Sally Schmitt, farm-to-table pioneer, founder of The French Laundry in Yountville, leaves culinary legacy
Sally Schmitt, a culinary visionary who founded The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville and helped launch the farm-to-table movement in Northern California, died on March 5 at her home in Philo after several years of declining health. She had just turned 90.
The pioneering chef had been working for decades on a cookbook and memoir that explored her life as it unfolded in the kitchen, from learning to can pickles with her mother at their farm outside Sacramento to her steadily rising career at three Napa restaurants, ending with a storied, 16-year run at The French Laundry that caught the attention of critics and chefs alike.
After selling The French Laundry to Thomas Keller in 1994, she taught cooking at the Apple Farm in Anderson Valley for 15 years with her daughter, Karen Bates. She then retired with her husband Don to a small cottage in Elk. After Don died in 2017, she returned to the Apple Farm to be close to her family, living above its farmstand.
Never one to seek the spotlight, Schmitt died just before the publication of her book, “Six California Kitchens,” to be released in April. Like everything else her three-generation family has attempted ‒ from flower arranging to earning Michelin stars ‒ the cookbook reflects the hands-on, artisan legacy she passed on.
Her grandson, Perry Hoffman, grew up in The French Laundry, where his mother was a waitress. He would eat leftovers for dinner at an early age then helped her in the kitchen with prep like roasting peppers.
“Everything she cooked had so much confidence, but she always made sure it was going to be delicious,” he said. “Even the smallest steps, like browning butter. She made sure it was done over a diffuser trivet on the stove, very slow, 20 minutes to make a consistent brown butter with no milk solids.”
Hoffman, who was the youngest chef to win a Michelin star at age 25 while cooking at the former Etoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, recalled his grandmother making the most memorable roast chicken dish of his life.
“l’ve tried to recreate the sauce, and I just can’t,” he said. “She took all the drippings of the chicken, and I watched her put it back in her Hamilton Beach blender, and she added butter, lemon and rosemary and made a roasted chicken fat aioli, in the style of a vinaigrette. It was the most delicious thing ever.”
In his early teens, Hoffman also fell in love with cooking.
“Honestly, the only reason I became a chef was because of my grandmother,” he said. “I went through all my cousins and I figured out no one else was going to do it.”
After earning the Michelin star at Etoile, Hoffman went on to serve as culinary director of SHED in Healdsburg. In 2018, he became chef and partner at his family’s Boonville Hotel. His wife serves as the wine buyer, and they built a house at the Apple Farm where multiple generations of the family live.
Barndiva owner Jil Hales, who is a friend of the family and has a farm in Anderson Valley as well, said Sally helped her when she first opened her restaurant.
“She gave us the first recipe we served, which is her Dough Gods, little dough drops that are easy to make and not fussy,” she recalled. “She said it’s really important that you establish your hospitality and give people something that awakens their appetite.”
At family parties and weddings, Hales always enjoyed sitting next to Sally and talking to her for hours.
“She had a dry wit and was very matter-of-fact,” Hales said. “She said it like it was, and her form of hospitality was very giving and nurturing, but she didn’t veer from what she wanted to do.”
Keller pays tribute to Schmitt in the preface of his book, “The French Laundry,” noting her gracious hospitality and unpretentious, forthright nature that was reflected in her cooking style.
“Sally operated from a minimalist kitchen that somehow reflected her cooking style,” he wrote. “There was nothing grandstanding about Sally’s food. Her repertoire employed Gallic touches but also drew on cherished elements of Americana: tomato soup, braised oxtails, cranberry and apple kuchen.”
Keller not only kept the name of the Schmitts’ restaurant ‒ a rustic building made of heavy fieldstone that had operated as an actual laundry at one time ‒ but he carried on Sally’s tradition of inviting guests into the kitchen after a meal. He also pays tribute to her annually by serving one of her prix fixe menus at The French Laundry.
Sarah “Sally” Kelsoe was born Feb. 28, 1932 in Roseville, the daughter of a railroad worker and a homemaker and schoolteacher. Sally took to the kitchen early, where one of her earliest memories was standing on a stool at her mother’s stove, stirring the chocolate pudding.