Written by Marcia Gagliardi
Unless you’ve lived or dined in Wine Country since the 1970s or ’80s, you may not recognize the name Sally Schmitt, let alone that she was the founder of the French Laundry in 1978.
When Schmidt opened the restaurant with her husband Don, Yountville was a very different place from the shoe town it is today. Meanwhile, be a first-time restaurateur and open a venue with the help of your friends and family (and their own funds), put handwritten menus on the tables, and get Napa Valley dignitaries like Robert Mondavi and Chuck Carby of Freemark Abbey to advise on your wine list. The guests had a table in the evening. If you want to open a restaurant in these areas today, you better have a few million dollars, investors, an advertising agent, a social media manager, a lawyer and an experienced team at home and in the house that can transform your tables three times.
Sally Schmidt’s new cookbook and memoir, “Six Kitchens in California” (Chronicle Books), is the story of a self-taught cook, chef, wife, mother, entrepreneur and educator. It humbles her as a pioneer of farm-to-table cuisine in California and as one of the best chefs in the country. But it’s also the story of Napa Valley and its thriving food and wine scene. “What happened to Don and Sally in the Yountville area in the 1970s was the beginning of the valley as we know it today,” says Mustards chef Cindy Paulsen, who borrowed heavily from Schmidt. † The book is filled with stories of Sally and Don’s relationships with beloved locals, vendors, wines, and customers—from Martha May (of the famed Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville) to Francis Solis of the famed 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, growing vegetables and preserves, and making butter and ice cream. Seasonal flavors shaped the soul and palate of the farm, and the time I grew up in gave it a practical, earthy feel.
His writing style is also earthy and straightforward, without 90 years of cooking wisdom, opinions, techniques and tips (don’t miss how to cook eggs). This cookbook is like a grandmother teaching you to cook. But it’s not about Grandma’s green beans and roast — Schmidt had a wide-ranging, sesame seed roaster and suribachi (grinding bowl) from Japan and a much-loved salmon with gravy. The cookbook reflects California seasonality and location, featuring Mexican dishes from local families, as well as some French culinary influences.
Organized chronologically, “Six Kitchens in California” features recipes and stories from six kitchens that shaped Schmidt into a successful self-taught chef, starting with her mother’s cooking and family recipes. In 1967, Schmidt moved to Yountville with her husband and children to take over and develop the shopping center (1870 vintage). She started cooking professionally at the Vintage Cafe (second kitchen), then in 1970 opened Chutney Kitchen, a restaurant kitchen she designed. It is best known for its sold-out Friday night dinner and served a seasonal prix-fixe menu with double wine. This menu format laid the foundation for the French Sink, Fourth Kitchen, which the couple opened in 1978 after four years of renovations to the dilapidated stone building.
You’ll also find recipes from his time with Don and his family at Apple Farm in Philo, where they moved after selling French Laundry to Thomas Keller in 1994, and where he taught many students and visitors for 15 years. The sixth and final kitchen of his retirement years with Don in Elk, which began in 2008.
But it is fortunate for us and her legacy that she left behind this deeply personal and historical memory. It’s the kind of cookbook you want to read, maybe with two kitchens a day and recipes while you’re at it.
For example, the first recipe, Mustard Potatoes, will have you wondering why potatoes are never roasted in bacon fat and Dijon mustard. If you like soup, this cookbook is full of it. Get inspired by a green egg and ham recipe for brunch, cherry vodka for your next cocktail party, and be excited to try sour milk in your next milkshake (presumably as a “liquid cheesecake”). as food critics Jen and Michael Stern said when you eat it at Vintage Café). The book is full of sweet desserts with a playful twist, such as Coffee Pots of Cream 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 suited for larger groups (six to eight), so next time you need to cook for a party, here’s your guide. Later, Schmidt was alone with Don, so the recipes were scaled for two.
Something unique is the way they list the ingredients in the recipe instructions, so instead of going back to your ingredient list, find them there when you need them. Ann Sally Schmidt: So practical – but also decadent and delicious. It became obvious why there were legions of fans of her cooking. You are about to become one of them.
Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance writer and restaurant columnist from San Francisco, best known for her 16-year-old pioneer Rskilled The news.