Obituary: Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of New York’s French Culinary Institute

Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of New York's French Culinary Institute
Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of New York's French Culinary Institute
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Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of one of the word’s leading culinary schools. Born August 25, 1949 in Manhattan. Died 16 September 2016 on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, aged67

Dorothy Cann Hamilton died of injuries sustained in an car collision, said Bruce McCann, her cousin and the president of the International Culinary Center in California, the West Coast branch of the school that she founded in New York in 1984 as the French Culinary Institute, where she was the chief executive.

Hamilton, who lived in New York City, had a home in a remote corner of Cape Breton Island, in Fourchu, which she described in a blog post as “my family’s home village.”

The International Culinary Center is an outgrowth of her father’s training institute in the mechanical trades. Located in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, it counts more than 15,000 chefs as graduates, among them, Bobby Flay, Dan Barber, Wylie Dufresne, Christina Tosi, David Chang and Zak Pelaccio.

The centre’s deans and teachers have included professional chefs like Jacques Pepin, Andre Soltner, Jacques Torres, Alain Sailhac, Jose Andres, Nils Noren and Cesare Casella.

Hamilton was also the host of Chef’s Story, a PBS television and Heritage Radio Network series that profiled chefs. Last year she became one of only four Americans (the others were Julia Child, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters) to receive the Legion of Honour from the French government for promoting French cuisine in the United States.

She wrote several books, including Love What You Do: Building a Career in the Culinary Industry (with Lisa Cornelio and Christopher Papagni), published in 2009.

“Dorothy was a visionary,” Torres said. “She produced and mentored the most talented chefs.”

She was also clear-eyed about what makes for good cooking. “The whole basis of cooking well doesn’t necessarily have to do with a recipe or the genius of a cook; it has to do with the ingredients,” Hamilton said in 1999. “If you don’t have a beautiful tomato, you’re never going to get a great tomato soup.”

Dorothy Cann was born in Manhattan on August 25, 1949, the daughter of John Cann, who started Apex Technical School in Manhattan in 1961, and the former Lillian Kuzmyak.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England.

“I grew up with a love of food,” she said in 2002. “My mother always gave my four siblings and me a choice of lobster or prime rib for our birthdays.

“On Sundays, my Czechoslovak grandmother would cook three kinds of meat and eight different vegetables for the family. I was so into cooking that at 17, I bought a set of five flaming-orange cast-iron pots with my first pay cheque.”

Still, “as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, she could not distinguish a slice of Brie from a scoop of Camembert,” Linda Pelaccio wrote in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City” (2015).

But “after spending her college years in Newcastle in England,” Pelaccio added, “with the friendship of several French schoolmates and frequent trips to France, she learned that there was life beyond Velveeta.”

After three years with the Peace Corps in Thailand, where she taught English, Hamilton hoped to open a restaurant in Paris or Hawaii. But money was tight, job offers were few, and she wound up working as a receptionist for her father’s trade school to pay off student loans. She was promoted to financial aid director and earned a master’s in business administration from New York University.

Her marriage to Douglas Hamilton ended in divorce. She is survived by their daughter, Olivia Hamilton.

On a tour of European vocational schools as a board member of the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools in 1980, Hamilton visited a training programme for chefs in Paris.

“I was in heaven,” she recalled. “When we ate in the school restaurant, I found it to be one of the best meals in my life. Why couldn’t we have a school like this in the States?”

Her institute initially operated as part of Apex, offering a 600-hour culinary arts program in consultation with the Ferrandi culinary programme in Paris. It later became independently licenced, began offering immersion training in specialties like pastry and bread making, and opened branches in Italy, near Parma, and in Northern California, near San Jose.

“In the early 80s, France was the pinnacle of fine dining,” Hamilton said last year. “The French are the codifiers of technique in Western cuisine. Our school was based on teaching those techniques.”

The opening in 1984 was inauspicious. Consolidated Edison had not yet turned on the gas, so she began by teaching non-cooking courses, like how to cut vegetables, and sent her chef to Florida on vacation.

“Then I got a call that Julia Child wanted to come to the school for a meal that Friday; I sent back a message that it was impossible — we couldn’t cook yet,” Hamilton said. “My father, who is my mentor, said: ‘Are you crazy? The difference between a good business and a great business is sometimes luck, and it doesn’t come around too often.’”

She summoned the chef from vacation and rounded up her students, and “we pulled off an elegant French lunch for Julia and her entourage of VIPs, including a producer from Good Morning America,” Hamilton recalled.

“The school started filling up after that,” she said.

Bobby Flay, who was among nine students in the institute’s first class, said Hamilton’s “first love was to be an educator, and she wanted to do things that had never been done before — to bring a level of culinary training that had never been seen before in America.”

“Now, he added, “it very much seems like the norm. In 1984, it was completely groundbreaking.”

Was Hamilton a good cook herself? Flay hesitated.

“I think she was OK,” he replied, then cited an even greater gift. “But she was very good at getting some of the best chefs in the world to cook for her.”

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services