signature way of stuffing pompano? Did he select the 1928 Chateau Mouton Rothschild that appeared on an early wine list, priced at $5.15 a bottle? Most critically, was Henry’s ultimately derivative of gastronomic temples in New Orleans or an elaborate expression of Bolton’s feelings for France?

Bolton’s daughters say he didn’t talk much about his work. Really, he rarely talked at all. When The News and Courier titled its story about Hasselmeyer, “ ‘Taciturn’ is the word for Henry’s owner,” the paper may have hit on what accounted for the men’s mutual affection.

“My father was extremely quiet, and I don’t know when Momma wasn’t talking,” Yvonne Bolton says. “Daddy read every book cover to cover, and Momma read the cover and thought she knew what the book said.”

Bolton married Beatrice Ward in 1946. The couple was introduced by Ward’s brother, Lee Christopher Ward, one of the first African-American members of the Charleston Police Department. Before he embarked on that career, he worked at Henry’s.

“She had a big personality,” Beverly Smith sighs. “She would express her viewpoints. And there were many.”

Teaching the next generation

The Boltons had three sons and five daughters; all of the women graduated from college. Bolton, whose bookshelves were lined with titles sent by Reader’s Digest, never lost faith in the redemptive power of learning. “Kids going off to college who didn’t have money for books, he’d give it to them,” Yvonne Bolton says. “Even today, I see people who tell me, ‘Your dad is the one who gave me money for my tuition.’”

There wasn’t much money to go around. But Bolton habitually brushed up against wealth at Henry’s, where he cooked for Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings, Ronald Reagan and Ernest Borgnine. Of all the celebrities at his tables, he liked Arnold Palmer best. After Palmer came back to the kitchen to thank him for a meal, the Bolton family started watching golf every Saturday.

Bolton’s daughters don’t recall ever sampling what he served to white customers at the restaurant. When they think back to favorite childhood foods, they remember their Aunt Mary Pearline’s okra soup and the pancakes she made from refined flour. Their mother was an excellent cook who spent 25 years as a Charleston County Memorial Hospital cook, but she used pancake mix.

Still, they knew their father was talented: Linda Bolton Gaston just recently started cooking, following a lifetime of outsourcing holiday and dinner party meals to her father.

“One of the things ever body talks about is my daddy catered my wedding,” says Carolyn Bond, who got married in 1976. “It was different seafood: Crab cakes and sliced ham and roast pork, and the way he made it was so pretty. And people enjoyed the food. People were taking plates! You’ve never heard of people when they come to a wedding saying ‘Can I please take a tray?’ Everybody wanted those crab cakes.”

Henry’s was sold in 1985, leaving Bolton two years short of retirement age. He joined his daughter, Yvonne Bolton, in Washington, D. C., where she was enrolled in pharmacy school, and took a job with Phillips Seafood Restaurants. Bolton collected a mess of in-house awards, but refused to stay on with the company: He told his boss he had to get home to his Bea.

Beatrice Ward Bolton’s health started to decline in 1999. Bolton cared for her, cooking meals compatible with her prescribed diet. “Daddy stepped in and none of us had to worry about how she got her meals,” Carolyn Bond says. “He cooked rice and maybe beans; just regular food with low sodium.” She died in 2003, three years before her husband.

Once back in Charleston, Bolton picked up a guest teaching gig at Johnson & Wales University. The school’s records are sketchy, and five former faculty members don’t remember crossing paths with Bolton. But at some point, he was tasked with teaching seafood preparation. Even though he’d raised two teachers, he’d never before stood in front of a class. “Daddy, you need a lesson plan,” Beverly Smith implored. No, her father retorted: “The students will know everything they need to know because I’m going to show them.”

Most likely, Bolton’s instructing stint occurred before Sean Brock, Kevin Johnson and Nate Whiting were on campus. But it’s equally likely that many of the students who learned the proper way to handle shrimp and shad from a man whose own education began in Parisian kitchens went on to work in Charleston restaurants. And they doubtless applied his lessons to their craft, nudging along a dining scene that’s now talked about in Europe.

It’s a scene distinguished by flawless oysters and thoughtfully fried fish, of course. Yet there’s more to it than that: Local chefs — channeling Bolton, whether they knew it — have helped put Charleston atop lists of the nation’s most hospitable places; places in which everyone is extended a welcome.

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