How Two Women Founded the Culinary Institute of America
70 years later, the cooking school is majority female for the first time ever.
Historically, the professional culinary arts have been dominated by men. It’s an issue the industry has sought to remedy, and more and more publications, including our own, have sought to highlight. In a fitting coincidence, at the beginning of Women’s History Month, the 71-year-old Culinary Institute of America confirmed that their current enrollment is majority female for the first time ever. It’s a major benchmark for the institute, which was actually founded and run by two pioneering women, Frances L. Roth and Katherine Angell, in 1946.
During the wartime turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s, America saw a decline in European chefs emigrating to the country. Following World War II, America’s young men and women returning home from overseas provided a flood of young, eager workers in need of jobs. To train and find placement in new fields, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the G.I. Bill in 1944, which guaranteed veterans grants for continuing education.
It’s at this opportune moment the paths of Roth and Angell would cross.
Frances L. Roth was already a pioneer of professional women before founding a cooking school. At just 17, she enrolled in New York University’s law school, became one of the first women admitted into the Connecticut State Bar Association and the first female prosecutor in the city court system of New Haven. During the war, Roth was put in charge of Social Protection Division of the Connecticut War Council (essentially a vice squad identifying places where soldiers might be in danger of contracting venereal diseases) which saw her coordinating between various businesses in the hospitality industry. Her contacts with restaurants and hotels in the New Haven Restuarant Association made her aware of the dearth of skilled back-of-the-house workers in commercial kitchens. Thus the idea to train a new generation of accomplished American chefs was born. The New Haven Restaurant Institute opened its doors in a former bar on May 22, 1946 with an inaugural class of 44 students (but just one woman, Mrs. Doris Rippchen).
Roth handled the day-to-day operations, but the fledgling school still needed resources, financial and otherwise, both roles benefactor Katherine Angell was able to fill. Angell was married the president of Yale University and was adept at fundraising and promoting causes. She oversaw student aid funds and the compiling of the school’s library, as well as facilitating a move to a larger location next to the Yale campus where its students would cater events and for athletes.
Roth even took her passion for the NHRI to Congress, where she testified to the difficulties of running an educational program seen as a trade school rather than an accredited university, and that had to navigate Veterans Administration bureaucracy to claim tuition money. During the hearings, she was pressed to account for the extravagant seven-course lunches the students were eating (which they’d often themselves cooks). According to Elizabeth S. Demers Icons of American Cooking, she did so with her characteristic vigor saying, “Many a boy has come in here who had never seen a lobster, and yet he must be competent to prepare a lobster thermidor.” In the end she defended the practice as economic. “You can’t very well throw it out. They have to criticize it. They have to know what they have produced.”
Under Roth and Angell, the institute would grow, enrolling larger classes that would start to include more racial, gender and geographic diversity. Future classes of students would get the chance to cook for prominent supper clubs, first ladies and heads of state. The name would change a few times to reflect the growing interest in the nation’s only culinary training center from prospective “chefs in progress” throughout the country. In 1951 the school officially took on its current name of the Culinary Institute of America.
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While the Institute always admitted women in some form, the school’s history does highlight just how far they’ve come in gender parity. From 1966 to 1970, newly enrolled women were not permitted to attend general classes, but could take summer courses. This was due mostly to the inability to provide consistent housing for the low number of female applicants. By 1971 the official eligibility requirements were amended to once again include both sexes.
Roth retired as director in 1964, and Angell would continue to work with the CIA until 1983 when she passed away at age 92. In 1972 the CIA moved to it’s current headquarters in Hyde Park and now has campuses in Napa, San Antonio and Singapore. The CIA has handed degrees to over 49,000 graduates and currently enrolls over 2,800 students — 51.6% of whom are women.