Founding the CIA: Not the Spy Agency, the Cooking School

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Of the 2,800 students enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) as of March of 2017, 51.6% were women. For the first time in the school’s seventy-year history, its student body is majority-female. This is a pretty big deal for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it suggests a profession historically dominated by men is becoming increasingly egalitarian.

But the symbolic importance of this moment is even greater in light of the school’s origins. The Culinary Institute was founded in 1946, largely through the efforts of two powerful and determined women — and yet its inaugural class of forty-four students included only a single female graduate.

The Other CIA

Today, the private not-for-profit institution is headquartered in Hyde Park, New York with campuses in St. Helena and Napa, California, San Antonio, Texas, and the Republic of Singapore. With a staff of roughly 170 instructors, the CIA employs the world’s largest faculty of American Culinary Federation Certified Master Chefs. This thriving institution owes its present success to the vision of Frances Roth. CIA is ranked the #1 culinary school in America!

Roth was among the great workplace pioneers on behalf of her gender, seizing on the opportunities afforded to women as the nation’s men journeyed overseas for World War II combat. At just seventeen, she enrolled in New York University’s law school, and was soon after among the first women admitted to the Connecticut State Bar Association. She also became the first female prosecutor in New Haven’s court system.

Moral Hygiene and Business Networking

Roth's big break came as international tensions spilled over into conflict. It was then that she was named the head of the Social Protection Division of the Connecticut War Council, which was a vice squad responsible for cracking down on locations where soldiers were most at risk of contracting venereal disease. It happens that the business of preserving moral hygiene gave Roth the chance to network with all kinds of hospitality and food services industry types. It came to her attention that many kitchens in the industry were struggling to find skilled culinary professionals. In light of the bloody conflict seizing the world, the US saw a sharp dropoff in the number of European chefs emigrating here for opportunity.

It was thus that — despite the fact that she’d never spent even a minute working in a kitchen herself — Roth came up with the idea of the New Haven Restaurant Institute. Roth succeeded in establishing the school but sought assistance from another self-empowered woman to help take it to the next level. She found a willing and enthusiastic partner in Katherine Angell.

First Lady of Yale University

Angell was already fairly experienced both at fundraising and navigating the bureaucratic realities of higher education, married as she was to the president of Yale University. This connection also proved fruitful as the young Institute established its base of operations nearby the Ivy League campus. Yale’s faculty, students, and athletes proved more than willing to serve as dining test subjects for the chefs-in-training.

Both Roth and Angell would remain active in the school’s first decades of operation, with the latter leading student aid administration and procuring the Institute’s library collection and the former serving as president and even testifying before Congress on her school's behalf.

In 1951, the school officially took its current mantle as the Culinary Institute of America.

Recipe for Diversity

Roth and Angell also presided over the school as it consciously sought a more diverse student body, courting students of all races, ethnicities and genders. Roth served as the Institute’s president for nearly twenty years before retiring in 1964. Her departure may account for the brief period — from 1966 to 1970 — when the CIA permitted women to take only summer courses. This is because so few women sought to enroll in its general courses that the school couldn’t afford housing for the very few that did.

This policy was revised in 1971, initiating the gradual increase in the number of women enrolled. That very same year, the New York Board of Regents finally granted the CIA a charter to confer an Associate in Occupational Studies degree. It was the first culinary institution to earn this authority. Both events would lead to a period of steady and exciting growth.

March to Culinary Equality

Katherine Angell remained active in the CIA community until passing on in 1983. But even in the absence of both Roth and Angell, the CIA continued to progress toward gender equality, and with remarkable speed given its recent history. Today, the CIA continues to take steps forward as one of the world’s premier culinary colleges, earning the authority in 2016 to grant Bachelor of Business Administration degrees to students majoring in food business management.

To date, the CIA has dispatched more than 49,000 graduates into the world, helping to build and proliferate a distinctly American tradition of culinary excellence.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

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Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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