Thomas Keller and The French Laundry just celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Don and Sally Schmitt serving their first dinners in the restaurant. For the commemorative menu that night, Keller requested that Don and Sally’s daughter, Kathy Hoffman, hand letter the menu, just as she had done during the sixteen years that her parents had owned and operated the restaurant.
Sally: On a Tuesday evening just about seven o’clock, forty years ago today, we welcomed our first customers into The French Laundry. It had been raining hard for several weeks, right up to the day we opened. And just a day or two before, it had been a sea of mud outside the front door with leftover lumber and all the remnants of our renovation project stacked in the restaurant garden. And everything, inside and out, was muddy with the workmen coming and going. But on that last day, we moved the lumber, dumping it right next door at our house, and called in a load of gravel to spread over the mud. And Voila! We were ready for service!
Kathy, Sally’s daughter: That day we opened was wild. We were washing, buffing plates and silverware, unwrapping things, glasses, and literally, it was a construction scene with table saws in the middle of the dining room, so we were stashing stuff anywhere we could. We didn’t have a lot of space in the kitchen. Once we filled up the windowsills, we were moving things to the dumbwaiter and were taking them upstairs and putting them in the little waiter’s station next to the private dining room, anywhere we could to keep them clean until dinner. And at a certain point, my mom just had to yell, “Out, you guys! Enough, Enough! We’ve got to roll the tables in and get this place set for dinner!
Sally: We hadn’t intended to do a restaurant in that old stone building. We had just bought this place that everyone called The French Laundry because we loved it so much. We were already running the café at the Vintage 1870 and The Chutney Kitchen, but when our waitress at The Chutney, Lorraine Jones, came in and told us that it was for sale, we went over, looked at it, and bought it the next day.
This was in 1974, and for several years, we didn’t do anything major to it. The building had been vacant for quite some time, and we rented it “as is” to Lorraine, since she needed a place to live, and was excited about it. So she moved in downstairs where there was a living room, a little bedroom, and a small kitchen. The upstairs was pretty much uninhabitable, except that the bathroom was up there with a claw foot tub. It certainly wasn’t lovely.
The first menu offered Pasta with Clam sauce, Blanquette de Veau, Fresh Asparagus, Rice, Green Salad, Cheese, Rhubarb Mousse, and Coffee, all for the price of $12.50. All menus (including the first) were illustrated by Sally’s daughter, Kathy Hoffman, with the dinner items handwritten in by the wait staff just before service.
The day we decided to do a restaurant there was the day we left the Vintage 1870. This was the summer of 1977, and we had been abruptly told there was no place for us anymore as partners at the Vintage. They did want us to continue as employees, but it was a blow. We decided that that was not our thing. That was in the early afternoon, and after we were told the news, we drove over to Sonoma and had dinner, at our favorite Mexican restaurant there on the square. Over a bottle of wine, we talked it over and decided the thing to do was to open our own restaurant in the building we owned. So the whole decision was made in just a few hours.
The work took a while, about six months to get it to where we could open. The first thing we did was to gut the place. There was plaster all over the old fieldstone walls, so we worked hard removing the plaster and leaving the stone walls bare downstairs. Upstairs had lath and plaster that we had to remove. I don’t remember how many dumpsters we filled, but it was a lot.
Terry, Sally’s daughter: We all helped. I was only twelve then, but I remember working on the floors in the dining room, pulling up all the ‘old school’ linoleum. And then we had to get up this black adhesive that was underneath; we tried using lots of boiling water, and then heat guns, trying to scrape it all off. It seemed to take forever until we could finally sand, and then stain the Douglas fir floors, but they came out beautiful in the end.
Sally: We had one carpenter, Roy, who was full time, and his son, Randy, but the rest of the work was done by family and friends. Our kids helped when they could, but the older ones all had jobs, so they were never full-time. My sister and her husband came out for a few days and helped tear down one of the sheds. We had an architect friend, Ray Rector, who helped us with the plans. A bricklayer, Fritz Dilsaver, who had done work for us at the Vintage, did all of our tuck-pointing on the nooks and crannies and repaired the brickwork around the windows. He was delightful, and did all the work as a friend since he had hung out so much with us at the Vintage. After we opened, we invited him to come to dinner whenever he could manage it, and when he did, there was never a bill."
I had already designed a kitchen for The Chutney Kitchen, so I had a little bit of experience with it, and I knew what I wanted, so I charged ahead. We put the kitchen in where Lorraine’s bedroom used to be, which was quite a small space, limited by the old fieldstone walls that were impossible to move. We did move the stairway over about six inches to give me a little more space; in all though, it was very small, but I had to make everything fit in. The whole kitchen was put together, my appliances, the dishes, silverware, everything, for less than you’d pay for a stove today. I used plates from Cost Plus and things from home that I had. We used artwork that we owned, and very few new things. The tables and chairs were a big deal, but we used second hand bentwood chairs that I managed to find at a really good price. So we really scrounged and put together an eclectic gathering of furnishings and equipment that didn’t cost much of anything, but all together made a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Kathy: Two or three days before opening, just after we had refinished the wood floor, a whole group of people tromped in over the barely-dried floor carrying a wrapped package. Mom had seen this painting in a local art show, a landscape by a Carmel artist named Keith Lindberg, and had just fallen in love with it. Friends of theirs and loyal customers, heard about it and said, “We’re going to buy this for them. You know, they have no money for art. They’re stretching it just trying to get the place open. Sally loves that painting. Let’s buy it for them!” And they all put in money, and then the group of them carried it in and presented it to them. It was last minute because we barely got it up on the wall, but it was very, very special to them.
Sally: One of the most important decisions I made was that, with this restaurant, I was actually going to do the cooking. At the Chutney Kitchen, it had become really too big for me to do that, and I had to have somebody I could trust to make the soup and put up the specials, and that pushed me into the office more than I wanted. So I made the decision that I wanted to be in the kitchen here, and Don decided that he wanted to do the wine and be out front. So this, plus the fact that it was all quite the tight space, had to do with our decision to do dinners only, and to do only one seating because that was all the kitchen could really handle.
At The French Laundry, as Sally ruled the kitchen, the wine list was the domain of her husband Don. Thanks to him, there was never any pomp and ceremony to the service. Because they had only a small staff and not much space, and with their plain, family-style approach to service, Don opened the wines at his counter near the restaurant entrance, and then the server would pour the first glass, but then leave the bottle for their guests to proceed at their own pace. They never topped off glasses or pushed wine sales; this was wine country, it simply wasn’t needed.
And I decided to do only one menu each night, as I had been doing for our monthly dinners at The Chutney Kitchen. Chez Panisse was already doing that, which gave me the courage to do this. But at the last moment, I panicked. This was very, very close to opening, and I said, “Oh ugh, maybe this one entree is not going to work. Maybe I should have a little steak that would be in the background that I could pull out.”
And then my daughter Karen said, “Mom. Stick to your guns! You decided on this, and let’s just go with it.” So that gave me the courage to do it.
Karen, Sally’s daughter: The building was in sad shape when my parents bought it, and when they decided to do the restaurant, there was much to be done. We all helped, including my future husband Tim, first with the demolition inside the building, and then, Tim and I went to work on the garden while the rebuilding took place. The herb garden was a major project for us. With Sally, we laid out the pattern, then we put the bricks down, and finally, did the planting; we wanted to have at least the bones of a nice garden in place when the restaurant opened.
And then, when it came time for the finish work inside, we moved back inside doing everything we could to get ready for opening. I remember working with my Mom and sister, Kathy, on the kitchen walls above the old wood wainscoting, plastering it with sheet rock mud. We laughed about how it wasn’t all that different from putting the finish frosting on a cake. I think we did a pretty good job of it as it lasted it the entire time we had the restaurant.
Sally: I had had almost no time before the opening to get used to the kitchen. At three or four that afternoon, I had to kick out the carpenter, Roy, who was fussing around about a shelf over the sinks in the scullery. Of course, I had planned to be in there a couple of weeks before to get to know the kitchen and play around in it and get my prep work done. But that didn’t happen.
But fortunately, even though the space was new, I was still doing the same things that I had been doing before. I was familiar with the steps and the timing, and I had purposely designed the menu to take that into account. So, I put on my apron and went to work for dinner that night.
I was in the kitchen when Don opened the doors about seven and the first customers walked in. And, as I remember, everything went smoothly. We had a full house and we knew everyone in the dining room, all of them past customers and old friends. I prepared only one appetizer that night, a pasta with clam sauce, and the entrée was a Blanquette de Veau, (veal in cream sauce) served with fresh asparagus and rice. This was followed by a green salad with a selections of cheeses, and for dessert, I made a rhubarb mousse. And it all went well, very, very well.
This chocolate dessert became one of my signature offerings after I was inspired by a recipe I found in a Gourmet magazine in the 1970s. It’s a dessert that is wondrously light as air yet delivers a powerful jolt of chocolate. Plus, it holds well. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and it is just as good the second day as it is the first, if it lasts that long. I served it at The French Laundry for years, and then taught it to my classes at The Philo Apple Farm. John Scharffenberger, the former winemaker and eminent chocolatier, who helped teach classes with me at the Farm for a while, even featured it his book, The Essence of Chocolate. I puzzled over the name for years, then discovered a version of chinchilla in an old cookbook, Summer Cooking, by that wonderful food writer, Elizabeth David. So I’ve come to assume the name is an example of English humor, used whimsically because of the silky texture of this magical soufflé made without egg yolks.
As I make the Chocolate Chinchilla, here’s my grandson, Brooks, at age three, in charge of quality control, seated at the little table in the kitchen of The French Laundry. Now, at age 29, he has a food truck called Bruxo which is traveling in and out of Mendocino County turning out wonderful ethnic food offerings, changing the menu each week. This week he is in Santa Cruz.
Chocolate Chinchilla Topped with Sherry-Flavored Whipped Cream (Serves 12)
Preheat the oven to 325º
2 cups (8 oz.) powdered sugar
1 1/4 (4 oz.) cocoa
1 tsp cinnamon
Beat until stiff
2 cups egg whites (12 large eggs)
but not dry
Spoon into a buttered bundt cake pan
Surround model with boiling water halfway up its sides
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour
whipped cream flavored with sherry
For the Sherry Flavored Whipped Cream
Beat until soft peaks form
1 cup Whipping Cream (sometimes labeled Heavy Cream)
Add 1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp sherry
And whip until stiff peaks form
Thirty-four years ago, Sally Schmitt started work on her cookbook. It was the summer of 1984 that she and Don took a much needed vacation, their first ever break from the day-to-day pressure of managing and cooking in their celebrated restaurant, The French Laundry. Leaving their home in Yountville, conveniently sited next to the restaurant, they drove two and a half hours to the coastal community of Sea Ranch. There, in a rented house overlooking the ruggedly beautiful coastline of the Pacific Ocean, they were able to spend the next month. It was a magical time. With two of their five children handling the day-to-day running of the restaurant in their absence, Sally could work on her cookbook.
The house at Sea Ranch was perfect for her. The kitchen was functional and large. She could see the waves crashing over the rocks through her window. And importantly, the kitchen was open to the living room where Don would sit while Sally cooked. In an ideal world, which a restaurant kitchen never is, Sally liked to work alone, but she liked also to have Don nearby to talk to, to ask questions of, and of course, to taste what she cooked. The Sea Ranch house was perfect.
So she started cooking. She first went out shopping, brought back bags of groceries, got a tablet out to write on, and cooked. At the end of the month, not much had actually been written, but she had had a splendid time doing what she liked doing best, trying out recipes, sampling ingredients, checking flavors, cooking.
A year later, working with her friend, the photographer Faith Echtermeyer, a proposal was submitted to several publishers. Chronicle Books and Simon & Schuster wrote back with encouraging letters, but turned down the project saying that it was too regional.
Through the following years, the dream of a book still stayed with Sally. Friends, customers at the restaurant, students at her cooking classes, kept urging her on. “How soon is it going to be finished?” they would ask. After she and Don had sold The French Laundry, her friend Dorothy Kalins, the founding editor of Saveur, gave her advice, and for a while she worked with a New York writer suggested by a literary agency, but nothing came of that either. Most of all, she kept cooking, at the French Laundry until Thomas Keller bought it; then, with her classes at the Philo Apple Farm where she taught students from all over the world. And finally, now officially retired, she cooked for Don and herself in the kitchen of the cottage in Elk on the Mendocino Coast, which they had lovingly restored.
Over these many years, there was a growing acknowledgment of her as a pioneer of California cuisine. Gourmet magazine wrote as early as 1978 how Sally’s cooking “was stripped of the superfluous, with emphasis on fresh good quality ingredients and things in their seasons,” and Joyce Goldstein, in her 2013 book, Inside the California Food Revolution, called Sally a “locavore before the term was even coined.” The San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, called Sally one of the “dynamic predecessors” to today’s visionary chefs, and Thomas Keller said her cooking was “a harbinger of what was to become known as Californian cuisine.”
Her innovations set both a standard and a pattern for other restaurants, of shopping local, working with farmers, staying simple, fresh, seasonal, with a single daily menu and one seating each evening, a wine list made up of extraordinary local wines, and a garden outside to stroll in between courses where Sally grew the herbs she cooked with. The restaurant had no sign, and one often had to wait up to two months to get a reservation, but still the likes of Julia Child, Richard Olney, Alice Waters, and Jeremiah Tower, (who spoke of Sally’s “brilliant cooking,”) all came to dine. The wine critic, Gerald Asher, said the evenings he “spent at their Yountville restaurant were among my most memorable in California.” And through all these years, the cookbook was always in the back of her mind.
Finally, in February of 2012, celebrating her eightieth birthday at her son Johnny’s Boonville hotel, her family had a surprise for her. Several of them stood up and announced that it was time to get the book finished. This was their gift to her.
Her grandson Byron took the lead, coordinating the others and taking on the design of the book. He recorded interviews with Don and Sally, with past customers and friends, with Richard Carter who had worked with Sally in the kitchen. His brother, Troyce, took his Canon EOS digital camera and got photographs of Sally cooking in the kitchen, of the finished dishes, and of the kitchens that she worked in, visually bringing Sally’s world to life. Her granddaughter, Polly, and a friend, Brittany Davis stepped in to transcribe and test Sally’s recipes.
And Sally herself, writing longhand with a pencil on a white lined tablet, noted down her memories; page after page she wrote, about the farm where she grew up in the 1930s, about learning to cook with her mother, churning butter, canning vegetables, making jam; about cooking at The French Laundry; about the winemakers she cooked for; the books and people that had influenced her; about buying fresh, home-grown vegetables out of the trunk of a car, and a friend who picked chanterelles for her. And she wrote out her recipes, over a hundred of them, and wrote down the stories that go with them.
And now, finally, 34 years after she started work on it, the book, Sally’s Kitchens: Over a Half-Century of Real California Food, part memoir, part cookbook, is being finished and readied for publication.
We invite you over the coming months to enjoy some writing from the upcoming book, to read about and try some of Sally’s recipes, to see historic photos and documents, all of which will take you on a journey through the early history of California cuisine, the Napa Valley food culture, and especially, the world of good food and cooking that Sally created that so many have loved through the years.