She Sold the French Laundry. Then It Became the ‘Best Restaurant in the World.’
Sally Schmitt at her farm in Philo, Calif., in 2019.Credit…Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times
You’ve probably heard of Thomas Keller, the renowned chef and restaurateur who heads the French Laundry in Napa Valley. And, of course, when it comes to essential Golden State cooks, there’s also Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters.
But what about Sally Schmitt?
The New York Times recently published a short documentary on Schmitt, who with her husband, Don, opened the French Laundry in 1978 and ran it until selling to Keller. Schmitt, who died in March at age 90, never achieved much fame despite helping to pioneer the fresh, locally sourced style of cooking that has since become known as California cuisine.
Ben Proudfoot, who produced and directed the op-doc, said, “We are going to make the best possible food with what is there around us in one of the most fertile places in the country, with the best wine, and the culture of enjoying the bounty and the luxury of the land — that stuff started with Sally.”
He continued, “She’s a seminal person that just did not seek the spotlight.”
For 16 years, Schmitt planned and prepared the meals at the restaurant in Yountville, building one menu per night based on what was in season locally and in supply. Guests had their table for the evening and were welcome to linger for three or four hours if they chose. Schmitt, a California native, put Napa Valley on the culinary map.
“We now get people up here from San Francisco for dinner,” she told The Napa Valley Register in 1980, “where the reverse has generally been true.”
The documentary, called “The Best Chef in the World,” grapples with Schmitt’s decision to eventually sell the restaurant to spend more time with her family, and the limits and expectations faced by female chefs at the time. Proudfoot told me that Schmitt’s legacy lived on in the California cooking of today, even if most Californians weren’t familiar with her story.
“I didn’t want to change the world,” Schmitt says in the documentary, which was filmed before her death. “I just wanted to cook.”
The piece includes gorgeous footage of dishes as they were served at the French Laundry under Schmitt: Braised oxtail. Gingered shrimp with mustard and chutney. Coffee pots de crème.
Schmitt’s children and grandchildren cooked those meals using her grease-spotted recipe cards. Proudfoot and his crew filmed the dishes, and then they ate them too.
“It was frankly the most delicious weekend we ever had,” he said.
Watch the op-doc.
Read Schmitt’s full obituary.
Schmitt also released a cookbook and memoir this year.
More on California
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- Remaking a River: Taming the Los Angeles River helped Los Angeles emerge as a global megalopolis, but it also left a gaping scar across the territory. Imagining the river’s future poses new challenges.
- A Piece of Black History Destroyed: Lincoln Heights — a historically Black community in a predominantly white, rural county in Northern California — endured for decades. Then came the Mill fire.
- Employee Strike: In one of the nation’s biggest strikes in recent years, teaching assistants, researchers and other workers across the University of California system walked off the job to demand higher pay.
If you read one story, make it this
California is undertaking the nation’s most ambitious effort to compensate for the economic legacy of slavery and racism.
The rest of the news
Medical misinformation: Two lawsuits in California have pre-emptively challenged a new law that would punish doctors for misleading patients about Covid-19. The suits claim that punishment would be an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
Data breach: California’s Department of Justice mistakenly posted the names, addresses and birthdays of nearly 200,000 gun owners because officials didn’t follow policies or understand how to operate their website, The Associated Press reports.
Corruption: New court filings and proceedings in a co-defendant’s case show how Marco Garmo, a former San Diego County sheriff’s captain, tipped off cannabis dispensaries to multiple raids, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Stanford: Federal officials are investigating Stanford University for bias against men for offering programs that cater to women and none that cater specifically to men, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Disenfranchisement: Student activists in Oakland worked for years to lower the voting age to 16 for school board races. But the county that runs the city’s elections never implemented the measure, The Washington Post reports.
Universal basic income: A program will give 150 families in Santa Clara County with children under 18 who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness $1,000 a month, The San Jose Mercury News reports.
Golden Gate: A suicide prevention net for the Golden Gate Bridge that is already years behind schedule will cost about $400 million, The Associated Press reports.
What you get
Los Angeles never felt like home. Now they live in a redwood forest.
What we’re eating
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Paul Callahan, who lives in Ceres. Paul recommends visiting Trinidad, a seaside town in Humboldt County:
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Have you visited any of the travel destinations that we’ve recommended in the newsletter? Send us a few lines about your trip, and a photo!
We’d like to share them in upcoming editions of the newsletter. Email us at [email protected] Please include your name and the city in which you live.
And before you go, some good news
On a recent morning in the rugged backcountry of San Benito County, Alex Hubner drove over boulders in his Toyota Tacoma truck. Hubner was out hunting — for seeds.
Based at U.C. Santa Cruz, Hubner and his wife, Lucy Ferneyhough, are collectors for California Plant Rescue, a state-funded consortium of botanical institutions that aims to preserve the state’s botanical diversity.
The couple’s efforts are helping the group build a network of plant banks to store seeds and sprouts, each a modern-day Noah’s ark that could help protect against the permanent loss of these plants, The San Jose Mercury News reports.
California Plant Rescue has achieved remarkable success since its founding in 2014. Its members have collected seeds from 78 percent of California’s 1,166 rare, threatened or endangered plant species, the newspaper reports.
“These plants are part of our heritage and part of the biodiversity of the planet,” Brett Hall, who directs U.C. Santa Cruz’s effort, said. “Having them safeguarded is hedge-betting for their futures.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].