Sally Schmitt, original chef of The French Laundry, has died at 90

A Bay Area legend in her own right, Sally Schmitt will be remembered as a pioneer of California cuisine, even before we hear it. Schmitt died at her home in Philo on Saturday at the age of 90.

Much like Alice Waters, Sally Schmitt and her husband Don sought to open an unassuming California-style restaurant, built around seasonal produce, but which nonetheless leaned heavily towards France. After a few years running a burger stand in Yountville and then opening her own restaurant called Chutney Kitchen, Sally and Don purchased the rough stone building on the town’s main street that once housed a French steam laundry as well as a a saloon, deciding to turn it into a restaurant with character. In 1978 it opened as The French Laundry, and they continued to run the place until 1994 when they sold it to Thomas Keller.

Keller was always quick to credit Schmitt as his ancestor, though he would go on to take The French Laundry in a very different — and higher — direction. As the Notes from the New York Times in an obituary today Keller wrote an introduction to Schmitt’s memoir and upcoming cookbook, titled Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons from a California Food Pioneer.

“Kind and generous, frank and unassuming,” Keller writes. “A culinary pioneer but also a throwback, crafting dishes that evoked the most delicious versions of your favorite childhood dishes. She’s the Sally we all knew.”

Keller was clearly inspired by Schmitt – high-end versions of “your favorite childhood meals” would become something of a signature of Keller’s food.

“If anyone knows what California food is, it’s her,” says Cindy Pawlcyn, chef at Mustards Grill near Napa and former chef at SF’s pioneering Fog City Diner, talk to the Chronicle. “She was cooking when everyone was starting to put it in the food. She kept it Americana, California, local, and farm-to-table.

And former Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, who enjoyed the Schmitts’ restaurant before Keller’s arrival, called Schmitt “a true pioneer” not only for being a female chef in a male-dominated sphere, but also for having offered an all-California wine list, and to start the trend of automatic 15% service charges.

Longtime folks in the wine industry in Napa Valley will remember a time when you couldn’t really get a good meal in Napa to go with the valley’s increasingly world-class wines – all the Everyone went to San Francisco if they wanted a good dinner. Schmitt tried to rectify this, first with monthly dinners at Chutney Kitchen that later evolved into weekly five-course Friday menus paired with Napa wines — which, as the Chronicle notes, “laid the foundation for laundry French”.

Schmitt was a master of rustic French country cooking, and his lamb shanks were a legend — his daughter Kathy Hoffman tells the Chronicle that long before Keller was seen as putting the place “on the map,” stars of the food worlds like Julia Child and Jeremiah Tower had to pull strings to get a table at Schmitt’s French Laundry, which became a major hit.

As Schmitt told the LA Times in 2020, “I didn’t have a mission. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to the world about simple, fresh, local food. It was just the way I was cooking. I didn’t really have a statement to make. I just put food on the table.

Schmitt has never been a fan of technology, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way, even in a busy restaurant kitchen. In the new books, she writes, “I always tried to keep it simple, which is why I never felt the need to use a food processor or microwave. Instead, I had good sharp knives, pots and pans, a big chopping block, a wooden spoon and a whisk. I’ve always liked working with my hands. That’s cooking.”

Kathy Hoffman told the Chronicle that the most important lesson she learned from her mother was to make the most of every meal and every day.

“She instilled in me a passion to live every day amidst the beauty that you yourself create,” Hoffman told the newspaper. “You can go on a trip, you can have a luxury car, but what’s most important is the quality of life you live every day.

In his book, Schmitt wrote: “Overall, I really did exactly what I loved to do, which was always just cooking good food for those I loved. That’s what mattered. That’s all that mattered.”

Top Image: Photo courtesy of the Schmitt family, via The New York Times

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