Illustration by Laura Pérez

After being served a gourmet dinner prepared by student chefs in Paris, a visiting American said, “Why not us?”

The vision was ignited by a most-delicious experience. In 1980, Dorothy Cann Hamilton was savoring the last dregs of an apple charlotte while visiting Paris as part of a delegation of American educators. The buttery, white bread dessert was the final dish in a dinner cooked by students at a training school.

The quality of the meal blew Hamilton away. “To know that students made it who hadn’t cooked before — that was my ‘ah-ha’ moment,” says Hamilton, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the time. Then it occurred to her: “Why not us? And why not in New York?” Hamilton’s father ran a vocational school where she was the financial-aid director. When she returned from Paris, she told him they should add cooking to the curriculum, and he eventually agreed.

If you are serious about cooking …
… but you have no plans to be a professional chef, The Center has one-day courses available, usually priced at $195. Classes last four hours and take an intense, immersive approach. “There is a very precise way we teach so you’re actually learning,” says founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton. It “isn’t just throwing a teacher in a room with a chicken, some bacon and pearl onions.”

For those interested in cooking as a career, the website explains the application process. The school recommends speaking to the admissions office or visiting the New York or California campuses during open house. While The Center offers some financial aid to students based on need or merit, students usually finance their tuition through outside funding sources.

Go to for more information, including a list of classes.

And that is how the French Culinary Institute — now known as the International Culinary Center (The Center) — was created in 1984, when the first 11 students were admitted to the program. One of those was a 19-year-old redhead named Bobby Flay, now one of the most well-known chefs in the country. But he is not the only celebrity chef who is a product of the innovative training program. The school has graduated more than 15,000 students and churned out a notable list of megastar chefs who are known nationally and internationally. Of the four chefs who have been included in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” over the years, three have International Culinary Center connections, including former students Dan Barber, who owns several restaurants (such as Blue Hill in New York), and David Chang, whose Momofuku restaurants are in New York, Toronto and Sydney. The third is José Andrés, who is The Center’s dean of Spanish studies.

While some of the classic schools train chefs in longer programs, The Center has an accelerated format that crams two years of learning into six months of intense study. Students have the option of enrolling in the school’s newer campuses in Campbell, Calif. (a suburb of San Jose) or in Parma, Italy. The jewel of the school is L’École, The Center’s New York restaurant where student chefs practice their craft and produce reasonably priced, multicourse, gourmet, prix fixe lunch and dinner menus that compete with the city’s finest eateries.

Since 2008, The Center has opened its doors to anyone seeking improved cooking skills, even if they have no plans to become a chef. Like rigorous professional courses, these classes are taught in the school’s trademark method of total immersion — and in the same state-of-the-art kitchens. They’ve even become a tourist attraction ­because some of the classes are only one-day affairs. Not surprisingly, the most popular courses are the French classics, such as the Coq Au Vin, in which students learn to debone and cook a whole chicken, prepare a petatou salad and, for dessert, chocolate soufflé.

“There is a very precise way we teach so that you’re actually learning,” says ­Hamilton. “It isn’t just throwing a teacher in a room with a chicken, some bacon and pearl onions.” One-day classes are designed to build skills in the kitchen by immersing students in four hours of class experience. For $195, attendees walk away with cooking confidence, recipes, plastic containers filled with leftovers and even an apron. “We have delicious education,” Hamilton says.