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.