Sally Schmitt, pioneering founder of French Laundry, has died

Sally Schmitt, founder of famed Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry, and pioneer of California cuisine, has died of natural causes. She was 90 years old.

While the French Laundry is now best known as Chef Thomas Keller’s gourmet destination, it was originally a cozier place run by Chef Schmitt and her late husband, Don. The couple opened it in 1978, when Yountville was still quiet and rural, and attracted a keen following for simple French-inspired cuisine prepared with local, seasonal ingredients. Many say Schmitt helped permanently change the culinary landscape of the Bay Area alongside Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.

“If anyone knows what California cuisine is, it’s her,” said Cindy Pawlcyn, the chef at Napa’s Mustard’s Grill, who considered Schmitt a mentor. “She was cooking when everyone was starting to put it in the food. She kept it Americana, California, local, and farm-to-table.

Former Chronicle reviewer Michael Bauer wrote that Schmitt was “a true trailblazer”, serving a daily changing five-course menu at the French Laundry, automatically adding a 15% service charge, and offering an entirely wine list. Californian. She invited diners into the kitchen after meals and started an herb garden on the property — Keller’s traditions continued when he bought the restaurant in 1994. Pawlcyn said Schmitt inspired her to become a chef at a time when there were few female chefs.

Sally Schmitt sits outside the French Laundry in Yountville in 1993. She is considered one of the pioneers of California cuisine.

Eric Luse/The Chronicle 1993

Family members described Schmitt as generous, gentle, and strong-willed. She was always busy, whether it was renovating an old building or peeling apples for chutney, and had a knack for creating beautiful spaces. She made the simplest rituals feel rich, encouraging people to bring out the beautiful plates, her daughter Kathy Hoffman said.

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

Born in Roseville, Schmitt grew up surrounded by fruit trees and chickens. Eating freshly grown food was a way of life. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in home economics, got married, and moved to Fresno, where Don worked in banking. She loved cooking and hosting dinner parties, but the idea of ​​becoming a chef never crossed her mind.

The Schmitts moved to Yountville in 1967, attracted by a redevelopment project called Vintage 1870, which is now the upscale mall known as V Marketplace. She suggested the cook at Vintage Cafe use romaine lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce and shape the burger patties by hand. He went out. It was then that Schmitt became a chef.

Sally Schmitt (center) with her family at Vintage 1870 in Yountville in the 1970s.

Sally Schmitt (center) with her family at Vintage 1870 in Yountville in the 1970s.

Provided by the Schmitt family

Three years later, she opened her first full-scale restaurant, the Chutney Kitchen, which has become a favorite with local winemakers. Frustrated with the lack of dinner options in Yountville, Schmitt began hosting Friday night dinners with a five-course menu and Napa Valley wines, which laid the foundation for French laundry.

She and Don spent four years renovating the crumbling stone building that would become the French Laundry. She advertised entrees ahead of time — Pawlcyn said she made “the best lamb shanks in the world” — but the rest of the menu was often noted just before service, Kathy Hoffman said. Schmitt was constantly tweaking and adding twists to make the dining experience fresh. The restaurant was a hit, with diners having to make reservations months in advance and big names in the restaurant business like Julia Child, Robert Mondavi and Jeremiah Tower wanting a table.

She was demanding and Kathy Hoffman said it might be hard to work for her. Schmitt even fired Kathy Hoffman’s husband, who came a few nights a week to help wash the dishes, because his washing didn’t live up to his expectations.

Sally Schmitt (left) works in the kitchen of the French Laundry in 1988.

Sally Schmitt (left) works in the kitchen of the French Laundry in 1988.

Otto Greule / Special for The Chronicle 1988

While on a coastal vacation, the Schmitts stumbled across the Apple Farm in the Mendocino County town of Philo and bought it on impulse. It was dilapidated, the crops heavily sprayed with chemicals, but Schmitt fell in love with its location against the Navarro River. It became the center of her life, and she and Don sold the French laundry so they could retire to the farm after 16 years.

It wasn’t exactly a retreat. She opened a bed and breakfast and offered cooking classes for 15 years alongside her daughter Karen Bates. Students came from all over the world to cook with her. Now the farm is a hub for the whole family, with several family members across generations living there.

While Kathy Hoffman said every member of the family was influenced by Schmitt, it might be most evident with Perry Hoffman, who became the youngest chef to earn a Michelin star at 25 and now runs the hotel’s restaurant. Boonville. He remembers staying at the French laundry when he was 12, admiring his grandmother’s work and thinking he had to become a chef to carry on his legacy. Now he feels inspired by the timelessness of his food. Just last week, he served artichokes with aioli, a dish Schmitt made in 1978.

Several years ago, he began to reflect on another way Schmitt inspired him: her approach to work-life balance and how efficiently she handled her tasks so she could disconnect. at home.

“Life and her family were so much more important than the kitchens she worked in, as much as she loved them,” he said. “I’m constantly inspired to find more balance in my own life because she did it so well.”

Sally and Don Schmitt are the founders of the French Laundry.

Sally and Don Schmitt are the founders of the French Laundry.

Courtesy of Brown Cannon

For Schmitt’s 80th birthday, Kathy Hoffman collected her recipe cards that family members exchanged. She collected 400 recipes when her son, Byron, suggested she create a book. At the birthday party at Apple Farm, they asked Schmitt to work with them on a book full of recipes and stories to pass on to future generations. But as they began to tell more people about it, it was clear the book needed a wider audience, even as Schmitt resisted the spotlight.

“She was humble,” Kathy Hoffman said. “She hadn’t realized her place in the food community was as big as it was.”

Schmitt spent 10 years working on his first cookbook and memoir, “Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons from a Pioneer of California Cuisine.” The book finally comes out on April 5.

“I’ve always cooked farm-to-table, starting long before I heard the phrase. Many people think I had a message to communicate, but in reality, my only impulse was to do what I do the best and help our family survive,” she wrote in the book.

“Overall, I really did what I loved to do, which was always just cooking good food for those I loved. That’s what counted. That’s all that mattered.

Schmitt’s family is planning a small private memorial service. She is survived by her sister Kay Stone; his five children and their partners Kathy and Bill Hoffman, Johnny and Marcus Magdaleno, Karen and Tim Bates, Eric and Melissa Schmitt, and Terry and Debey Zito; his 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Janelle Bitker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @janellebitker

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