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A history of The Culinary Institute of America: 1946-56

04 January, 2023
A history of The Culinary Institute of America: 1946-56.

There’s a rich, almost poetic, logic to funnelling recently retired servicemen to the professional kitchen: Auguste Escoffier, the father of the brigade de cuisine, or ‘brigade system,’ of kitchen organisation, was himself a veteran of the French military and modelled the system on the military hierarchy. Chef, for example, means ‘chief,’ and ranks and stations such as sous chef, garde manger, and tournant, took the place of military titles, specialisations, and post assignments. And, like soldiers, cooks and even chefs were for the most part anonymous, their names and personalities subordinate to the organism and its mission.

To fully comprehend the importance of The Culinary Institute of America, as the school would eventually be renamed, it’s important to understand that through the late 20th Century, the US was largely bereft of culinary identity. Regional home cooking wasn’t yet codified or celebrated. More pertinent to the Institute’s impact, the nation’s great restaurants and chefs were imported from Europe, primarily France. CIA President Dr Tim Ryan, a 1977 graduate of the CIA himself, describes the prevailing attitude towards American cuisine at the time as: “There is no such thing. It’s derivative. There’s not one thing you could say was uniquely American.”

Underscoring this sentiment in restaurants, waiters and captains spoke with Gallic accents; and menus composed in French were considered a stamp of sophistication. The French classics served in even the best restaurants were largely interchangeable, culled from the canon first committed to the page by Escoffier, with no room for, or expectation of, self-expression. In other words, the very notion of a ‘signature dish’ was still several decades in the future. And professional kitchens themselves, even the best of them, were regarded as dirty, shameful, dead-end receptacles for the otherwise unemployable.

In time, the school naturally morphed into the Restaurant Institute of Connecticut, and under Roth’s leadership as Director, grew from an initial class of 16 students, taught by a mere three instructors, to a second class of 55, and eventually to about 400 in 1965, her last year at its helm. The school’s early curriculums focused on American fare fit for Norman Rockwell paintings, such as beef stew and apple pie, before expanding to a more worldly, French-leaning repertoire. Its increasing and ever-more geographically diverse student body led to a move to the Wallace Estate, sandwiched between two Yale University buildings, and a second name change, in 1951, to The Culinary Institute of America. Over time the school flowered into a force that would help usher in, support, reflect, and ultimately influence an ever-evolving culinary sea change in the US, and beyond.

Yannick Alleno

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