Sally Schmitt, who with her husband, Don, opened the French Laundry, the now famous restaurant in Napa Valley, California, in 1978, and in doing so helped solidify the Valley as a food and wine destination and launch a culinary movement built from local, seasonal ingredients, died Saturday at her home in Philo, Calif. She was 90 years old.
His family announced his death, just weeks before the publication of his memoir and cookbook, “Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons From a Pioneer of California Cuisine.”
Today, The French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif., is recognized as the flagship establishment of chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller and regularly appears on lists of the best restaurants in the country and around the world. But as Mr. Keller, who bought the Schmitts’ restaurant in 1994, is always quick to point out, the Schmitts, and in particular Sally Schmitt’s kitchen, started it all.
“Kind and generous, frank and unpretentious,” he writes in the foreword to his forthcoming book. “A culinary pioneer but also a throwback, preparing dishes that evoked the most delicious versions of your favorite childhood dishes. She’s the Sally we all knew.
The Schmitts arrived in Yountville, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, in 1967 to run a shopping arcade, and soon Sally had a hamburger and a sandwich back there. Four years later, she opened the more ambitious Chutney Kitchen, which served lunch and, once a month by reservation only, dinner. Soon the dinners were held twice a month, and she added themed dinners and more.
The couple had noticed a local stone building that had once been a French steam laundry (as well as a bar and boarding house), and when it came up for sale they bought it.
“The building was so basic, so clearly humble,” Ms. Schmitt told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. there is not – a single straight line in the whole building.
The restaurant they opened there in February 1978 also had its own personality. Mr. Schmitt curating an extensive wine list, Mrs. Schmitt planned and prepared the meals, a menu each evening, built around what was locally seasonal and available. The guests had their table for the evening; they were invited to linger for three or four hours if they wished.
The area was already known for its wine, but the French laundry and a few other restaurants also helped make it a foodie destination. In 1980, Mrs. Schmitt noticed a change.
“We now have people from San Francisco for dinner,” she told the Napa Valley Register that year, “where the reverse has generally been true.”
Ms. Schmitt was no culinary school diva; she often said that her influences were her mother, an aunt, and a home economics teacher she had in high school.
“Some things can’t be improved upon because they’re so basic and so real,” she told The Chronicle. “I resist fashionable things. Sometimes, even if I like something, I won’t do it until it cools down a bit.
With an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, Ms. Schmitt is considered a pioneer of what eventually came to be known as California cuisine, but she didn’t think of herself in those terms. “French country cooking is what I lean towards,” she said in the 1993 interview, “braised meats, simple things, lots of vegetables, homemade desserts rather than pastry desserts .”
His kitchens tended towards low technology.
“I’ve always tried to keep it simple,” she writes in the new book, “which is why I never felt the need to use a food processor or microwave. Instead, I “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.”
Her cooking, she says, was not about taking a philosophical stance.
“I didn’t have a mission,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2020. “I wasn’t trying to prove anything to the world about simple, fresh, local food. It was just the way I cooked. I didn’t really have a statement to make. I just put food on the table.
Sarah Elizabeth Kelsoe (who has always been known as Sally) was born on February 28, 1932 in Roseville, California, near Sacramento. Her father, Henry, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and her mother, Helen, was a homemaker and schoolteacher.
She grew up in the Sacramento Valley, where her family had enough land to grow vegetables and raise a cow; as a child, she churned butter and learned canning. And cooking techniques.
“As soon as I was ready, my mother put a paring knife in my hand and I peeled some potatoes,” she wrote. “And when she thought I was ready for a bigger knife, I was cutting vegetables alongside her.”
She studied home economics at the University of California, Davis, although she transferred to the university’s Berkeley campus for her senior year, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1952.
She married Donald Schmitt in 1953. Her first kitchen, she said, was made for their family, which eventually grew to five children.
“Even though I loved cooking, I never thought of getting into the world of food,” she wrote of that time. “There were no female chefs at the time. Also, cooks were looked down upon at that time; there was no celebrity chef.
After the Schmitts sold the French Laundry, they joined their daughter Karen Bates and her husband, Tim, at Philo’s Apple Farm, where Sally Schmitt was teaching cooking classes.
Mrs. Schmitt’s husband died in 2017. She is survived by two sons, Johnny and Eric; three daughters, Kathy Hoffman, Mrs. Bates and Terry Schmitt; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A number of those descendants spent time working at the French Laundry, and some went on to pursue their own culinary careers, including his grandson Perry Hoffman, now a chef at the Boonville Hotel and Restaurant in Northern California. In a phone interview, he recalled doing various tasks from a young age in his grandmother’s kitchen – roasting peppers, peeling onions, etc.
“We didn’t really know how special it was until much later,” he said. “She was so good at everything she did. It was so simple yet so complex.