In the Kitchen with Dorothy Hamilton, Founder of the French Culinary Institute

By Fabiana Santana

hamiltonShe founded an world renowned culinary school, the French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center), serves on the board of the James Beard Foundation, one of the most prestigious culinary foundations in the country, and still manages to teach her little girl how to make a vinaigrette. And through it all, Dorothy Hamilton has learned one important lesson. You must love what you do. So, she wrote a book about it.

Love What You Do: Building a Career in the Culinary Industry is the book any culinary career seeker must read. The book covers everything you might need to know, from being confident you’re making the right decision to the best way to move forward, once you’ve made the leap.

Dorothy took some time to talk to about why she loves cooking and the most inspiring single woman she has ever met.

You already have the school under your belt. Why the book?

I am very lucky in that I love what I do. What I do, aside from running the school and training chefs and providing amateur programs for food lovers, is change people’s lives. And I have spent many years talking with students are who are in their 20s and 30s, and even 40s and 50s, about their frustrations and passions. After all these years, I thought it was time to take all that collective wisdom I have learned and gather it in one place.

A career change is a dream many women have. But responsibilities and financial obligations keep that dream from becoming a reality. What advice can you give to women want to find the courage to attempt a career change?

You only have one life, so why not do what you love? But that doesn’t mean do it all in one day. Chip away at it a little at a time. No one is saying “love what you do, now jump off a cliff into chocolate mousse.” But make a decision to make it part of your life.

How can someone do that?

Well, if you are young and have no responsibilities, then you can take a few more risks. But if you have to move cautiously, find little ways to get your feet wet. Experiment in a test kitchen at a magazine, offer to cater a friend’s party, learn the right way to hold a knife and practice. Offer to give your kids and their friends cooking lessons.

As a single mom, I can relate to the stresses and financial obligations. You have to pay rent or a mortgage and work, and be at home for your kids. And you probably already think you are not home enough and are stretched 10 different ways already. So start small. Don’t make it another demand on your day. Make it something that you enjoy and test yourself at the same time.

Is it harder for women to break into the culinary industry?

The one thing I will say is that is that it is not as hard now as it was 20 years ago.

Some women now don’t experience any prejudice at all, but it wasn’t always like that. Working in a kitchen is a hard job. It is a physical job. And even though women can certainly do it, it is still a challenge for us.

How do you balance working and being a single mom?

It’s hard but when you love what you do, it is contagious and you don’t mind sharing it. I let Olivia (her daughter) watch me work and cook and be part of it. I taught Olivia how to how to make a vinaigrette. So every night, that is her job. She helps me in the kitchen and makes that vinaigrette.

Who has been the most inspiring chef that you have worked with?

Julia Child. Because she was so personally generous. She was interested and she always asked every one about who they were. She was interested in them. And then she was so helpful. So many people told her they wanted to be a chef or cook and she would tell them to call her. Her telephone number was in the phone book. She always wrote back to those who took the time to write to her. Her integrity in how she wrote her books was amazing and she didn’t compromise or do endorsements because of that integrity. She was very inspiring.

And when you knew her, was she married?

She had just put her husband in a nursing home, so she was off balance. She was alone again and that was new for her. She had to find her sea legs – they not only lived together, they worked together, so she had to get used to doing it alone. She began working more actively instead of less. She became more involved with charity and culinary foundations. As a single woman at 80, she recommitted herself to her profession. She was inspiring.

What was the one most important thing she taught you?

To not to be afraid in the kitchen. Persistence. We were making an aioli together once and it would not come together. We tried and tired, and it would not work. Instead of throwing it out, we ate it anyway. And then after lunch, she said, “Dorothy, let’s get back in that kitchen and do it again!” She was 85 at that time and had made countless aioli. But she was determined to get this one right.

What is the go to meal for you and your family?

Just like everyone else I have 5 or 10 recipes I love. And every time I think I am going to make a new recipe I think, but I really want to eat that other thing I love so much.

I am a simple cook. I don’t have an army of cleaners and don’t like to clean up. So I keep it easy. I love a simple pan-fried filet of sole with breadcrumbs. Some egg, some breadcrumb and in two minutes, dinner is done.

What is one dinner party tip you can’t live without?

Make dessert easy. I love to do a giant bowl of chocolate mousse an then pass it around so people can scoop however much they want into their bowls at the end of a meal.

You mentioned your daughter is a picky eater. What kind of food can you recommend to parents with finicky eaters?

My daughter doesn’t like sandwiches. She eats no chicken or pasta marinara. But she loves truffles and fruits like kiwi. She has an extraordinary mature palate so sometimes it can be a challenge to feed her the simple food I like.

Vegetable soup is an easy fix though. Throw every veggie you have in the fridge in there – even leftover lettuce. Stick it all in the blender with salt and pepper it’s all done. It is warm and comforting and seems creamy and that, I have found, is the easiest way to get kids to eat vegetables.

What is the most important thing you tell your students?

You only have one life and why not love what you do? It would be horrible to look back and say “wow for an extra 5k a year, I stayed in the job I hated”.

When you love what you do you never feel like your working.


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