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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.

“The smell was intoxicating,” she recalled. “As was my awareness that I was responsible for it.”

She graduated early from high school, at age 16, and studied home economics at the University of California, Davis and the University of California Berkeley, graduating in 1952 at the age of 20.

She had met Don at a wedding while she was still at UC Davis, and the pair continued to correspond after he enlisted in the Air Force. They were married in July 1953, then moved to Fresno, where Don had a job in banking.

As the mother of five children, Sally threw herself into home cooking out of economic necessity as well as love, testing her way through various cookbooks and entertaining friends with the help of magazines such as Sunset.

In 1967, the family uprooted itself and moved to Yountville, where Don had been offered a job managing the Vintage 1870 shopping center, a historic winery converted into shops, galleries and a cafe. It’s now known as the V Marketplace.

While Don managed the tenants, Sally took over running the Vintage Cafe, a burger joint with soda fountain that had a gas grill at one end and Napa Valley’s first and only espresso machine at the other. After she fired the cook for not welcoming her suggestions, Sally’s cooking career began. She took over the grill and enlisted her oldest daughters to make milkshakes and espressos for their growing lunch business.

“We soon knew that food was a big draw,” she wrote in her cookbook. “The cafe was about hamburgers and milkshakes, done well, the way I wanted. But I wanted to do more.”

Within three years, she had opened The Chutney Kitchen restaurant in a vacant corner of Vintage 1870, designing her own kitchen to use for the restaurant and for making chutney to sell to her customers.

In addition to serving lunch for vintners’ wives, The Chutney Kitchen started offering monthly, Friday night dinners paired with Napa Valley wines, cooked using only local, in-season ingredients. The five-course, prix fixe menus changed each month.

Before long, Sally was also catering lunch for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which further honed her palate and boosted her confidence.

“Simple food, without fancy frills, was what pleased them the most,” she wrote in her cookbook.

The Chutney Kitchen provided the blueprint and the vision for their next restaurant. In 1974, they purchased a rundown building in Yountville, then spent four years renovating it. The French Laundry opened for business on Feb. 7, 1978.

The couple never got around to putting a sign up outside, didn’t accept credit cards, didn’t advertise and never allowed smoking in the restaurant. They served one prix fixe dinner a night, and every day there was a different menu: a choice of three starters, a soup, an entree, a green salad with cheese and a choice of three desserts.

The tables were booked months in advance.

Sally also planted an herb garden outside the back door and started building relationships with local purveyors for produce, wild mushrooms and the local duck raised by Jim Reichardt of Liberty Duck in Petaluma.

Meanwhile, Don put together a wine list that focused solely on Napa Valley wines, and it kept growing, along with the line of winemakers coming through the door, including Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Jack Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards, and even the dean of American winemakers, Andre Tchelistcheff.

By the time the couple sold the restaurant to the up-and-coming chef Keller in 1994, they had already purchased an apple farm in Philo, where they planned to retire.

For the next 15 years on the farm, Sally passed on her recipes and techniques to students who came from all over the country to study with her and her daughter. The recipes, like the menus at The French Laundry, were always written out meticulously by hand in a style that Sally preferred: the ingredients listed on the right, with the directions for those ingredients next to them, on the left.

After losing her husband in 2017, Sally started working in earnest on her memoir, recording all the stories from her rich life in her restaurant and home kitchens and curating the recipes she wanted to leave behind for family and friends.

“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 in her cookbook. “That’s what mattered. That’s all that mattered.”

She is survived by her sister Kay Stone of Santa Cruz; children Kathy Hoffman of Williams, Oregon, Johnny Schmitt of Boonville, Karen Bates of Philo, Eric Schmitt of Napa and Terry Schmitt of Sebastopol; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A private family celebration will be held in the spring. Donations may be made in Sally’s name to The Anderson Valley Health Center, P.O. Box 338, Boonville, CA 95415.

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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