It's always a shock when a friend or colleague dies suddenly, of course, but some deaths seem to shake our world more cataclysmically than others, simply because their victims filled so much space when they were still with us.
Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who died suddenly and tragically in an automobile accident near her second home in Nova Scotia late last week, was a woman who was so omnipresent in the culinary community, and who so generously animated it, that her passing left those who knew her, even from a distance, feeling positively hollow; something palpable was missing in an instant.
She was an immense presence, a one-woman multitude full of energy, ideas, and ambitions. She knew everybody, it seemed, and loved nothing more than making connections between them. She took charge of people and projects and institutions in the best possible way: openly, honestly, and with both confidence and consideration. People didn’t say no to her a lot, because, well, why would you want to?
Her accomplishments were many, but she was best known as an educator. A onetime Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand with an master’s of business administration from New York University, Hamilton inherited the management of her father’s Brooklyn trade school, Apex, where the subjects of study were welding, refrigeration, and auto repair, not patisserie and the art of sauces. She got the idea to add a cooking school as an adjunct after she visited the Ferrandi culinary academy in Paris on a trip to Europe with the officials from a trade school association, and in 1984 welcomed the inaugural class of 10 students to what was initially called the French Culinary Institute. It took on a life of its own, and became one of America’s — and the world’s — major cooking schools.
Among the now-prominent chefs who trained there were Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, Dan Barber, Donatella Arpaia, and Judy Joo. Hamilton assembled a blue-chip faculty including Jacques Pépin, André Soltner, Alain Sailhac, Emily Luchetti, and Jacques Torres. As the FCI evolved into the International Culinary Center, Cesare Casella developed an extensive Italian curriculum for the school. (José Andrés and I later put together a Spanish one.)
Everybody came to the school, to teach or lecture or cook, from Julia Child and Marcella Hazan to Ferran Adrià and Massimo Bottura. Hamilton opened a campus in California and extended the Italian Studies Program to Italy itself. In what she would have laughingly called her spare time, she was president of the Friends of the USA Pavilion at last year’s EXPO Milano in that Italian metropolis and showed attendees more good American food than they could have dreamed of.
Hamilton won countless honors — the National Order of Merit, Agricultural Merit Knighthood, and Legion of Honor from the French government among them. She discovered and promoted Fourchu lobsters, the so-called “kobe beef” of crustaceans, fished off the Cape Breton village where her Nova Scotia house was located. She was a consummate host, both professionally and personally. Lunches at the stunning Connecticut lakeside house she formerly shared with her then-husband, Doug Hamilton, and their daughter, Olivia, were extraordinary. The vegetables were pulled from the garden a few minutes before mealtime; paellas cooked on an outside grill, or pizzas bubbled in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven, while guests like onetime Tonight Show bandleader Skitch Henderson; playwright/activist Larry Kramer; or English-born Parisian restaurateur Mark Williamson graced her table. Conversation was always lively, and by no means confined to subjects gastronomic. Pétanque on the lawn, fueled by Champagne, often followed.
A month or so ago, my wife and I stopped in to see the Great Northern Food Hall recently opened in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station by Claus Meyer, the Danish entrepreneur who helped start Noma in Copenhagen (and later opened Gustu, the first serious contemporary restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia). There, having a glass of wine with Meyer, was Hamilton. “Of course you know each other,” she said to both of us. Of course, we didn’t — but she made sure that, by the time we parted 15 minutes later, we were fast friends. That’s the kind of thing she did.
“We’ve got to have dinner soon,” she said as we were leaving. We hugged briefly, then said goodbye forever.