By Marcia Gagliardi
Special to The Examiner
Unless you’ve been living or dining in Wine Country since the 1970s or ‘80s, you may not recognize the name Sally Schmitt, let alone know she was the original founder of the French Laundry back in 1978.
When Schmitt opened the restaurant with her husband, Don, Yountville was a very different place than the bougie-with-boots town it is now. Back then, you could be a first-time restaurant owner and open a place with the help (and sweat equity) of your friends and family, put handwritten menus on the tables and have Napa Valley figureheads like Robert Mondavi and Chuck Carpy of Freemark Abbey help advise on your wine list. Diners had the table for the evening. Today, if you want to open a restaurant in those parts, you better have a few million dollars, investors, a publicist, a social media manager, an attorney and a seasoned front-of-house and back-of-house team who can turn your tables three times.
Sally Schmitt’s new cookbook and memoir, “Six California Kitchens” (Chronicle Books), is the story of a self-taught cook, chef, wife, mother, entrepreneur and teacher. It gives her humble due as a pioneer of California farm-to-table cuisine and one of the country’s trailblazing female chefs. But it’s also the story of Napa Valley and its burgeoning culinary and wine scene. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards, who was greatly inspired by Schmitt, says, “What was happening in the Yountville area in the 1970s with Don and Sally was the beginning of the Valley as we know it today.” The book brims with stories of the relationships Sally and Don had with locals, purveyors, vintners and beloved customers — from Martha May (of the renowned Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville) to Frances Solis of the iconic Pancha’s.
Schmitt was a California girl, born in 1932 and raised on a farm in Roseville. She was brought up learning how to grow her own food, as well as can vegetables and preserves and churn butter and ice cream. Seasonal flavors shaped her farm-to-table ethos and palate, and the era she grew up in gave her a practicality and grounded earthiness.
Her writing style is also earthy and direct, as she dispenses 90 years of kitchen wisdom, opinions, techniques and tricks (do not miss her method for boiling eggs). This cookbook is like having a grandmother teach you how to cook. But this isn’t about grandma’s green beans and pot roast — Schmitt had an expansive palate, a sesame seed toaster and a suribachi (grinding bowl) from Japan and adored salmon with sorrel sauce. The cookbook reflects California seasonality and place, with Mexican dishes from local families, plus a number of French culinary influences.
Organized chronologically, “Six California Kitchens” offers recipes and stories from the half-dozen kitchens that formed Schmitt into the stellar, self-taught cook and chef she became, starting with her mother’s kitchen and family recipes. In 1967, Schmitt moved to Yountville with her husband and their children to take over and develop a shopping center (Vintage 1870). She first started cooking professionally at Vintage Cafe (the second kitchen), and then opened Chutney Kitchen in 1970, a restaurant kitchen she designed. She was known for her sold-out monthly Friday night dinners, offering a seasonal, prix-fixe menu with paired wines. That menu format laid the groundwork for the French Laundry, the fourth kitchen, which the couple opened in 1978 after renovating the dilapidated stone building for four years.
You’ll also find recipes from her time with Don and family at the Apple Farm in Philo, where they moved after selling the French Laundry to Thomas Keller in 1994, teaching numerous students and visitors for 15 years. The sixth and final kitchen is from her retirement years with Don in Elk, which began in 2008.
But lucky for us, and her legacy, she left behind this deeply personal and historical remembrance. It’s the kind of cookbook you will want to sit and read through, taking in maybe a couple kitchens a day and marking the recipes as you go along.
For example, the first recipe, Mustard Potatoes, will make you question why you never roasted potatoes in bacon fat and Dijon mustard. If you love soups, this cookbook is full of them. Be inspired by the Green Eggs & Ham recipe for brunch, and Vodka-Spiked Cherry Tomatoes for your next cocktail party, and get excited to try buttermilk in your next milkshake (it’s supposedly like “liquid cheesecake,” as food reviewers Jane and Michael Stern said when they had it at Vintage Cafe). The book is full of marvelous-sounding desserts with a fun twist, like Coffee Pots de Crème and Chocolate Chinchilla Topped with Sherry Cream.
Since Schmitt and her husband had five children and loved to entertain, a number of the dishes are best for larger groups (six to eight), so the next time you need to cook for a party, here’s your guide. In the later years, Schmitt was just with Don, so the recipes are scaled for two.
Something unique is how she lists the ingredients in the recipe instructions, so instead of jumping back to your ingredient list, it’s right there when you need it. That Sally Schmitt: so practical — but also with a taste for the decadent and delicious. It becomes quite apparent why she had legions of fans of her cooking. You’re about to become one more of them.
Marcia Gagliardi is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and restaurant columnist, well-known for her groundbreaking, 16-year-old tablehopper newsletter.