Sally Schmitt, Trend-Setting Restaurateur, Dies at 90

Sally Schmitt, who with her husband, Don, opened the French Laundry, the now famous restaurant in the Napa Valley of California, in 1978, and in doing so helped solidify the valley as a food-and-wine destination and start a culinary movement built on seasonal local ingredients, died on Saturday at her home in Philo, Calif. She was 90.

Her family announced her death, which came just weeks before publication of her 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 renowned as the flagship establishment of the chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller and turns up routinely on lists of the best restaurants in the country and the world. But as Mr. Keller, who bought the restaurant from the Schmitts in 1994, is always quick to point out, the Schmitts, and especially Sally Schmitt’s cooking, started it all.

“Kind and generous, forthright, and unpretentious,” he wrote in the foreword to her forthcoming book. “A culinary pioneer but also a throwback, preparing dishes that evoked the most delicious versions of your favorite childhood meals. That is the Sally we all came to know.”

Ms. Schmitt at the French Laundry in the late 1970s, shortly after it opened.Credit…via Schmitt family

The Schmitts arrived in Yountville, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, in 1967 to manage a shopping arcade, and soon Sally had taken over a hamburger-and-sandwich place 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 twice a month, and she added theme 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 a boardinghouse), and when it came up for sale they bought it.

“The building was so crude, so clearly humble,” Ms. Schmitt told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “There was not one good piece of hardware or woodwork or molding to keep. There wasn’t — there isn’t — a single straight line in the whole building.”

The restaurant they opened there in February 1978 also had its own personality. With Mr. Schmitt curating an extensive wine menu, Ms. Schmitt planned and prepared the meals, one menu each night, built around what was in season locally and in supply. Guests had their table for the evening; they were welcome to linger for three or four hours if they chose.

The area was already known for wine, but the French Laundry and a few other restaurants helped make it a foodie destination as well. By 1980 Ms. Schmitt was noticing a change.

“We now get people up here from San Francisco for dinner,” she told The Napa Valley Register that year, “where the reverse has generally been true.”

Ms. Schmitt at the Chutney Kitchen in Yountville, which she opened in 1971. It served lunch and, initially once a month by reservation only, dinner. Credit…via Schmitt family

Ms. Schmitt was not a 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 the trendy stuff. Sometimes even if I like something, I won’t do it until it cools off somewhat.”

With her emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, Ms. Schmitt is viewed as a pioneer in what was eventually known as California cuisine, but she didn’t think of herself in those terms. “French country cooking is what I lean to,” she said in the 1993 interview, “the braised meats, simple things, lots of vegetables, homey desserts rather than pastry-cart desserts.”

Her kitchens tended toward low-tech.

“I’ve always tried to keep it simple,” she wrote in the new book, “which is why I’ve never felt the need to use a food processor or microwave. Instead, I’ve had good sharp knives, pots and pans, a big chopping block, a wooden spoon and a whisk. I’ve always loved to work with my hands. It’s what cooking is all about.”

Her cuisine, she said, wasn’t about taking a philosophical stand.

“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.”

Ms. Schmitt, center, with Laura Cunningham and Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. Mr. Keller bought the restaurant from the Schmitts in 1994; Ms. Cunningham was for many years its general manager.Credit…Troyce Hoffman, via Schmitt family

Sarah Elizabeth Kelsoe (who was always known as Sally) was born on Feb. 28, 1932, in Roseville, Calif., 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 keep a cow; as a child she churned butter and learned canning. And kitchen techniques.

“As soon as I was ready, my mother put a paring knife in my hand, and I peeled potatoes,” she wrote. “And when she thought I was ready for a larger knife, I was cutting vegetables by her side.”

She studied home economics at the University of California, Davis, though she transferred to the university’s Berkeley campus for her final year, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952.

She married Donald Schmitt in 1953. Her first cooking, she said, was done for their family, which eventually grew to five children.

“Even though I loved cooking, I never thought about going into the food world,” she wrote of that time. “There were no women chefs in those days. Plus, cooks were looked down upon in those days; there was no such thing as a celebrity chef.”

After the Schmitts sold the French Laundry, they joined their daughter Karen Bates and her husband, Tim, at the Apple Farm in Philo, where Sally Schmitt would teach cooking classes.

Ms. Schmitt’s husband died in 2017. She is survived by two sons, Johnny and Eric; three daughters, Kathy Hoffman, Ms. Bates and Terry Schmitt; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A number of those descendants logged time working at the French Laundry, and some went on to their own culinary careers, including her grandson Perry Hoffman, now a chef at the Boonville Hotel and Restaurant in Northern California. In a telephone interview, he recalled doing various chores from a young age in his grandmother’s kitchen — roasting peppers, peeling onions and more.

“We didn’t really know how special it was until much later,” he said. “She was just so good at everything she did. It was so simple but so complex.”

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