The French Laundry, 1993: Exploring the Early Days

I found an interesting old paperback at the used bookstore a few weeks ago, 1993’s “California Wine Country Cooking Secrets,” edited by Kathleen DeVanna Fish. The book itself is somewhat poorly conceived — part tour guide, part cookbook, part Napa, part Sonoma — it doesn’t really offer much definitive advice or insight regarding any of these four subjects. Instead, “California Wine Country Cooking Secrets” glosses over the critical details, and simply compiles fluff descriptions for the bigger wineries, alongside a handful of restaurant entries, each offering three recipes. That said, the Napa restaurant section does remain the most compelling chapter of the book, featuring such familiar local names as chef Michael Chiarello (not at Bottega, of course, but at Tra Vigne back in those days) and chef Philippe Jeanty (not at Bistro Jeanty, but at Domaine Chandon). Even though these two Napa chefs have since launched other ventures, some of the other Napa restaurant entries have managed to maintain more of their relevancy during the past 17 years, which I find equally intriguing: Cindy Pawlcyn remains the chef-owner of Mustard’s Grill, while Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani still reside as chef-owners at Terra.

When I noticed an entry for The French Laundry, my eyes lit up. I eagerly flipped ahead to that section, hoping for a revealing glimpse of Thomas Keller’s early years. I wondered, what was “TK” cooking before The French Laundry became “TFL” to the rest of us, back when the Big Man was still in the kitchen every night, building his reputation, one perfect plate a time, as America’s greatest chef? Would these recipes be something simple, or more complex? I was curious to get the skinny. But then, as I turned to the appropriate page, I realized that I had gotten just one year ahead of myself: Thomas Keller didn’t purchase The Laundry until 1994. Back in 1993, Sally Schmitt was still the restaurant’s chef-owner, and this entry suddenly proved even more interesting than I had hoped. Here’s how The French Laundry is described in “California Wine Country Cooking Secrets”…

“The French Laundry is housed in a charming old stone two-story residence, which served as a laundry for 40 years. The restaurant is surrounded by trees, flowers and herb gardens, which you are encouraged to enjoy between dinner courses. Owners Don and Sally Schmitt built their high-quality restaurant around superb food in a relaxed and inviting atmosphere. The fixed menu changes nightly, offering some choices of appetizers and desserts. The prix fixe dinner of $46 features five courses and coffee.

Sally Schmitt presides in the kitchen, offering simple but beautifully prepared dishes, such as summer tomatoes with arugula mayonnaise, crispy duck with homemade chutney and mustard, and a shortcake of nectarines and red berries. The French Laundry is a place for unhurried dining, expert service, wonderful local wines and outstanding food.”

Today, of course, it’s impossible to think of The French Laundry without also thinking of Thomas Keller. The two entities have become inseparable, each representing the pinnacle of cuisine, both having now become even larger than life. Times have certainly changed since 1993. But I happen to know that when Thomas Keller published his landmark “The French Laundry Cookbook” in 1999, he gave the very first copy off the press to Sally Schmitt. Pretty cool, if you think about it. I think that says quite a bit.

2 comments to The French Laundry, 1993: Exploring the Early Days

  • Dear Thirsty,
    I love this post. I remember reading about the Schmitt’s FL when I first beginning to cook professionally and it was my dream to eat there and try Sally’s roasted chicken. I didn’t move to the Valley until Thomas had purchased it and was rising to the chef super stardom he now embodies. Ah, nostalgia.

  • Thirsty Reader

    The history of Napa’s restaurants and wineries has always been interesting for me as well. Thanks so much for reading!

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