Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the visionary founder of the International Culinary Center and a towering figure in the culinary world, died in a car crash Friday morning in Nova Scotia, Canada. She was 67.
This morning the tragic news is being shared throughout the New York culinary community and far beyond in emails and phone calls punctuated with long periods of bewildered silence and expressions of disbelief as the weight of the loss sinks in.
Hamilton founded the French Culinary Institute in 1984, the renowned school later renamed the International Culinary Center that has launched the careers of thousands of professionals and culinary leaders. In 2015, she served as the president of the American pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, a position she was proud to hold and that garnered widespread critical acclaim.
ICC president Erik Murnighan shared the news with students and faculty in an email Sunday: “Dorothy was not only a trailblazer in the culinary arts, she was an inspirational figure to women, aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs. She was a role model, a visionary and someone who, with a discerning eye, elevated culinary culture in America. Her remarkable passion for and embrace of food will provide an everlasting change to the way restaurateurs operated, chefs cooked and how culinary students were mentored.”
Her friends and colleagues, whom I am proud to be among, are met today with a profound sense of grief that overcomes you when someone so important, yet so personable leaves our world.
I met Dorothy in 2012 through a mutual friend, Steven Jenkins, although I had long known of her venerable school and well-deserved reputation as an inspired leader, and found her obvious brilliance intimidating at first. But almost immediately, that feeling was replaced by a deep respect for an ingenious woman who spoke from an endless well of wisdom.
The idea I pitched to her was to organize an olive oil competition with her school as its home and I recall being fascinated by how little I needed to explain. Her short answer was: “Let’s do it.” For the next three years, the New York International Olive Oil Competition was held there.
Dorothy would make appearances during the event, with international dignitaries and journalists in tow, marvelling at the judges as they analyzed samples from 26 countries.
This past April, Dorothy and I met again to discuss developing a groundbreaking program to teach olive oil sensory analysis at her New York campus.
At the press announcement of the program, Dorothy said: “I’m not an expert, I’m not a sommelier, but I can put the things together. My formula for success is to find the best person in that industry: Find Jacques Pépin for the French Culinary Institute; find Cesare Casella for the Italian program; find José Andrés for our Spanish program. Well when it comes to olive oil, I have to say that Curtis has my undying respect. Speaking with him and then speaking to other experts in the field, I realized this is the person to change this industry. We are so proud to have you as a partner, Curtis and congratulations.”
While Dorothy was saying that, I was off to the side covering my face in my hands, causing the audience to chuckle as I concealed my blushing. And all the while I was thinking, please stop talking about me, talk about you…they want to hear about you and your incredible accomplishments.
Yet when I listen to Dorothy’s podcast program, Chef’s Story, and look through other projects along her illustrious career, I realize the same pattern runs through all of her work. She is the one off to the side, shining the light on those she helped propel.
There are few, if any, who have transformed the American culinary landscape and encouraged so many as Dorothy Cann Hamilton.
Dorothy was scheduled to address students at the first Olive Oil Sommelier Certification course that will be held at the International Culinary Center in a few weeks, and now I must decide how to fill that space. But there is a much larger empty space in the hearts of all who knew Dorothy and at the pinnacle of the culinary world that will never again be occupied.