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Farm-to-table pioneer Sally Schmitt shared French Laundry recipes in new cookbook ‘Six California Kitchens’

Dinners in honor of Sally Schmitt

Sally Schmitt, founder of The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, right, and her daughter Karen Bates, worked together on a Schmitt’s cookbook, “Six California Kitchens.” The Apple Farm near Philo will be honoring the late Schmitt with a series of Saturday Suppers this May through October. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Saturday Suppers: A series of farm-to-table dinners will be held in the garden of the Apple Farm to celebrate the release of Sally Schmitt’s cookbook and memoir, “Six California Kitchens.” Each five-course meal will feature different seasonal recipes from the book along with local wine pairings.

When: May 7, June 11, July 9, August 6, Sept. 10 and Oct 15

Cost: $180 per person

To reserve: philoapplefarm.com

Boonville Hotel Dinners: Chef Perry Hoffman will celebrate his grandmother, Sally Schmitt, with two five-course dinners inspired by her book, “Six California Kitchens.”

When: June 10 and Sept. 9

Cost: $86 per person, not including beverage, tip and tax

Reservations: Call the hotel at 707-895-2210

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.”

6 kitchens

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.

Dinners in honor of Sally Schmitt

Sally Schmitt, founder of The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, right, and her daughter Karen Bates, worked together on a Schmitt’s cookbook, “Six California Kitchens.” The Apple Farm near Philo will be honoring the late Schmitt with a series of Saturday Suppers this May through October. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Saturday Suppers: A series of farm-to-table dinners will be held in the garden of the Apple Farm to celebrate the release of Sally Schmitt’s cookbook and memoir, “Six California Kitchens.” Each five-course meal will feature different seasonal recipes from the book along with local wine pairings.

When: May 7, June 11, July 9, August 6, Sept. 10 and Oct 15

Cost: $180 per person

To reserve: philoapplefarm.com

Boonville Hotel Dinners: Chef Perry Hoffman will celebrate his grandmother, Sally Schmitt, with two five-course dinners inspired by her book, “Six California Kitchens.”

When: June 10 and Sept. 9

Cost: $86 per person, not including beverage, tip and tax

Reservations: Call the hotel at 707-895-2210

“I had to downsize my pantry and learn more about what to do with leftovers,” she writes. “We would have breakfast, which we never did when we ran The French Laundry.”

Although it makes for a delicious armchair read, “Six California Kitchens” belongs in the kitchen and was designed to lay flat on a counter. The book includes enlightening detours that reveal how Schmitt stocked her pantry and designed her kitchens, and her philosophy on cleaning as you cook.

As a minimalist cook, Schmitt invested in only a few good tools in the kitchen, including a Japanese chef’s knife, a mixer and a blender.

“Somebody gave her a Cuisinart when they first came out, and she hated washing it so she gave it away,” Bates said.

Although her father enjoyed sweet finales, Schmitt was more interested in savory fare, Bates said. During the winter, when people tended to eat richer food, she would keep the final course light, serving desserts such as her Marinated Citrus Compote at The French Laundry.

The cookbook also includes a section on Big Parties, where Schmitt offers up some of her favorite appetizer recipes, such as Pickled Shrimp, and cakes for special occasions, including a Coffee Walnut Sponge Cake.

“She was always aware of her surroundings while being able to focus on family, and at huge parties, she balanced it all so graciously,” Hoffman recalled. “Looking back at it, I think, ‘How did grandma do this? Five kids, two restaurants, a farm?’”

Family affair cookbook

Over the years, several people had suggested to Schmitt that she write a cookbook, including the founding editor of Saveur magazine. But after attending a seminar with her daughter on how to write a book, they both decided it was too much work.

Then when Schmitt celebrated her 80th birthday, two of her grandsons decided it was time to get the ball rolling. Perry’s brother, Troyce Hoffman, was working as a professional photographer and his other brother, Byron Hoffman, had launched a career as a graphic designer. They gifted their time and energy to help make Schmitt’s cookbook dream a reality.

Meanwhile, Bates gathered the recipes she and her mother had been teaching in cooking classes and gave her a full set so she could write notes on them.

“She got out her legal pad and pen, because some of the stories were too long to fit on the back of the cards,” Bates said “And it started like that, in fits and starts.”

Bates’ daughter, Polly, took her grandmother’s handwritten notes, typed them and sent them back to Bates, who put all the recipes in the format she and her mother favored, with the instructions for each ingredient next to it rather than down below. That way, cooks won’t lose their place as they follow a recipe.

Eventually, the family found a writer, Bruce Smith, who interviewed Schmitt and helped synthesize her notes, then wrote the final copy for Schmitt’s approval.

“It is her book,” Bates said. “We feel her voice is very present and strong throughout the book, and we worried about losing that. … But Bruce was amazing.”

With her innate visual sense, Schmitt also gave her input on the final design, meeting with her grandson Byron, who showed her his first draft, then incorporated changes she wanted made. For a publisher, the family chose Chronicle Books because they were local and very receptive.

“Our path was, ‘Let’s take this book as far as we possibly can, and if somebody wants to publish it, that’s great,’” Bates said. “‘But we’re not going to compromise.’”

However, there were a few compromises that they had to make, in the name of practicality.

“My mom really wanted a linen cover, but we’re probably glad they talked us out of it, because it gets dirty,” Bates said.

The finished cookbook still represents Schmitt in all its tactile glory, with a cover embossed with copper and blue foil and a yellow and grosgrain ribbon bookmark. There is a nice mix of color food photography by Schmitt’s grandson and candid snapshots from the family archives.

Now that the book has been released, the Apple Farm will host monthly five-course dinners from May through October that are open to the public (see factbox).

Like the book itself — already sold out after two printing runs of 5,000 — the dinners are selling well.

Meanwhile, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ben Proudfoot is wrapping up work on a short film about Schmitt that he expects to be screened on the New York Times website as early as July.

“In May of 2020 … he did an intense interview with my mom for two days,” Bates said. “They had hours of footage, and they got it down to 18 minutes.”

Although she didn’t enjoy the spotlight, the humble pioneer of California cuisine appears to be getting her 15 minutes of fame after all.

“She was such an amazing human being, and she pointed us in so many right directions in life,” said Hoffman, the youngest chef to win a Michelin star at age 25, when he cooked at Domaine Chandon restaurant. “I was inspired to cook in Yountville because of my grandparents.”

More copies of “Six California Kitchens” are expected to be printed soon. To order, go to philoapplefarm.com. It will also be available at Copia in Napa, Chef Thomas Keller’s Finesse-The Store in Yountville, Farmhouse Mercantile in Boonville, the Boonville Hotel and the Farmstand at the Apple Farm in Philo.

The following recipes are reprinted with permission from “Six California Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt (2022, Chronicle Books).

“The inspiration for this salad was a recipe in the African Cooking volume of that amazing series of cookbooks, ‘Foods of the World,’ which Time Life began publishing in the late 1960s,” Schmitt said. “I added the sliced avocados and placed the dates and onions on a bed of aggressive greens, but the sprinkle of peanuts came with the original recipe. It is such a lovely contrast in texture and flavor.”

Date, Onion & Avocado Salad with Peanuts

Serves 6

8 ounces Medjool or other good-quality dates, quartered lengthwise

½ large sweet onion, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, thinly slivered lengthwise

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

— Pinch of salt

— Pinch of sugar

— Greens, preferably arugula or garden cress

— 2 avocados, cut into lengthwise slices

— Chopped roasted peanuts

Combine dates and onion in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, balsamic vinegar, salt and sugar. Add the dressing to the dates and onion and toss well until completely coated. The dates will probably soak up any excess dressing. Let sit for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

To serve, divide greens among 6 plates, fan out some avocado slices on each bed of greens, spoon the date mixture between the avocado slices and sprinkle generously with peanuts.

“As an all-in-one meal, this was a favorite lunchtime offering during our Apple Farm weekends,” Schmitt said. “It was also a perfect use for the preserved lemons we like to make and have on hand.”

Pasta with Asparagus & Preserved Lemon

Serves 6 to 8

— Salt

1 pound dried pasta, such as linguine, fettuccine or pappardelle

¼ cup butter or olive oil

1 bunch (1 pound) asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 1- to 2-inch pieces

¼ cup or more Preserved Lemons (recipe follows)

— Chunk of good Parmesan cheese

— Fresh lemon wedges

— Best-quality olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. When it comes to a full boil, add a generous amount of salt and the pasta and cook until the pasta is just tender. Remove and reserve a generous amount of the cooking water. Drain the pasta in a colander.

While the pasta is cooking, in a large skillet over medium heat, melt or warm the butter or olive oil. Add the asparagus and saute until almost tender, but still crisp. Remove from the heat and let rest, uncovered.

Mince the preserved lemons, including the rind and pulp. (You can rinse the lemon before you mince it to reduce the salt.)

In a large bowl, toss the asparagus and preserved lemon with the pasta, adding a little of the reserved cooking water to loosen the pasta as needed.

Grate the Parmesan cheese with a microplane, or shave with a vegetable peeler to make pretty curls. Sprinkle the cheese over the top of the pasta and serve at once with the lemon wedges and a drizzle of your best olive oil. You may want to add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice at the end for extra zing.

“There are many variations of these lemons, but this is my way of preparing them. I prefer to keep them simple and pure, with no other ingredients,” Schmitt said.

Preserved Lemons

3 or 4 lemons

1 cup kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal

Wash and dry the lemons. Cut each into eight wedges and transfer to a medium bowl. Toss with the salt.

Pack into a ½-pint glass jar, pressing the lemons down into their juice. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 week, shaking occasionally. Store in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to 1 year.

To use, finely dice or slice the preserved rind.

“After a hearty winter meal, this refreshing dessert is light, lovely to look at and very, very satisfying,” Scmitt said.

Marinated Citrus Compote

Serves 6

6 oranges

2 cups white wine

1 cup sugar

½ cup Grand Marnier or another orange liqueur

Place 3 of the oranges on a work surface and, using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest in strips (without the bitter pith). Stack up the zest and cut into very fine slivers. Blanch the zest by dropping the slivers in a small saucepan of boiling water. Return to a boil and immediately drain the water and remove the zest.

In a medium saucepan, mix the wine and sugar and bring to a simmer. Add the zest and continue simmering until syrupy, about 5 minutes. Pour in the Grand Marnier or orange liqueur.

With the 3 oranges you zested, cut away the pith and section or slice the oranges. Repeat with the other 3 oranges, peeling them with a knife to also remove the pith. (Variations: Add or substitute blood oranges or add kumquat slices.)

Transfer the oranges to a bowl, and pour the syrup over them. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. They will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for three days.

Serve in tall stemmed glasses or your prettiest bowls with simple crisp cookies, a scoop of any citrus sherbet and/or fresh blueberries.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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