Dorothy Cann Hamilton is among the who’s who of international cooking. The International Culinary Center, which she founded in 1984 as the French Culinary Institute, has become one of the world’s most highly respected cooking education centers. It has launched the careers of more than 15,000, among them many of America’s most prominent chefs. For her continuous passion and tireless work in bringing the best in culinary training to the world, Hamilton has received numerous awards and recognitions, including Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole (Agricultural Merit Knighthood) from the French government. She created and hosted the 26-part television series Chef’s Story on PBS, and since May 2012 she has hosted an online radio series by the same name where she interviews today’s leading chefs.
The International Culinary Center has recently initiated the ultimate Farm-to-Table Course, educating chefs on every detail of what it takes to utilize fresh, local and seasonally available ingredients. “To fully train chefs, we changed our name from the French Culinary Institute to the International Culinary Center for lots of reasons, but primarily because we’ve gone into other cuisines,” Hamilton told Calmful Living. “The interesting part of that is we’ve changed from institute to centerbecause I firmly believe you can’t train a chef any longer just within the four walls of a kitchen. You have to take a chef outside. It actually starts outside in the field, be it the field for vegetables or the field for grazing of cows. They have to understand where their product comes from and how it’s been either raised lovingly or manipulated.”
Germinating for Years
Although the program has just come about, it had been in the forefront of Hamilton’s mind for some time.
“First of all I’m an avid gardener myself, and I have a biodynamic vegetable garden,” Hamilton explained. “I’ve had a garden since I was a little girl. My grandmother was a gardener and we always had great vegetable gardens.
“The whole sustainable movement was very appealing and interesting to me, going back ten years, when I invited Alice Waters to be our Dean of Sustainability here, which she was for five years. I was really looking at the vegetables and even farming—not so much farming practices back then but mostly produce from a flavor standpoint. During that period we had sort of a forum of the top-grade chefs in New York City, which included Dan Barber—who is one of our graduates—and Mario Batali. With Alice, we had a real honest dialogue about how feasible is it for restaurants to serve sustainable and organic produce in the winter, given the challenges and costs of running a restaurant.
“That’s when I got very interested in the subject as saying this is something that our students have to study right from the very beginning. That all happened around 2005, and since then I have been dreaming about these farm-to-table programs. It’s taken this long to make the ultimate one.”
Passion for Seasons and Land
The ultimate Farm-to-Table Course could never be taught in one local geographic area only—and so it isn’t. “We operate in two regions in the United States,” Hamilton explained. “One is in California—with facilities in Silicon Valley and outside of San Jose—and the other is in the heart of New York City and just out into the country of New York State. That’s like two different planets if you’re talking about growing and farm to table.”
Hamilton has recruited some of the best farm-to-table chefs in the business. For the East Coast, part of the curriculum was created by Chef Dan Barber and is delivered at the renowned Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. For the West Coast version, two-Michelin-star-winning chef David Kinch, owner of Manresa restaurant and exclusive buyer of ingredients from nearby Love Apple Farms, is a dean of the International Culinary Center.
“They’re two entirely different programs,” said Hamilton. “The program on the East Coast deals with four-season gardening, urban rooftop gardening, and training at Stone Barns Center. Dan Barber wrote the curriculum for the Stone Barns portion, which deals with things like understanding soil, seeing how an animal is broken down, and understanding that eggs are seasonal (most chefs don’t even know that). They learn to listen to the earth and the seasonality of the earth.
“On the other hand, out in California, we are at the tip of the Salinas Valley, which feeds 10 percent of America. That’s a huge statement. It is the place where we can delve into responsible industrial farming. Students visit Bolthouse Farms, sit on the back of a combine and watch 10,000 pounds of carrots being harvested. They then visit a small or midsized farm, where a chef can form a relationship and work with midsized farmers and see what the price point of that carrot is. Ultimately they go to Love Apple Farms, from which Chef David Kinch gets his produce, and learn what a real artisanal carrot is. So they see three different price points on carrots and what goes into those differences.
“We use the Monterey Aquarium as our classroom to teach sustainable fishing practices, and also visit responsible fish farms. Students go down to Paicines Ranch, where these people raise grass-fed cattle. They learn the differences of grass-fed and see those animals broken down, and they spend a night at the ranch. They go to the Ferry Building in San Francisco and observe how chefs set up relationships with midsized farmers and how they do their buying through the local farmers’ markets.
“That is what is so exciting to me—that we’re able to have two platforms dealing with farm to table with all the nuances of certain geographic areas.”
Already Working Professionals
“The response to the program has been fantastic,” Hamilton reported. “Students are just loving it. As with anything else, we constantly tweak the program, take their feedback and make little changes. The course itself is only six months, but it’s incredibly intense. It puts you in very dynamic places where you can feel the passion, but you can also see the quality and you can understand the sweat that goes into creating amazing products.
“Typical students of the program are 28- to 30-year-olds; they are chefs who have been working professionals and they’re career changers. They are usually already as passionate about the sustainable movement as they are about cooking professionally. It generally isn’t someone who comes in and says, ‘Oh, that looks like an interesting course; I think I’ll take it.’ Most of these people are very committed to the environment, to sustainability, to organic, and want to know how to do it for themselves. They see that as part of their journey; not just to be a chef, but to have a strong relationship with the farmer or breeder.”
Ingredient Location and Care
As somebody who founded and operates one of the world’s top culinary academies, Hamilton has a particular set of criteria for farm-to-table ingredients and the way flavor is brought out in them.
“I might be controversial on this, as I don’t think it’s simply a label like ‘organic,’ Hamilton said. “My view is it has a lot to do with where you’re getting your food from and how the soil has been handled. I believe what affects the flavor is how dutiful you are in taking care of your soil—keeping it rich, keeping it well nourished and respecting it. The sustainable aspects are very, very important for flavor.
“There is also location—where food is grown. I notice this when I travel and I eat. I’ve still not had a carrot in America that tastes as good as the big carrots I get in France. It has everything to do with the location where they’re grown. Another example of that: I have a great devotion to lobster because my family comes from an island off Nova Scotia, and the lobster there is sensational. It has a taste like no other lobster in the world, and it’s because there is such a thing as ‘mer-oir.’ We’ve heard of terroir, which takes into account all the topographical, meteorological and physical characteristics of where something is raised. This really is the marine version of that, mer-oir, because the waters are 750 miles out into the ocean in the North Atlantic. The waters are extremely cold, and the lobsters feed off rocks with special microproteins that affect the flavor of the lobster meat. These lobsters don’t get put in pounds with the temperature lowered to two degrees where they’re kept dormant for two months, then they wake up and their meat is flabby.
“So the whole environment affects the flavor, and I think that that is the most important thing. Our ocean regions provide flavor; our soil gives flavor. People have known this about wine for a long time, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t caught on that it affects everything else too.”
Fine-Tuned Culinary Curriculum
For those who aren’t already professionals, the center has a reputation that precedes it in terms of teaching culinary preparation—and this aspect has been fine-tuned through long experience.
“That’s what we’re best known for after thirty years,” Hamilton pointed out. “It’s the fundamental classics. It’s like studying Greek and Latin, or studying classical ballet if you want to be a dancer. You get your fundamentals down cold. It’s based on the canon of French classic cooking; however, we are constantly tweaking and updating it for new methodology that comes in.
“It’s learning to respect the kitchen, to respect the environment, the people you work with, and most of all to respect the product; it’s learning how to make the most fundamental base recipes and then building from there. There are rudiments such as holding a knife, cleaning your station, keeping yourself clean—the disciplines of the kitchen.
“You’ll spend three days doing stocks and sauces, but you’ll also spend a day on potatoes, and another day on eggs. You’ll really understand the egg—not just a recipe and how to do it. You have to sort of get into the DNA of these elements, because you have to know how to fix things; you have to know how to multiply things; you have to know, as a professional, how to hold a dish if it’s not quite ready to go out; you have to know how to multitask.
“The fundamentals of that course we have neatly tied up in about six hundred hours or six months, and that is the base for everybody here. It changes a little; if you’re doing Italian, the products are Italian, and we have a new Spanish course with José Andrés.”
Farm-to-Table to Mainstream
While the ultimate Farm-to-Table Course is currently its own entity, eventually Hamilton sees it as becoming the norm.
“We’re calling it farm-to-table now,” Hamilton concluded. “I expect going forward it will simply be a given. I mean, where does your produce come from anyway? A farm! Where does your work end up? On the table in front of someone. I find it amusing that we now are just discovering where our food comes from. It comes from a farm, and it used to be rural but it doesn’t even have to be anymore. I see this getting more and more integrated into the actual course itself.”