When Hamilton got started, the food-scape in New York City, and the rest of the country for that matter, was modest. “The supermarkets had just one type of lettuce — iceberg — one type of mushroom, and it was white,” Hamilton says. “It was not very sophisticated or delicious, quite frankly.” People went to Europe to visit the Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy, which led her to believe there was a market for teaching the basics of French cooking in the U.S.
Now You Know: The Center’s one-day classes include Handmade Pasta and The Secrets of Spices.
She and her father, John Cann, opened the school in 1984 and brought a French cooking instructor to the U.S. During World War II, Cann had learned to train servicemen quickly to become auto and air-conditioning mechanics in the Navy. The approach was intense and hands-on, forcing students to immediately put into practice the lessons they had just learned. “We took the Navy methodology and made a total-immersion, six-month course,” Cann says.
Jacques Pépin, the legendary French American chef, author and television personality, remembers hearing about the school’s opening. “People were like, ‘There’s no way she can do that,’ ” he says. “But of course you can. This is what America is all about, a different way of looking at things.” Four years later, Pépin joined the faculty. It was the only place in the United States that was teaching “the basics of French cooking, the proper way to cook,” according to Pépin.
The school got a lucky break during the first week when famed chef, author and TV personality Julia Child visited with an entourage that included her husband, Paul, her producer from and some magazine and cookbook editors.
It was the first time the students, including Flay, were cooking because the gas hadn’t been turned on until the previous day. But the meal turned out to be a sensation. “Julia loved it and fell in love with the school,” Hamilton says. “She was so supportive of women in the food industry because there were so few of us.”
At Child’s urging, Good Morning America booked The Center for an appearance. The media attention put the little school from SoHo on the international cooking map.
Since those early days, the school has expanded dramatically. It now includes programs in pastries, bread baking, farm-to-table, wine studies and Italian and Spanish cooking. A five-person education team works with teachers to tweak the curriculum — or create a new one — on a daily basis. Hamilton says constant revisions result in an expenditure of up to $1 million each year. “I think that’s the key to our success,” says Hamilton, whose program has attracted many award-winning master chefs, including André Soltner and master chocolatier Jacques Torres. “Most cooking schools do not invest like that.”
The courses offered to the public have been received well. Besides French classics, other classes include culinary techniques, spices, desserts and wine.
The school’s basic mission remains to produce professional chefs, and The Center has been doing that for almost 30 years. Celebrity TV chef Anthony Bourdain did not go to The Center but has visited the school on several occasions and is a big fan.
“There are just a few culinary schools in this country that are worth the money, the time, the sacrifice, and The Center would be one of them,” Bourdain says. “You look at who your teachers are, your chefs here. That’s the end of the story for me. If Jacques Pépin tells you how to make an omelet or roast a chicken, the argument is settled. Look at the lineup of teachers. There is no argument that these are some of the best chef instructors in the world.”
Shirley J. Velasquez is co-editor of The Slant: There’s Always More to the Story. Her work has appeared in Elle and Glamour magazines.