Dorothy Cann Hamilton

Jim Poris / December 1999

Food Arts presents the December 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of The French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City and a tireless and generous supporter of industry and social service organizations. Hamilton embodies two of the dominant threads of the 1990's foodservice tapestry—the surge of women into prominent positions and the importance of education, especially one rooted in the tenets of classical French cuisine.

Hamilton has predictably been one of the first to back new industry forums and organizations. When Giles Renusson founded the U.S. Pastry Alliance in 1994, he says once Hamilton "had identified the leadership as serious and committed, she supported us without asking any questions."

"She wants to promote the [culinary] profession," Renusson says, "and if she sees a good cause, she'll study it and then support it if she sees good value in it, be it youth, or a segment of the industry that's underrepresented, like pastry or bread making."

The French Culinary Institute, which Hamilton founded in 1984, has opened an array of culinary careers to amateur food enthusiasts through a concentrated curriculum based on classic cooking techniques and professional protocols. Her pedagogical approach, called "total immersion," has particularly benefited career changers looking to make a quick transition to the food world. The school's dedicated approach, which takes full-time day students from "this-is-a-knife" instruction to entry-level restaurant jobs in six months, has become a blueprint for many of the cooking schools popping up across the United States.

Over the last five years, with her husband, Dough, a venture capitalist, as her partner, Hamilton transformed FCI from a sleepy school with a few media star grads—Bobby Flay and Matthew Kenney—into a fast-track cooking university with expanded facilities permitting pastry and bread-making programs, demos and lectures in a multimedia auditorium, a boulangerie/pâtisserie inside its student-driven L'École restaurant, and an extensive job placement/networking service that's the envy of other schools. Hamilton has put FCI's culinary leadership in the hands of a roster of nonpareil chefs—Alain Sailhac, Jacques Pépin, Jacques Torres, André Soltner, Daniel Leader, and Alice Waters.

Hamilton herself got into the hotel/food business last year, when she opened the Lakeview Inn, five rooms and a restaurant in New Preston, Connecticut. She's also occupied by service as chairwoman emeritus of The American Institute of Wine & Food and as a board member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, as well as her work as a board member of Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP) and of Abraham House, which trains ex-offenders for social reintegration. It's the school, though, and not the daily dreams of hospitality service, that animates her. "Running a school is like being a parent who's most proud of her children," she says. "Well I'm most proud of our graduates."