A Conversation with Dorothy Cann Hamilton

Dorothy Cann Hamilton, host of the PBS hit series Chef’s Story, was kind enough to pay KQED a visit prior to her appearance with Thomas Keller at the Commonwealth Club last week.

When I was approached to interview her, I immediately said, “Of course I’d do it.” When I hung up the phone, I realized that I had absolutely no idea who she was. I don’t have telvision reception. Excluding internet access, one might think I lived in a technology-deficient cave.

I also remembered that I had never interviewed anyone before.

Not knowing anything about someone you are about to interview might be considered a handicap to some. Probably to many. Mercifully, I was given sufficient time for research.

As I Googled and studied, I wondered how, as a self-proclaimed member of the food world (though, admittedly, marginally so), could I have not been aware of this woman? Listing but three of her many credentials is enough to make anyone with professed food-worldliness who remains unaware of her existence lie through their teeth and say “Of course, I know all about her.”:

  1. She is the founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute.
  2. She is the Chairman of the James Beard Foundation.
  3. She hosts “Chef’s Story” on PBS.

When my father called last week, I mentioned the interview. “That’s not the ice skater, is it?” he asked, only half seriously. I cringe to think how often Dorothy Hamilton endures that question. My father wasn’t the only one who made that crack. I was a bit embarrassed that I had never thought of it myself.

As I sat in a KQED conference room waiting for Hamilton to arrive, I thought to myself, “How bright is this for me, who has never interviewed anyone in his life, to be interviewing a woman who interviews famous people on national television?”

It may not have been bright of me, but it was fun. Dorothy Hamilton is not just a doer, but a talker– and an entertaining one at that.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

MP: You’re the CEO and Founder of the French Culinary Institute, you’re the president–

DH: Chairman.

MP: Chairman of the James Beard Foundation, you’re involved with Abraham House, you are now the host of a television show. Do you ever take a day off?
DH: That’s an issue. (Laughs) I don’t get a lot of time off, but I don’t want a lot of time off. I really enjoy what I do and so I’m happy to do it, and that I have it to do.

MP: So no time to play petanque? When you do get a day off, what do you do?

DH: I garden if I’m in the countryside. I like to travel. I like to hang out… do nothing– or putter– maybe that’s a better word. I remember when Emma Thompson won her Academy Award she really made an impression on me because when they asked her what she was going to do and she said “I’m not getting out of my pajamas tomorrow. I’m just going to stay in my pajamas all day” I thought that sounded like heaven.

MP: Well, there’s a definite art to puttering… I’ve been doing a lot of reading about you in the past week or so– I don’t mean it to sound like stalking or anything like that– but I’m just curious how a girl from Brooklyn ends up founding–

DH: — a French school.

MP: Yeah.

DH: And I’m not even French!

MP: Well, not just a French school, but a French culinary school with one of the best reputations in the world.

DH: Well, there’s a lot of great people who have come from Brooklyn– a lot of creative people.

MP: Oh, I’m not knocking Brooklyn…

DH: It is odd because everybody thinks I’m French and I’m not. How it started was my father ran a trade school in New York. I came from the type of family where my grandparents came from Europe, so I’d heard a lot about it, but I had never been there. And so, in high school, I used to just dream about getting on a plane and going to Europe and the only way I could get my parents to pay for it was if I figured out a way to go to college there. So I got myself into a British University, I got myself a student loan and went over to England.

I was very happy to be in England except for two things– the weather and the food. They were both terrible. It was during the Vietnam War, so everybody hated Amricans– a bit like today–… and so I actually befriended the French girls, because they hated the French, too. (Laughs)… they taught me how to make a Dijon vinaigrette and they got me to eat cheese that wasn’t American cheese. They introduced me to yogurts. When we’d get really fed up with [England], we’d all go to France. It was beautiful. The weather was so much better and the food was light years better than the English food, so that’s really where I got turned onto French food. I kind of lived in France during vacations, because I didn’t have enough money to come home. Particularly in Burgundy. I had one friend whose parents were professors of English, so that made it very easy for me because they were showing me the culture. And her sister was a famous movie star, Claude Jade… I met people like Jacques Brel. It was quite fun.

I then went in the Peace Corps (in Thailand) because I didn’t want to come back to the States– the whole war thing was going on– and I still had my wanderlust.

When I eventually came back– it was about eight years later– I had a Liberal Arts degree in English, a former Peace Corps volunteer, it was 1974 and we were in a recession in New York City and nobody would give me a job, so my father had this trade school and I went to work as a receptionist. I worked my way up through the administration and eventually got to be an expert in student financial aid. I sat on the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and I also sat on the board of directors for our accrediting agency for all the trade schools in the United States, and because of that, I was invited to see the top trade schools in Europe and, in France. They showed us the top professional cooking school, run by the French government.

See? There was a method for all this madness walking you through this.

So… I convinced my father that we should open a cooking school and use the French school– not only as a model–but we actually paid the French government for the curriculum, they brought over the teachers and they maintained the quality control. The French chefs in New York went crazy because it was the same training they had. They just couldn’t believe it was going to be made available in America… The very first class, I had Bobby Flay in.

MP: I heard he was trouble.

DH: He was voted the least likely to succeed. He has since made a scholorship at the school for kids who hate high school, because he hated high school. When we did this– we did the scholarship with the City of New York, with the Board of Education– and he sat down with all these superintendants and high school principals who were so excited to meet him, he just sat there shivering and said, “Any other time I’ve been with a principal was not for a good thing.”

MP: I hear you like to entertain. What are some Dorothy Cann Hamilton signature dishes?

DH: I have a house on a lake… up in Connecticut…

MP: Is this connected with the Inn?

DH: Well, the Inn only existed for a year.

MP: Awww…

DH: Yes, we said it was like a fire hose with dollar bills coming out of it. It’s a seasonal
business and you really have to be an owner/operator to make that thing work and we had day jobs, thank-you-very-much, so we realized we’d better cut our losses. It was great while it was there. People still talk about it…

MP: I didn’t know it only lasted a year. I had this image of you and your husband running around like Bob Newhart and Mary Frann except, you know, in better sweaters.

DH: We did run around. And not necessarily in better sweaters…

But anyway, one of the things I loved to do… I’m afraid to swim across the lake…I love to swim, but there are so many boats. I’m just afraid I’m going to get hit by a boat, because you can’t really see people swimming. So I came up with this thing called The Ladies’ Swim Across the Lake. There’s about twenty of us who stay over on a Monday. We get the men in rowboats… and what-have-you on either side– sort of like an honor guard– and we can swim the whole lake. They all swim across and back and — I like to swim, but not that much– so I swim across and say, “I have to go cook.” and I jump in a speed boat and come back before everybody and get all cleaned up and I make paella. I have one of those outdoor stands.–and I don’t make the seafood one, I make the chicken one because everyone can eat chicken– and it’s absolutely delicious and now everybody looks forward to that in the summer.

MP: Any Dorothy Cann Hamilton signature disasters?

DH: Oooh…. you know, I burn things every now and then. You know, what I burn all the time are pinenuts… Fifty percent of the time, I forget they’re in the oven. I’m not a toaster pinenut person. I like putting something somewhere and coming back and it’s done. Like a chicken.

MP: You talked about living in England. That was in Newcastle, right?

DH: Right. The coldest place in the world!

MP: Practically Scotland and, therefore, possibly worse food. Do you think their cooking has changed at all? Do you still feel the same way?

DH: You know, I’m going to offend a lot of English people–

MP: Oh, go ahead…

DH: They go on today about how good the food is in London. And I know Marco Pierre White is going to be here next week and he has done a lot for English food… however, the general cooking in England I still find to be…really quite disturbing. The old, traditional food I thought was fantastic. Potted shrimps, the beautiful cheeses, you’d go into a pub and get a Ploughman’s Lunch. A really good roast beef… If you look at the products in England, they’re so fantastic. I go to London and there are better restaurants, but they’re not at the level of, say San Francisco or New York…

MP: What are some of your favorite restaurants in San Francisco?

DH: Well, I went to A16 last night– I really loved that. And I’m and old time Judy Rogers freak. I love going to Zuni. And I think Gary Danko is a really inspired chef.

MP: Is there anything you won’t eat?

DH: Oh yeah. I hate liver. Not only will I not eat it, I won’t sit at a table with someone else eating it. I think it stinks. It smells.

MP: Even in pate form?

DH: No. I love foie gras. Now that, to me, is one of the world’s mysteries… Of course today, we have this issue in the United States with foie gras.

First of all, there’s the history of how foie gras came about is a bird fell out of the sky– do you know this story?

MP: No, I don’t.

DH: Well, this is how they discovered foie gras. The Egyptians discovered it. The geese used to migrate and, occasionally, one of the geese died– had a heart attack? I don’t know– and would fall out of the sky and they would eat the goose. When they opened the goose up, they’d see this enlarged liver because what [the geese] would do before they’d migrate is force a lot of food into themselves. The French people, when I was learning abou this would say (in a French accent), “Hey, you know, they just eat a lot.” They don’t have a gagging mechanism.

The thing that surprised me is that geese get attached to only one person. Only one person can feed them and when this woman– I was on a goose farm [in France]– came out, these geese came running to her. You know, they couldn’t wait to be fed because it wasn’t painful, they were just getting fed more than they should to enlarge their livers. I didn’t see any cruelty on the farms in France.

Now, the way chickens are raised, and the way beef is being produced in this country, I totally agree. I think there are issues there and we have to get very activist to make sure the food supply is properly taken care of, properly treated and properly slaughtered. But I think to have a blanket notion that foie gras is painful and inhumane… I know otherwise, if it’s done on a farm level. I can’t really speak for the mass production level.

MP: You mentioned being Burgundy, which is a place I’ve always wanted to eat and drink my way through. Is there some place in the world that you haven’t been to that you’d love to eat your way through?

DH: I was thinking about that the other day– in one of my puttering moments– and I would love to go to Germany for the white asparagus festival… they don’t have a green flavor, they have a nutty flavor and then that asparagus flavor, but it’s much more subdued… it’s very subtle.

MP: I suppose we should talk about the show.

DH: Oh, the show! Yeah, that’s why I’m here, and this is KQED, isn’t it? (Laughs)

MP: So… twenty-seven guest on twenty-six show. Anyone you missed?

DH: Oh, lots! But it wasn’t so much that we missed them. I think it was a couple of things. We did all twenty-six shows in three weeks. This is public television and you do not have have a huge budget and you have to make hay while the sun shines, and we did. Some of these people had conflicts and they just couldn’t get there. So, bye bye Mario Batali, bye bye Emeril Lagasse, many of them had conflicts. And then there was the other group of people, the “Dorothy who? You’re doing what? I don’t think so.” It wasn’t so much in a snotty way, and it wasn’t them per se… but it’s their handlers. Nowadays, they have agents and this is a brand new show…so a couple of people decided not to go out of the box on this one. But that being said, one of the first people who signed on was Thomas Keller so, once the others heard Thomas was going to be on, they wanted to be there, too.

MP: And you’re speaking with him tonight.

DH: Yes, I am! He’s an incredibly generous man.

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4 Responses to A Conversation with Dorothy Cann Hamilton

  1. Sam Cooper says:

    I am a graduate of FCI’s second class and so I have know Dorothy since 1984. She is one of the most endearing people I have had the pleasure to spend time with. I was in the business for 16 years after graduating and always kept in touch with her. She has a great concern for her students and will go far out of her way to help in any way she can. Even with the busy schedule she now has. She is so warm and easy to get to know and her love of the industry and of food is so contagious. She is the person I miss most now that I am retired and living in Miami.
    When I had my restaurant in Summit, N.J. , Dorothy came out for dinner to support a former student. She then invited my staff and me to do a special dinner one night at FCI. She made all of us feel very special. At the end of the night we sat around the bar drinking a little champagne with her and listening to her wonderful stories of being in the food world. I believe that since Julia Child is no longer with us, that Dorothy is well on her way to becoming America’s Grande Dame of the Culinary World. She is down to earth, fun, accessible and has all the qualities that opened our hearts to Julia. She is a little shorter and doesn’t have the voice, except when she is doing thee imitation, but she has the personality and grace to be our next queen of the crops. Like Julia, she is one of a kind, the best kind.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Sam– That’s great to hear. I only met her once, but she’s just so damned easy to talk with with just sort of chatted endlessly.

      I liked her a lot. It’s nice to hear so’s so supportive of her students. Sometimes, just showing up is worth more than all the kind words in the world.

  2. Nancy Mooney says:

    I went to high school with Dorothy,, and she was so sophisticated for a high school girl. When she went to England for college (New Castle) we all knew she was going places. I have been so thrilled with her success, bought her book for my best friend, and am sorry to hear of her divorce.

    Blessings, Dorothy – we went to the same grammar and high school…….let’s hear it for Avenue R in Brooklyn!

    Nancy Mooney

  3. Fred Malvagno says:

    I had the pleasure of working for Dorothy when she worked as the Director of her father’s trade school, Apex Tech, in Manhatten. I remember her as having a wonderful personality, and a passion for the culinary arts and fine wines. I am happy for her success.

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