French Laundry Founder And Chef Sally Schmitt Has Died

Sally Schmitt, who is hailed by those in the know as a visionary chef and pioneer of California cuisine, died at the age of 90 at her home in Philo, California, per The New York Times. While many associate Napa Valley's famed Michelin-starred restaurant The French Laundry with celebrity chef Thomas Keller, the restaurant wouldn't exist as it is without its predecessor, the original French Laundry, which was first opened by Schmitt with her husband Don in 1978.

While the announcement of Schmitt's death was made by her family, Keller's incarnation of the iconic California restaurant took to social media to pay tribute to the lady that started it all. The French Laundry's Instagram post heaped lavish praise on the founder, saying: "Without Sally Schmitt, there would be no [The French Laundry]." Describing Schmitt as "generous and unpretentious," the post honors her legacy and her impact on the culinary world.

Schmitt started as a home cook

Sally Schmitt was born Sarah Elizabeth Kelsoe in Roseville, California on February 28, 1932. Growing up in the Sacramento Valley, Schmitt shared, "As soon as I was ready, my mother put a paring knife in my hand, and I peeled potatoes. And when she thought I was ready for a larger knife, I was cutting vegetables by her side."

The New York Times says Schmitt began studying for a home economics degree at The University of California, Davis but eventually transferred to UC Berkeley and graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science. She married Don Schmitt a year later, and the couple moved to Yountville, California with their five children when he was hired to develop a commercial project called Vintage 1870, per the Los Angeles Times. The project gave Schmitt the opportunity to stretch her wings and venture beyond her home kitchen, opening two well-received restaurants with her husband.

More than a decade would pass before the Schmitts were ready to open a new restaurant, and the pair were drawn to a local building which had once housed a French steam laundry, and a bar and boarding house before that. They must have been in love, because Schmitt told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993 that "The building was so crude, so clearly humble. There was not one good piece of hardware or woodwork or molding to keep. There wasn't — there isn't — a single straight line in the whole building."

Schmitt was devoted to working with local ingredients

Schmitt told The Los Angeles Times that when she and her husband finally opened the French Laundry in 1978, she was only focused on serving a good meal. She revealed that she "didn't have a mission. I wasn't trying to prove anything to the world about simple, fresh, local food. It was just the way I cooked. I didn't really have a statement to make. I just put food on the table."

But the way the Schmitts "just put food on the table," changed the dining scene. Don Schmitt was in charge of pulling together a wine menu, while Sally planned the meals based on what she could find that was in season. The New York Times says her enthusiasm for locally-sourced ingredients might have made her a trailblazer that created the framework for California cuisine, but that isn't how Sally saw her cooking. "French country cooking is what I lean to, the braised meats, simple things, lots of vegetables, homey desserts rather than pastry-cart desserts," she said to The San Francisco Chronical in 1993.

Thomas Keller works to preserve the Schmitt's culinary legacy

When the Schmitts sold their restaurant to Thomas Keller in 1994, they didn't make much of their culinary legacy, so much so that when her husband Don died in 2017 few of the publications that covered the French Laundry mentioned his passing, per the LA Times. It was left to Thomas Keller and The French Laundry team to honor the couple in small but significant ways. Keller marks The French Laundry's birthday on February 9 — the day the Schmitts first opened its doors to the public, not the day he opened his iteration of the establishment. Keller has also had the restaurant's entrance painted in same shade of blue as the hood in Schmitt's kitchen.

The French Laundry closed its moving Instagram obituary saying, "Thank you, Sally, for building the foundation of this restaurant that has impacted so many lives. May the 'blue door' serve as a daily reminder of you as we continue to champion your family's legacy. And in the spirit of International Women's Day, you have been the true symbol of strength, wisdom, and generosity. We are so grateful for your dedication to this historical place we call home."