Before it was Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-starred French Laundry, the old stone building in Yountville was variously a bar, laundry, brothel, and rooming house, that languished in decrepit condition for years.
It took Sally and Don Schmitt to see its potential, and to pour heart, soul, and untold hard work into transforming it into the original French Laundry in 1978, a cozy, one-menu per night restaurant. Sally did all the cooking, while husband Don greeted guests and poured the wines. It was a beloved institution that drew such acclaim that it attracted the likes of Robert Mondavi, Marion Cunningham, and Julia Child to dine.
When it came time for the Schmitts to retire from the taxing grind of restaurant life, they put the French Laundry up for sale in 1990. It took three years to sell it, as chef after chef deemed it too small or the area too rural. That is, until a down-on-his-luck chef named Keller came by, took one look, and fell hard for the place. The Schmitts generously gave him 18 months to raise the money necessary, because in their hearts they somehow knew Keller was the perfect successor.
As Sally Schmitt once deadpanned in an interview with me years ago about choosing Keller, “That worked out pretty well, didn’t it?”
Last month, Sally Schmitt passed away at age 90 — following her husband who died in 2017 — and just one month before the debut of her cookbook, “Six California Kitchens” (Chronicle Books), of which I received a review copy.Read more