The Best Restaurant in the World

Founder of The French Laundry Sally Schmitt

Sally Schmitt / February 28, 1932 – March 5th, 2022

Sorta, Kinda (Peter Leitch New Life Orchestra from the New Life album)

(Note: The song “Sorta, Kinda” by the New Life Orchestra seems to go with this blog about Sally Schmitt. An interpretation of Sally in music for me. The constant theme of the elegant and graceful piece of music playing over and over like the hard work of a purposely, passionate life. Listen to the music and read the blog before watching the video.)

“All in all, I really have done just what I loved to do, which has always been simply to cook good food for those I cared for. That’s what mattered. That’s all that mattered.” Sally Schmitt

Over fifty years ago, before Chez Panisse, before California Cuisine, before Farm to Table, there was Sally Schmitt. San Francisco Chronicle Food Editor, Michael Bauer, has called Sally a legend and hailed her as “one of the great unsung heroes of California Cuisine,” calling her “as much a pioneer as Alice Waters.” Joyce Goldstein, in her book, Inside the California Food Revolution, wrote that Sally “opened one of the first restaurants to offer what would become identified as California Cuisine,” and that Sally “was a locavore before the term was even coined.” Julia Child, Richard Olney, Marion Cunningham, and yes, Alice Waters, all dined at Sally’s restaurant, The French Laundry. When noted chef, Cindy Pawlcyn, first started out, she tore a photo of Sally out of a magazine and carried it around with her in her wallet for fifteen years until it wore out.⁠ 

The building was built as a saloon in the in the 1900s by a Scottish Stoneman for Pierre Guillaume. In the 1920s, the building was owned by John Lande who used it as a French steam laundry which is the origin of the restaurant’s name.

And when Thomas Keller, who bought The French Laundry from Sally and her husband, Don, published his landmark The French Laundry Cookbook, he gave them the very first copy off the press, and had as the last recipe in the book, “Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen with hot Cream Sauce⁠,” along with a glowing tribute to them.

Sally Schmitt learned to cook early. Raised on a small, Northern California farm, she mastered with her mother while young how to churn butter, can vegetables, and make jam. This was followed by a degree in Home Economics from UC Davis, and then years of practice. 

Handwritten page from Sally’s recipe box

“When I set out to beome a chef, Sally Schmitt was my hero. Later when I opened my first restaurant, she was my mentor.” Cindy Pawlcyn, Chef & Proprietor, Mustards Grill

In 1967, she moved with her husband, Don, and their five children to Yountville in the Napa Valley to manage a large shopping arcade. Her restaurant career began when she took over the hamburger-and-sandwich cafe in the complex. Four years later, she opened the full-on restaurant, The Chutney Kitchen, that had lines out the door at lunch time and once-a-month, reservations-only dinners that soon expanded to twice a month.

Sally and Don

Eight years later, after renovating a run-down, old stone building, a former saloon converted to a laundry and then boarding house, she and Don opened their restaurant, The French Laundry, where they could serve dinner on a nightly basis. Her cooking was called “brilliant⁠” by Jeremiah Tower and soon drew applauds from Gourmet magazine and the major newspapers. With Sally cooking, and Don greeting guests and pouring wine, the restaurant stayed booked months in advance for the next sixteen years. 

” We can all learn from Sally and her approach to food, to say nothing of her approach to life.” Thomas Keller, Chef & Proprietor, The French Laundry

In 1994, Don and Sally sold their restaurant to the young chef, Thomas Keller, to “retire” to The Apple Farm, a 30-acre farm they had purchased in Sonoma’s Anderson Valley a decade before. Retirement turned into running a series of classes at the farm for fifteen years, and teaching at the Napa Valley College Culinary Arts Program, Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco, the Napa Valley Cooking Classes, Yountville’s “A Class Act,” and the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Opening Night Menu at the French Laundry (1978)

Then came real retirement when Don and Sally retreated to their little cottage in Elk where she learned to cook for two again. Her husband happily ate everything and smiled through all her experimenting with new ideas. One of the ideas was to write this book for her family, her students, and those who through the years came to love the cooking that came out of her kitchens.On March 5th, 2022, just five days after her 90th birthday, Sally Schmitt passed away at home. She spent the last years of her life happily surrounded by family, and working on her memoir/cookbook, Six California Kitchens, published by Chronicle Books in April of 2022.

(Above from the website Six California Kitchens)

* * *

A Grandson Remebers Sally Schmitt

Brooks Schmitt

3/25/22

https://sixcaliforniakitchens.com

When I think of my Grandma Sally, perhaps rather obviously, I think of the wonderful smells that surrounded her. Vanilla bean pods snapping between her fingers, notes of star anise drifting from a boiling copper vat of apricot chutney, duck legs sizzling in the oven, toasted peppercorns cracking in a mortar and pestle, the smell of her lotion and her shampoo, and the faint aroma of jasmine around her neck.

Sally in the Kitchen of the French Laundry (Circa late 70s)

These smells were so intoxicating that her kitchen was always a gravity well, and every day that she was in the kitchen there was this vague feeling that her kitchen was the center of the universe. It always felt strange to see my grandmother in the outside world, where she couldn’t control the balance of light, the temperature, the allocation of tasks. I would watch her eyes dart around and her mouth hang slightly open in the way that it always did when she was assessing a room and about to give orders, and then see her close her eyes and accept that this was not her domain. That even though she knew exactly where those chairs should go, and that the curtains blocking the morning light should be thrown open and were “just awful” as she would say, that this was not her world, her orchestra pit, her little gravity well in an unvarnished little pocket of Northern California.

Sally in the late 70s
Sally in her later years at her home – still cooking

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See the website Six California Kitchens for more information on the amazing Sally Schmitt.

Much thanks to my good friend Bushido for sending me the great video on Sally at the top of this post

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