When it comes to the culinary arts, a pronounced double standard for gender roles has long prevailed in the US. In the home, with rare exceptions, it’s taken for granted that women will do most if not all of the meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking – even when both spouses are working full-time. And yet celebrity chefs are still preponderantly male. This is partially a legacy of the prestigious cooking schools of Europe, which had originally drawn their recruits from the military and in some cases didn’t admit women until well into the 20th century. Although many classic cookbooks were authored by women, the perception that women could be cooks but not chefs didn’t really begin to break down in earnest until the television success of Julia Child. It wasn’t until 2017 that the student body at the Culinary Institute of America reflected this country’s actual demographics, with enrollment of women reaching 51.6 percent.
The little-known irony here is that the CIA was founded, administered and financially sustained through its early years by two women. Few chefs from Europe were emigrating to the US during the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, and a woman named Frances L. Roth believed that the gap could be filled with the help of the GI Bill if America had a top-quality cooking school. A pioneer who had enrolled in New York University Law School at age 17 and become one of the first women admitted into the Connecticut State Bar Association and the first female prosecutor in the New Haven city court system, during World War II Roth was put in charge of the Connecticut War Council’s Social Protection Division – which meant keeping tabs on venues where soldiers might contract venereal diseases. Working with businesses in the hospitality industry, she became aware of the shortage of skilled staff in commercial kitchens.
Roth sought the support of Katharine Angell, a wealthy North Carolina widow who had married Yale University president James Rowland Angell in 1932 and maintained a reputation as a high-society hostess and philanthropist long after her husband’s retirement. Angell had lost her eldest son in the war and wanted to do something to help veterans. She and Roth founded what was at first called the New Haven Restaurant Institute (NHRI) in 1946 – with an inaugural class of 43 men and one woman – in a building that had formerly been a tavern.
Angell soon found the school a larger and more respectable building next to the Yale Divinity School campus, Betts House, and arranged for student aid funds to become available. Since the program was seen as a trade school rather than an accredited university, GI Bill tuition funding was difficult to obtain, and Roth had to lobby Congress to streamline the Veterans Administration bureaucracy for her students. Some politicians were dubious about the fact that NHRI students were eating seven-course lunches daily – the products of their own labor – but Roth was able to convince them that this was both educationally and economically prudent, rather than evidence of a generous endowment or a privileged student population.
The school changed names several times, eventually becoming known as the Culinary Institute of America in 1951. The student body gradually became more diverse, although from 1966 to 1970, newly enrolled women were only allowed to take summer courses because there weren’t enough of them enrolling to support the cost of a separate dormitory. Roth retired as director in 1964; Angell served as president and chair of the board from 1946 to 1966 and continued working with the CIA until her death in 1983 at age 92. The CIA relocated to its current headquarters in Hyde Park in 1972, and has since spun off satellite campuses in Napa, San Antonio and Singapore. And now, 71 years after its founding, the cooking school is majority female for the first time ever. Surely, one of their number is the next Alice Waters.