Before a trip to Paris in 1980, Dorothy Cann Hamilton’s life was defined largely by the nuts and bolts of air conditioners and auto maintenance.
She had succeeded her father as the director of Apex Technical School in Manhattan, one of the largest industrial trade schools in New York state, and was touring similar vocational programs in Europe when she was introduced to a Parisian culinary institute that upended her career. The academy taught teenagers to cook dishes that tasted nearly as refined as those served by betoqued professionals.
Observing that no intensive, French-focused culinary program existed in the United States, Hamilton decided to start one on her own under the auspices of Apex. It was, she later acknowledged, a bit like Yale University opening a graduate school of lawn care.
Yet the French Culinary Institute, which in 1984 enrolled its first students at a converted warehouse in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood and later became an independent company led by Hamilton, went on to achieve international renown for its top-class instructors and its focus on traditional French techniques.
Now known as the International Culinary Center, the institute helped launch the careers of chefs such as Bobby Flay, the restaurateur and Food Network host; Dan Barber, of the Michelin-starred Blue Hill in Manhattan; and David Chang and Christina Tosi, of Momofuku Noodle Bar and its sister bakery, Milk Bar.
Because of the International Culinary Center, Hamilton also served as a public television interview show host and as chairwoman of the James Beard Foundation, a leading culinary organization.
She died Friday in a car crash in Melford, Nova Scotia, said Bruce McCann, a cousin and president of the International Culinary Center’s campus in Campbell, California. She was 67.
A statement from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said her SUV collided with a truck pulling a camper trailer and that the two occupants of the truck were injured and taken to the hospital.
Hamilton, who lived in Manhattan, had been visiting her summer home in the coastal town of Fourchu and was on her way to a meeting with a Nova Scotia tourism board when the crash occurred, McCann said. She had been planning to discuss a new ICC project: a seafood institute, based out of a local community college, that drew on Nova Scotia fishing practices and cooking techniques.
Although not an accomplished chef, Hamilton was a devotee of French cooking, and she brought a pragmatic, clear-eyed approach to culinary instruction. “The discipline that goes into learning cooking,” she told the New York Times in 1984, “is the same as that for learning welding.”
“I don’t want to put down cooking in any way because, of course, it is very much a creative profession,” she added. “But at the same time it is a trade, and that’s how you should learn it.”
Her view was informed by her years overseeing curriculum at Apex, and by a close study of the Ferrandi, the Paris school that inspired her vision. The school even provided the institute’s first full-time instructor, Antoine Schaefers, formerly of the Michelin-starred Le Taillevent restaurant. In exchange for that temporary loan, Hamilton helped the Ferrandi write and codify its curriculum for the first time.
The ICC’s teaching staff features some of the top names in haute cuisine. The French chef Jacques Pépin has taught since 1988 and currently serves as its dean of special programs; André Soltner (of the restaurant Lutèce), Alain Sailhac (of Le Cirque) and the pastry chef Jacques Torres also work as deans.
“What she did with the school, it’s a little bit like what Julia Child did with television - to bring French cooking into the front and make people understand the importance of French technique,” Pépin said in a phone interview. “She is the one who put it at the forefront of culinary education.”
In 2015, Pépin presented Hamilton with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, for her work in promoting the nation’s cuisine.
Dorothy Cann was born in Manhattan on Aug. 25, 1949. Her father, John, founded Apex in Brooklyn in 1961.
She graduated from Newcastle University in England and enlisted in the Peace Corps before turning to the family business and receiving an MBA from New York University.
Since its founding, the ICC has remained largely unchanged in its essentials. The institute offers aspiring chefs, or early-career chefs, a six-month crash course in traditional French cooking techniques. Basic tuition, which began at $6,500 in 1984, is $39,900 for a six-month course; about 500 students go through its programs each year, McCann said.
In 2014, a group of former students filed a lawsuit claiming that the institute was engaged in an “ongoing fraudulent scheme” that recruited students with the false promise of lucrative restaurant jobs. The suit was dismissed.
Hamilton served as chairman of the James Beard Foundation from 2005 to 2007, helping to rebuild the foundation after a board scandal in which president Leonard Pickell pleaded guilty to stealing more than $1.1 million of the nonprofit organization’s money. She also chaired the American Institute of Wine & Food and hosted the radio show and PBS television series “Chef’s Story,” interviewing chefs about their life and work.
In 2015, she headed the U.S. pavilion at the food-themed Milan Expo, organizing a 35,000-square-foot pavilion that featured what claimed to be the world’s largest vertical farm.
A marriage to Douglas Hamilton, a venture capitalist who helped finance the French Culinary Institute in the early 1990s, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Olivia Hamilton of Tampa.
Hamilton liked to joke that even before she founded the French Culinary Institute - which for many years featured a teaching restaurant where students worked as part of their classes - food was at the center of her life at Apex.
Like any executive, she told The Washington Post in 1985, she liked to entertain business associates at lunch or dinner. But “the American Express bill got too high,” she said, “so we decided to bring it in-house” - and visit the institute instead of going out.