Farm-to-table pioneer Sally Schmitt shared French Laundry recipes in new cookbook ‘Six California Kitchens’
Sally Schmitt, best known as the chef/founder of The French Laundry in Yountville, always put family first when balancing the needs of her five children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren with her busy life running restaurants and teaching cooking classes.
As a girl, Schmitt learned to churn butter, can vegetables and make jam on her family’s homestead, then earned a degree in home economics from UC Davis. Those experiences led to a lifetime of farm-to-table cooking. With practice, she refined the simple, wholesome food she made for her family into elegant restaurant fare that drew acclaim from chefs and critics alike.
“She wasn’t really trying to send a message to the world — she just did what she loved,” said her grandson Perry Hoffman, chef/partner at the Boonville Hotel. “The family made everyday life and every meal special.”
The unsung heroine of California cuisine died at home on March 5 at the Philo Apple Farm, just five days after celebrating her 90th birthday. Schmitt spent the last 10 years of her life distilling the lessons she learned in her six California kitchens into a deeply moving memoir and deliciously personal cookbook.
Although she was not around for the April release of her 350-page “Six California Kitchens” (Chronicle Books, $35), her last meal was a dessert from the cookbook, the Coffee Pots de Crème she used to serve at The French Laundry, then give to her children as a treat the next morning.
“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,” she wrote at the conclusion of her cookbook. “That’s what mattered.”
Friends who knew her well, such as Barndiva owner Jil Hales of Healdsburg, said Schmitt would not have been sad about missing the brouhaha surrounding the book release. She was always more comfortable tucked away in the kitchen than being the center of attention.
“My dad was social; my mom was not, so he was out front and always happy to see people and to interact with people,” said Schmitt’s daughter, Karen Bates, who taught cooking classes alongside her mom for 20 years at the Apple Farm. “My mom always avoided that. You can’t socialize when you’re trying to put dinner on the table.”
As one of the first woman chefs in the Northern California restaurant world, Schmitt looked to other culinary luminaries such as Madeleine Kammen, Julia Child and Alice Waters for inspiration. But she effortlessly carved her own path, balancing her high standards of “craft, quality and care” with her innate sense of practicality.
“She did things right, but then there was the falsified aioli,” Hoffman noted. “She has a whole section (in the book) on using Best Foods mayonnaise and mixing it in a food processor (with herbs, lemon zest and pepper). She’s just brutally honest about it. That’s what makes her so awesome.”
The cookbook tells how Schmitt changed the way Bay Area residents ate over the span of five decades. It also shares more than 100 recipes for some of her favorite dishes, from the Cauliflower Souffle she experimented with at home and refined at The French Laundry to her signature duck entrees sourced from Jim Reichardt’s Liberty Duck of Petaluma.
“I was never into complexity,” Schmitt writes in the book. “When I ate something, I wanted to know what I was tasting. So I liked having just one or two flavors that would stand out in a dish. I tried to balance color and texture with the flavor.”
Using family photos to illustrate her life story, Schmitt organized the book according to the six kitchens she cooked in during her nine decades, starting with her mother’s farm kitchen outside Sacramento.
At the outset of her career, she worked in three Yountville restaurants: Vintage Cafe, a hamburger and milkshake joint in the 1870 building managed by her husband; The Chutney Kitchen, her own lunch cafe in the same building, where she launched seasonal prix fixe dinners as a precursor to her next restaurant; and The French Laundry, which the couple opened in 1978 with a one new prix fixe menu served every day.
“The prix fixe menus are the most direct and efficient way to run a restaurant,” Hoffman noted. “She did it because it was the only logical thing to do. And that’s what we do at the Boonville Hotel now.”
The cookbook concludes with the Apple Farm in Philo, a 32-acre orchard along the Navarro River that the couple bought after selling The French Laundry to the up-and-coming chef Thomas Keller; and with The Elk Cottage, where she and her husband retired, requiring the chef to learn how to cook for two people again.