Review by George Yatchisin
Sally Schmitt’s posthumous publication Six California Kitchens proves you can write a powerful memoir one recipe at a time. Whether the book will become enough of a legacy to vault her into the position she deserves, praised alongside “inventors” of California cuisine—farm-to-table, local, seasonal—like Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton, and Mark Peel, only time will tell. But it’s also telling that Schmitt and her husband of 64 years Don were the founders of the French Laundry in 1978, which they sold to now world-renowned food superstar Thomas Keller in 1994 so they could get out of what they already saw was a rapidly commercializing Napa Valley. And note Keller pens one of the two encomiastic forewords; the other is from the founder of the famed Mustards Grill, Cindy Pawlcyn, who also, alas, generally doesn’t receive the kudos she deserves.
So, yes, there is a not-so-secret feminist core to this book, as Schmitt argues against the sad sexist trope “women are cooks and men are chefs” one unfussy but brilliant plate at a time. (In 1952 she graduated from UC Davis with a degree in, of all things, home ec.) Schmitt is also very much a mother, too, that “stumbling block” that often derails a woman’s career. Her solution was simple—have the whole family work for you. Not surprisingly to this day the Apple Farm, the idyllic spot the Schmitts took to in Mendocino County, eventually growing 80 heirloom varieties of apples, making all sorts of take-home products from that fruit and more, and most importantly, teaching cooking classes, is managed and run by Sally’s daughter, Karen, and son-in-law Tim. And Don was there all along, going from an Air Force vet to a banker to a sommelier on-the-fly, especially thanks to all their Napa winemaking friends.
Among its many charms the book makes for an incisive time capsule of growing up in the 1970s, driven home by a photo of the Schmitts looking like they’ve watched too much Partridge Family—the girls with their Susan Dey straight long hair, the boys about ready to run from the frame like either of the two actors that played Chris Partridge (I backed myself into a tough comparison there). The book features marginalia that it’s easy to get lost in, offering fascinating asides, clever quips, sometimes kitchen tips. And none of them beat the moment Schmitt recalls the San Francisco cast of Hair showing up to their then restaurant Vintage 1870, “picking flowers and stretching out in the grass, enjoying the sunshine. It felt like a perfect expression of the times.”
Those six kitchens are “My Mother’s Kitchen,” “The Vintage Café,” “The Chutney Kitchen,” “The French Laundry,” “The Apple Farm,” and then where she and Don retired on the Mendo coast, “The Elk Cottage.” The sequence runs like a chef’s answer to the riddle of the Sphinx—you learn from those before you, crawling along, and indeed, the book is full of recipe’s like “Mom’s Potato Salad” and “Aunt Polly’s Lamb Shanks”—then you work in another’s space, if lucky you get to design your own, and eventually it all simplifies again, and you only need to cook for two. (Sadly, Don passed five years before Sally. In many ways the book is their touching love story.)
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the recipes themselves—this is a cookbook, after all—but when you get to something like the heavenly sounding Chocolate Chinchilla Topped with Sherry Cream, a kind of chocolate soufflé, it’s easy to get distracted by the opposite photo of impish grandson Brooks test-tasting the dessert, or the side note explaining the source of the odd name (a 1955 English cookbook), or her comment in the headnote that the recipe also appears in chocolate master and fellow Anderson Valley resident John Scharffenberger’s The Essence of Chocolate. You’ve already been fed without having to taste anything.
But you will hope to taste many of these dishes, all presented in a clever way with the ingredients not a block of headnote but instead mentioned right amidst the instructions at the very spot each are needed. There’s a homey Braised Lamb with Green Garlic & Mint, a hearty Portuguese Duck and Sausage with Rice, a Steak à la Chicana she insists you should cook with lard. (It is a relatively meaty slate of recipes, partially because she was generally far enough from the ocean that the freshest of seafood wasn’t available.) And her love of desserts is clear long before her family renovates the Apple Farm.
Beyond specific dishes, Schmitt provides lots more general teaching, from a page of tips for jam making to the proper order to wash one’s dishes (her kitchens tended to be very low-tech affairs). She is quick to tip her toque in as many thankful directions as she can, pointing out how much M.F.K. Fisher’s sense of simplicity affected her approach, singing the praises of Napa chef Frances Solis as a source for learning about Mexican cuisine, or as Schmitt dubs it “real California cooking,” and painting a poignant portrait of Aunt Polly of the lamb shanks, who comes off as a no-doubt saucy minx who provided some city sophistication for the outside of Sacramento, farm-raised Sally.
For ultimately this book is a celebration of food, farm, and family. The section “Our Staff” turns out to be mostly about children and grandchildren. Not only did they all work at a Schmitt business for at least a portion of their lives, but two even brought in friends to work who became sons-in-law. Sally had the book ready to go before she passed away in March 2022, but she clearly was overjoyed to note that four generations were living on the Apple Farm. “I am very proud of my family,” she writes, as straightforwardly as she seemed to live her life. “None of them were college graduates, yet they are all leading successful, satisfying, creative lives. And they all love to cook and eat well.”