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Chef Jan Willemse was long-time Ford-family favorite

Hilversum-born executive dead at age 100

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

DETROIT, Michigan - When cook Jan Willemse emigrated to the United States in 1919, he carried with him knowledge acquired as an apprentice at his uncle’s catering business in Hilversum, the Nether-lands. After a lifetime of executive positions in the hospitality and food industry, he retired in 1994. Last November, the Hilversum-born chef died at age 100.

After having served in kitchens on merchant ships during World War I, Willemse landed in Boston to start his career in the U.S. For the next few years, he plied his trade - refining his pastry skills - in kitchens of East Coast resort hotels from Maine to Florida. While working at a hotel in Miami Beach, he caught the attention (and the palate) of Edsel Ford, the son of industrialist Henry Ford. Edsel was so impressed by Willemse’s concoctions (which the Dutchman delivered every morning to Edsel’s yacht moored nearby) that he convinced his father to hire Willemse for the newly opened Dearborn Inn in Michigan.


It took Willemse some time before he was ready to move to Dearborn, as he considered the Midwest to be ‘nothing but cowboys and Indians.’ But he came and stayed, soon finding Mrs. Clara Ford to be a very frequent and appreciative client. Her husband eventually persuaded Willemse to come and work at Ford’s laboratories to develop new products, among which many recipes containing soybeans, which Ford saw as a viable alternative to grains.

Willemse worked in Ford’s lab from 1934 to 1947, when he started his own catering business. He also worked as a chef for other local firms and for the Ridgewood Hospital, before he became a salesman and the executive chef at Miesel/Sysco Foods. After his retirement in 1994, Willemse collaborated with local writer Eleanor Eaton on a cookbook - ‘Cooking for Henry’ - which featured his best recipes, including 70 of Henry Ford’s soybean favourites.

The one-time Ford chef is survived by his three sons, Gerrit, Cornelius and John, eight grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren.