Sally Schmitt, the Creator of the French Laundry & Unsung Hero of California Cuisine, Gets Her Due in a Poignant, Short Documentary

One of the New York Times’ most com­pelling reg­u­lar fea­tures is Over­looked, which gives remark­able indi­vid­u­als whose deaths passed unre­marked by the Times obit col­umn a rous­ing, over­due send­off.

Sal­ly Schmitt — “one of the great unsung heroes of Cal­i­for­nia Cui­sine” as per Michael Bauer, the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle’s fear­some for­mer food crit­ic — is not one of those.

When Schmitt died ear­li­er this spring at the age of 90, a few weeks shy of the release of her book, Six Cal­i­for­nia Kitchens: A Col­lec­tion of Recipes, Sto­ries, and Cook­ing Lessons From a Pio­neer of Cal­i­for­nia Cui­sine, the Times took note.

Schmitt received a grand obit­u­ary that delved into her per­son­al his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and her con­nec­tion to Napa Valley’s The French Laun­dry, a three star Miche­lin restau­rant which Antho­ny Bour­dain hailed as the best in the world.

The French Laundry’s renown is such that one needn’t run in food­ie cir­cles to be aware of it, and its award-win­ning chef/owner, Thomas Keller.

Keller, how­ev­er, did not found the restau­rant that brought him fame.

Schmitt did, with the help of her hus­band, Don and their five chil­dren, who pitched in in both the kitchen and the front of the house.

Fam­i­ly was impor­tant to Schmitt, and hav­ing deferred her dreams for the many years it took to raise hers, she was deter­mined to main­tain bal­ance between home and work lives.

In Ben Proud­foot’s New York Times op-doc, above, Schmitt recalls grow­ing up out­side of Sacra­men­to, where her moth­er taught her how to cook using in-sea­son local pro­duce.

Mean­while, her father helped Cal­i­for­nia pro­duce make it all the way to the East Coast by sup­ply­ing ice to the South­ern Pacif­ic Rail­road, an inno­va­tion that Schmitt iden­ti­fies as “the begin­ning of the whole super­mar­ket sit­u­a­tion” and a dis­tress­ing geo­graph­ic dis­con­nect between Amer­i­cans and food.

The Schmitts launched The French Laun­dry in 1978, with a shock­ing­ly afford­able menu.

Julia Child, a fan, once “burst into the kitchen,” demand­ing, “My dear, what was in that dessert sauce?”

(Answer: sug­ar, but­ter and cream)

Six­teen years after its found­ing, The French Laun­dry was for sale.

Schmitt’s facial expres­sions are remark­ably poignant describ­ing the trans­fer of pow­er. There’s a lot at play — pride, nos­tal­gia, fond­ness for Keller, a “real­ly charm­ing young chef, who’d made a name for him­self in New York…and was down on his luck.”

Schmitt is gra­cious, but there’s no ques­tion she feels a bit of a twinge at how Keller took her dream and ran with it.

“In high school, I was always the vice president…vice pres­i­dent of every­thing,” Schmitt says, before shar­ing a telling anec­dote about her best friend beat­ing her out for the high­est aca­d­e­m­ic hon­or:

I went home and cried. Yeah, I thought that I should have it, you know. And my moth­er said, “Let her have her moment of glo­ry. Don’t wor­ry. There will be moments of glo­ry for you.”

This doc­u­men­tary is one, how­ev­er posthu­mous.

Accom­pa­ny­ing it is a brief essay in which Proud­foot con­trasts the lives of his worka­holic late father and Schmitt, with her “delight­ful­ly coy can­dor a mes­sage about the rewards of bal­ance and the trap of ambi­tion:”

I made this film for all of us who strug­gle “to stir and taste the soup” that already sits in front of us.

Anoth­er moment of glo­ry:

In Keller’s land­mark The French Laun­dry Cook­book, the final recipe is Sal­ly Schmitt’s Cran­ber­ry and Apple Kuchen (with the hot Cream Sauce that so cap­ti­vat­ed Julia Child.)

Sal­ly Schmitt’s Cran­ber­ry and Apple Kuchen with hot Cream Sauce

Serves 8


6 table­spoons (3/4 stick) unsalt­ed but­ter, room tem­per­a­ture, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sug­ar

1 large egg

1 1/2 cups all-pur­pose flour

2 tea­spoons bak­ing pow­der

1/4 tea­spoon kosher salt

1/4 tea­spoon fresh­ly grat­ed nut­meg

1/2 cup milk or light cream

3 to 4 Graven­stein or Gold­en Deli­cious apples

1 cup cran­ber­ries or firm blue­ber­ries

Cin­na­mon sug­ar: 1 table­spoon sug­ar mixed with 1/4 tea­spoon cin­na­mon


2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup sug­ar

8 table­spoons (1 stick) unsalt­ed but­ter

1. Pre­heat oven to 350 degrees. But­ter a 9‑inch round cake pan.

2. For the kuchen: Using an elec­tric mix­er, beat but­ter, sug­ar and egg togeth­er until the mix­ture is fluffy and light­ened in tex­ture.

3. Com­bine the flour, bak­ing pow­der, salt and nut­meg. Add dry ingre­di­ents and the milk alter­nate­ly to the but­ter mix­ture; mix just until com­bined.

4. Peel and core apples. Slice them into 1/4‑inch wedges

5. Spoon bat­ter into the pan. Press apple slices, about 1/4‑inch apart and core side down, into the bat­ter, work­ing in a cir­cu­lar pat­tern around the out­side edge (like the spokes of a wheel. Arrange most of the cran­ber­ries in a ring inside the apples and sprin­kle remain­der around the edges of the kuchen. Sprin­kle kuchen with the cin­na­mon sug­ar.

6. Bake for 40 to 50 min­utes, or until a cake tester insert­ed into the cen­ter of the kuchen comes out clean. Set on a rack to cool.

7. Com­bine the cream sauce ingre­di­ents in a medi­um saucepan. Bring to a boil, low­er heat and sim­mer for 5 to 8 min­utes, to reduce and thick­en it slight­ly.

8. Serve the cake warm or at room tem­per­a­ture, driz­zled with the hot cream sauce

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch Antho­ny Bourdain’s First Food-and-Trav­el Series A Cook’s Tour Free Online (2002–03)

Watch 26 Free Episodes of Jacques Pépin’s TV Show, More Fast Food My Way

Watch Wern­er Her­zog Eat His Shoe, Cooked by Chef Alice Waters (1980)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • John Schmidt says:

    We moved to Cal­i­for­nia in 1976 at the begin­ning of the Cal­i­for­nia wine boom. In 1978, friends told us of this won­der­ful new restau­rant in Yountville called the French Laun­dry. The first time I called for a reser­va­tion there was a moment of silence and was asked why I want­ed a reser­va­tion. I find out that I was mis­tak­en for Don and Sally’s son John. For the dozens of our reser­va­tions that fol­lowed I would make the reser­va­tions as”the OTHER John Schmidt”.
    A num­ber of years lat­er I saw Don and Sal­ly at anoth­er restau­rant in Yountville. Don looked at me with a spark of recog­ni­tion and I said “ Do you remem­ber me? I’m the OTHER John Schmidt. They invit­ed me to join them for a drink and we rem­i­nisced about the won­der­ful times at the French Laun­dry.
    Won­der­ful, won­der­ful mem­o­ries of a very spe­cial cou­ple.

  • What a neat mem­o­ry, John. Thank you for shar­ing it with us

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.