“The smell was intoxicating,” she recalled. “As was my awareness that I was responsible for it.”
She graduated early from high school, at age 16, and studied home economics at the University of California, Davis and the University of California Berkeley, graduating in 1952 at the age of 20.
She had met Don at a wedding while she was still at UC Davis, and the pair continued to correspond after he was enlisted in the Air Force. They were married in July 1953, then moved to Fresno, where Don had a job in banking.
As the mother of five children, Sally threw herself into home cooking out of economic necessity as well as love, testing her way through various cookbooks and entertaining friends with the help of magazines such as Sunset.
In 1967, the family uprooted itself and moved to Yountville, where Don had been offered a job managing the Vintage 1870 shopping center, a historic winery converted into shops, galleries and a cafe. It’s now known as the V Marketplace.
While Don managed the tenants, Sally took over running the Vintage Cafe, a burger joint with soda fountain that had a gas grill at one end and Napa Valley’s first and only espresso machine at the other. After she fired the cook for not welcoming her suggestions, Sally’s cooking career began. She took over the grill and enlisted her oldest daughters to make milkshakes and espressos for their growing lunch business.
“We soon knew that food was a big draw,” she wrote in her cookbook. “The cafe was about hamburgers and milkshakes, done well, the way I wanted. But I wanted to do more.”
Within three years, she had opened The Chutney Kitchen restaurant in a vacant corner of Vintage 1870, designing her own kitchen to use for the restaurant and for making chutney to sell to her customers.
In addition to serving lunch for vintners’ wives, The Chutney Kitchen started offering monthly, Friday night dinners paired with Napa Valley wines, cooked using only local, in-season ingredients. The five-course, prix fixe menus changed each month.
Before long, Sally was also catering lunch for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which further honed her palate and boosted her confidence.
“Simple food, without fancy frills, was what pleased them the most,” she wrote in her cookbook.
The Chutney Kitchen provided the blueprint and the vision for their next restaurant. In 1974, they purchased a rundown building in Yountville, then spent four years renovating it. The French Laundry opened for business on Feb. 7, 1978.
The couple never got around to putting a sign up outside, didn’t accept credit cards, didn’t advertise and never allowed smoking in the restaurant. They served a fixed price dinner a night, and every day there was a different menu: a choice of three starters, a soup, an entree, a green salad with cheese and a choice of three desserts.
The tables were booked months in advance.
Sally also planted an herb garden outside the back door and started building relationships with local purveyors for produce, wild mushrooms and the local duck raised by Jim Reichardt of Liberty Duck in Petaluma.
Meanwhile, Don put together a wine list that focused solely on Napa Valley wines, and it kept growing, along with the line of winemakers coming through the door, including Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Jack Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards, and even the dean of American winemakers, Andre Chelistcheff.
By the time the couple sold the restaurant to the up-and-coming chef Keller in 1994, they had already purchased an apple farm in Philo, where they planned to retire.
For the next 15 years on the farm, Sally passed on her recipes and techniques to students who came from all over the country to study with her and her daughter. The recipes, like the menus at The French Laundry, were always written out meticulously by hand in a style that Sally preferred: the ingredients listed on the right, with the directions for those ingredients next to them, on the left.
After losing her husband in 2017, Sally started working in earnest on her memoir, recording all the stories from her rich life in her restaurant and home kitchens and curating the recipes she wanted to leave behind for family and friends.
“I really have done just what I loved to do, which has always been simply to cook good food for those I cared for,” she wrote in her cookbook. “That’s what mattered. That’s all that mattered.”
She is survived by her sister Kay Stone of Santa Cruz; children Kathy Hoffman of Williams, Oregon, Johnny Schmitt of Boonville, Karen Bates of Philo, Eric Schmitt of Napa and Terry Schmitt of Sebastopol; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A private family celebration will be held in the spring. Donations may be made in Sally’s name at The Anderson Valley Health Center, PO Box 338, Boonville, CA 95415.
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.