Food legend Sally Schmitt reflects on life after cooking in

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the late Sally Schmitt’s new cookbook, “Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons from a Pioneer of California Cuisine” (Chronicle Books), which comes out Tuesday, April 5. Schmitt was the original founder and chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, where she helped permanently change the Bay Area dining world. She recently died at age 90. Here she is remembering her life after restaurants, cooking at home for just herself and her husband, Don. At the end, there are her recipes for green eggs with ham, a Schmitt family brunch favorite, and the coffee pots de crème she served at the French Laundry.

In 2008 Don and I truly retired. We moved from all the hustle and bustle at the Apple Farm to a quiet little cottage, which we had completely renovated, in the small town of Elk, about 30 miles … northwest of the farm. Elk is on the Mendocino coastline, and we arranged it so my kitchen window looked out over that beautiful, rugged Northern California shore. I had gone from cooking for fifty people at the French Laundry to twelve for the classes I taught at the Apple Farm. And now, finally, I was fixing meals just for the two of us. It was the first time in many, many years that I cooked for only two — really since we were first married, a half-century ago, before the children arrived.

So I had to downsize my pantry, and learn more about what to do with leftovers. We would have breakfast, which we never did when we ran the French Laundry. There, I started the day with a cup of coffee and went right to work, waiting until lunchtime to eat anything. When Don and I moved to Elk, we always ate breakfast, often eggs, and once or twice a week, granola, which I’d make myself or buy from Margaret Fox, who had started the Café Beaujolais in Mendocino.

I continued to read cookbooks and magazines, always Saveur, sometimes Cook’s Illustrated or Food & Wine. I would get excited about cooking a recipe I came across, but nine times out of ten, I wouldn’t like it. So I’d simply go back to my old favorites. Sometimes, though, I did find something new that was appealing and fit into my regular routine, or a new combination of flavors, or even a new way of cutting vegetables.

Sally Schmitt cooks in her Elk cottage, where she and Don retired in 2008.

Courtesy Troyce Hoffman for Six California Kitchens

My restaurant years taught me to be prepared, and I carried this training over to my life at home. While washing the breakfast dishes, I liked to think through the food for the rest of the day, since I liked to have all my ducks in a row. If dinner was to be a meat from the freezer, I would take it out to thaw, salting it so it would taste better. Almost without thinking about it, I would do what I could ahead of time, so I could concentrate on the sautéing and the seasoning just before dinner. If we were going to have something with a cream sauce that night, I would make it early and keep it on the back of the stove. The salad I would prepare and keep covered with a damp paper towel in the fridge to keep it cool.

Back when I was in my restaurant kitchen, I learned to have things ready to serve at the same time, and always made sure the food was either very hot, or cold. It was only during these later years in my kitchen in Elk that I learned how many flavors actually peaked at room temperature.

I’ve also learned not to fixate on measuring much, unless I’m baking, of course. You can learn what a half teaspoon looks like in the palm of your hand by practice. My ingredients became simpler. I stopped, for example, playing around with so many varieties of salt, and kept just two by the stove, Diamond Crystal kosher salt and Maldon sea salt flakes, which I could sprinkle on when I wanted a little crunch on top. I kept only one olive oil in the house, a really good one made in Modesto, and coconut oil for stir-frying. The only dried herb I used was Mexican oregano. For any other herb, I would just go out and pick what I needed. I almost always made my own stock, but kept a can in the pantry for emergency use. I also kept in my pantry rice, polenta, and pasta. My kitchen equipment was simple. No dishwashing machine, no garbage disposal, no microwave. But I had never had any of these in my home kitchen, so it was nothing new.

The cover of "Six California Kitchens" (Chronicle Books) by Sally Schmitt, the original chef and owner of the French Laundry in Yountville.

The cover of “Six California Kitchens” (Chronicle Books) by Sally Schmitt, the original chef and owner of the French Laundry in Yountville.

Courtesy the Schmitt family

I never baked bread in my restaurants. I left it to the experts, who had the knowledge and equipment to do a good job. That didn’t change when we moved to Elk. There were good bakers up the road in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, and I felt it was important to support them by buying their bread.

Inevitably, whenever I would see friends or former customers, they would always ask me, “Do you cook for yourself at all anymore?”

“Of course I do,” I would say. “That’s what I do.” I can’t imagine life without cooking.

Reprinted from “Six California Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt with permission from Chronicle Books, 2022. Photographs © Troyce Hoffman. Email [email protected]

Green eggs and ham from Sally Schmitt’s cookbook “Six California Kitchens.” The sauce gets its color from green herbs and chiles.

Green eggs and ham from Sally Schmitt’s cookbook “Six California Kitchens.” The sauce gets its color from green herbs and chiles.

Courtesy Troyce Hoffman for “Six California Kitchens”

Green Eggs & Ham

Serves 6

The sauce in this recipe, adapted from Sally Schmitt’s “Six Kitchens” (Chronicle Books), was inspired by a creamy green salsa she tasted many years ago at Señor Pico in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. The sauce eventually made its way to this Green Eggs & Ham, a tribute to Dr. Seuss, which became an Easter brunch tradition for decades.

1 bunch fresh parsley

1 bunch fresh cilantro, including tender stems, plus more for garnish

1 bunch green onions (white and light green parts)

2 cups half-and-half

½ tsp. salt, plus more to taste

1 green poblano pepper, charred, peeled and chopped

2 or 3 small jalapeño peppers, depending on how hot you want the sauce

8 tablespoons butter, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 or 3 tablespoons chicken stock or cream, as needed

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

12 thin slices ham

3 English muffins, halved

6 eggs

Sweet red chile powder

To make the green sauce, chop coarsely the parsley, cilantro and green onions. Transfer to a blender and add half-and-half and salt. Purée until smooth. Add to the blender the poblano pepper and jalapeños. Purée until smooth.