A Quick History of the Culinary Institute of America

How two women and a shared dream led to America’s preeminent culinary school.

A photo of Frances Roth, taken in the mid-1940s, reveals how closely the New Haven, Connecticut, resident resembled a fictional contemporary of hers: Coiffed, tidy Betty Crocker, who starred in ads for a newfangled “Cake in a Box” mix. Yet Roth had more in common with Betty than just comforting, matronly looks. Both were determined to bring the culinary arts to the forefront of the United States’ consciousness. In Roth’s case, that meant becoming the cofounder and first director of a small cooking school in 1946. One that would ultimately become the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), now widely considered the nation’s best place for aspiring chefs to learn their chops—and purées, sautés, flambés, and much, much more.

Stroll around its sweeping, 170-acre complex situated atop a bluff in Hyde Park, and you’ll understand why Condé Nast Traveler named the CIA one of the country’s prettiest campuses in 2022. Depending on when you visit, one or more of the academy’s five restaurants will be open and ready to serve you—they run the gamut from haute cuisine to grab-and-go fare. All of them are faculty-led and run by students in their final year of culinary or baking and pastry courses. The person prepping your meal may one day own a prestigious restaurant where you can’t get a table: Many grads continue on to become successful entrepreneurs or create the next big dining trends.

A front-of-house student worker at American Bounty
A front-of-house student worker at American Bounty

Just as fun is catching sight of some of the 3,000 or so students, who, when not in chef’s uniforms, wear business attire to emphasize the college’s high standard of professionalism. These days, those students are as likely to be women as men, but throughout most of the CIA’s history, the latter far outnumbered the former. It was only in 2016 that they were roughly equally represented—which is ironic, since without a pair of fearless females, the CIA might never have had the ingredients for success.

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Two Women, One Team

It’s logical to assume that Frances Roth herself was a fabulous cook, yet no information exists as to whether she made a mean gelatin mold. What is known is that she was a legal eagle. A prodigy, she skipped college and went straight to New York University School of Law, returning to her native New Haven after graduation. She became the first woman admitted to the Connecticut Bar Association, and then, in 1925, her city’s first female prosecutor. The Hartford Courant proclaimed her perfect for the role, having “a rich, good humor, becoming frankness, natural sincerity, and spontaneous wit.” Several other high-profile positions followed.

Frances Roth
Frances Roth

By 1944, Roth’s reputation as a mover and shaker had landed her on the radar of numerous businesses. Among them was New Haven Restaurant Association, which, as World War II dragged on, faced a crippling shortage of professional chefs. To fill the gap, the group found a New Haven storefront suitable for a cooking school, which would be the only one of its kind in the country. Roth was approached to take the helm. Though she wasn’t immersed in the food industry, she was known for operating on all four burners.

Rather than fly solo, she asked Katharine Angell, wife of the then-president of Yale University, to partner with her. Both threw themselves into establishing the new school, christened the New Haven Restaurant Institute. Roth vowed to make it “the culinary center of the nation.” Angell, who would become chair of the board, had her own motives. Her eldest son, Edward, had died in the war. The Restaurant Institute would be his memorial, Angell felt, a place where military personnel lucky enough to have returned home could receive an education under the GI Bill. On May 22, 1946, the storefront opened its doors, and 50 students—only one of which was a woman—walked through it, eager to be taught by a staff consisting of a chef, a baker, and a dietitian.

Katherine Angell
Katherine Angell

Sweet Success

One year later, perhaps in a nod to its expanding aspiration, the school changed its name to the Restaurant Institute of Connecticut. Word spread about the unique training ground where World War II veterans could learn to conquer America’s dining scene. By 1950, 600 veterans from 38 states had graduated from the Institute and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Roth to be interviewed on her radio show. (Ironically, the fare in the White House while FDR was in office had been awful. Guests made sure to eat beforehand to avoid having to choke down jellied bouillon and prune pudding.)
Culinary classes

While Roth’s guest spot heightened listeners’ awareness that chefs were, indeed, professionals, the interview made it clear that there was more work to be done. “How do you say C-U-L-I-N-A-R-Y?” Roosevelt asked Roth. Most people, however, would soon add the word to their vocabulary. That same year, Look magazine applauded the Institute for promising “a continuity of good eating, with increasing accent on the ‘American’ tastes.” The Institute changed its name for a final time, to the august and authoritative Culinary Institute of America.

Word spread about the unique training ground where WWII veterans could learn to conquer America’s dining scene. By 1950, 600 veterans from 38 states had graduated from the Institute.

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New Digs

Roth retired in 1965 and the torch passed to a new president, Jacob Rosenthal, who navigated the school’s meteoric rise. Within four years, the student body numbered 1,000, applications were backlogged, and an auxiliary campus was opened. The Institute needed more room, and serendipitously the perfect place turned up 85 miles northwest in Hyde Park, where a group of Jesuit priests had decided to sell their novitiate. From 1972 on, CIA students would be surrounded by stateliness and eat in a dining hall with stained-glass windows.

Culinary Institute of America

The larger campus inspired loftier projects, which included a public dining establishment called the Epicurean Room and Rabalais Grill, along with residence halls, a learning resource center, and a culinary library. In 1979, LIFE magazine proclaimed the CIA “the Harvard of Haute Cuisine.” Roth and Angell’s dream, conceived more than 30 years earlier, was finally realized. The 1980s saw an emphasis on trailblazing, not only in the craft of cooking but also the science behind it. In 1984, the school constructed an experimental kitchen and food lab, followed by a nutrition center four years later, aimed at promoting healthy cooking.

Rolling Out Nationwide

For nearly 40 years, students interested in the CIA’s exceptional offerings had to find their way to Hyde Park, even if it meant saying goodbye to their home (and possibly milder winters). In 1995, that changed with the opening of the CIA’s second campus, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in California’s Napa Valley. Today, there are four in all, including locations in Texas and Singapore.

You don’t have to travel around the world, though, to sample eclectic fare. Its Hyde Park campus restaurants include American Bounty—which focuses on the seasons and Hudson Valley’s products—and Caterina de’ Medici, featuring Italian cuisine. Apple Pie Bakery Café, which is open for breakfast and lunch from Monday through Friday, has casual, classic favorites you can eat at plain tables or take on the run. There’s also Post Road Brew House, a pop-up gastropub serving CIA-brewed beer.

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A professor sharing dough-folding techniques in class.
A professor sharing dough-folding techniques in a Culinary Institute of America class.

Although the CIA has spread across the country and even overseas, Hyde Park is still the OG. Walk its halls and you’ll see tributes to its many famous alums. In one showcase window, you’ll find a picture of Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes, Roy Choi from Netflix’s “The Chef Show” and Kogi food truck fame, and author of Wedding Planning for Dummies Marcy Blum, all winners of this year’s CIA Leadership Awards. A plaque bearing the image of the late, great Anthony Bourdain graces a hallway named after him. Today, just a couple of decades after the rise of celebrity chef culture and widespread respect for the profession, it’s easy to look back and realize most people never saw it coming. But more than 60 years ago, two women looked to the future—and did.

In 1979, LIFE magazine proclaimed the CIA “the Harvard of Haute Cuisine.” Roth and Angell’s dream, conceived 30 years earlier, was finally realized.

Dishing Out Some Trivia

Culinary

  • The Culinary Institute of America is actually a year older than that other CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Drew Barrymore took a recreational cooking class at the CIA’s Napa Valley campus—along with Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz.
  • Ryan Seacrest has taken several private, custom classes, so maybe, just maybe, he’ll be the next American cooking idol.
  • Each year, the CIA purchases 1,989,900 local eggs, produces 54,485 pints of beer, and creates 173,120 chocolates and truffles.
chefs
Cooking at the Culinary Institute of America

Learn From the Best

The CIA’s curriculum is notoriously demanding. However, if you can’t take the heat of pursuing a career in the food industry, you don’t have to stay out of the kitchen—the Institute offers a wide range of classes. You can commit to as little as a single day of instruction by signing up for courses such as Artisan Breads at Home and Plant Forward Kitchen. In the mood for something more intense? Take a boot camp and spend two to five days focusing on skills such as cooking bistro classics or assembling hors d’oeuvres that will leave dinner guests swooning. For more information and a calendar of upcoming offerings, visit ciafoodies.com.

Related: Three Hudson Valley Eateries to Be Featured on America’s Best Restaurants

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