Written by Marcia Gagliardi
Unless you’ve been living or dining in Wine Country since the ’70s or ’80s, you might not recognize the name Sally Schmitt, let alone know that she was the original founder of the French Laundry in 1978.
When Schmidt opened the restaurant with her husband, Don, Yountville was a very different place to the shoe-bitch town it is now. In that time, you can be a first-time restaurateur and open a place with the help of your friends and family (and their fairness), put handwritten menus on the tables and have Napa Valley dignitaries like Robert Mondavi and Chuck Carby of Freemark Abbey advise on your wine list. Diners had a table in the evening. Today, if you want to open a restaurant in those parts, you better have a few million dollars, investors, an advertising agent, a social media manager, a lawyer, and an experienced team at home and back home that can turn your tables three times.
The new cookbook and memoir of Sally Schmidt, “Six Kitchens in California” (Chronicle Books), is the story of a cook, chef, wife, mother, entrepreneur, and self-taught educator. It gives her humility as a pioneer in farm-to-table cuisine in California and one of the nation’s leading chefs. But it’s also the story of Napa Valley and its thriving culinary and wine scene. “What was going on in the Yountville area in the ’70s with Don and Sally was the beginning of the valley as we know it today,” says Chef Cindy Paulsen of Mustards, who was heavily inspired by Schmidt. The book is filled with stories of the relationships that Sally and Don had with locals, suppliers, wines and beloved customers – from Martha May (of Oakville’s famous Martha’s Vineyard) to Francis Solis of the famous Bancha.
Schmidt was a California girl, born in 1932 and raised on a farm in Roseville. She grew up learning how to grow her own food, as well as grow vegetables and preserves and make butter and ice cream. Seasonal flavors shaped its farm-to-table soul and palate, and the era in which I grew up gave it a practical and earthy feel.
Her writing style is also earthy and straightforward, as she dispenses with 90 years of kitchen wisdom, opinions, techniques, and tricks (don’t miss how to boil eggs). This cookbook is like having a grandmother teaching you how to cook. But that’s not about grandma’s green beans and pot roast—Schmidt had a wide palate, sesame seed roaster and suribachi (grinding bowl) from Japan and beloved salmon with sorrel sauce. The cookbook reflects seasonality and location in California, with Mexican dishes from local families, as well as a number of French culinary influences.
Organized chronologically, “Six Kitchens in California” presents recipes and stories from six kitchens that shaped Schmidt into becoming a brilliant, self-made chef, beginning with her mother’s kitchen and family recipes. In 1967, Schmidt moved to Yountville with her husband and children to take over and develop the shopping center (Vintage 1870). She started cooking professionally in the Vintage Cafe (second kitchen), then opened Chutney Kitchen in 1970, a restaurant kitchen she designed. Best known for its all-sold-out Friday night dinner, it served a seasonal set-price menu with double wine. This menu format laid the foundation for the French sink, 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 his family at Apple Farm in Philo, where they moved after selling French Laundry to Thomas Keller in 1994, where he has taught numerous students and visitors for 15 years. The sixth and final kitchen of her retirement years with Don in Elk, which began in 2008.
But it is fortunate for us and her legacy that she left behind this deep personal and historical memory. It’s the kind of cookbook you’ll want to sit on and read, hosting maybe two kitchens a day and tagging recipes as you go.
For example, the first recipe, Mustard Potatoes, will have you wondering why potatoes are never roasted in bacon fat and Dijon mustard. If you love soup, this cookbook is full of them. Get inspired by a Green Eggs & Ham recipe for brunch, Cherry-Spiked Vodka for your next cocktail party, and be excited to try the curd in your next milkshake (supposedly like “liquid cheesecake,” as food reviewers Jen and Michael Stern said when Eat it at the Vintage Cafe). The book is packed with sweet treats with a fun twist, like Coffee Pots de Crème and Chocolate Chinchilla topped with cream sherry.
Since Schmidt and her husband had five children and loved to entertain, a number of 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 later years, Schmidt was only with Don, so the recipes were scaled for two.
Something unique is how they list the ingredients in the recipe instructions, so instead of going back to your ingredient list, you’ll find them there when you need them. Ann Sally Schmidt: So practical – but also decadent and delicious. It became abundantly clear why there were legions of fans of her cooking. You are about to become one of them.
Marcia Gagliardi is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and restaurant columnist, best known for her 16-year-old pioneer Rable the news.