Like Grandmother, Like Grandson
Carolyn Jung - April 2011
Sally and Don Schmitt's legacy stretches from The French Laundry to an heirloom apple farm to a hotel/restauran in the Anderson Valley and now to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Yountville, where their daughter's son commands the kitchen. Carolyn Jung visits an extraordinary family.
Glance around the pristine kitchen of Thomas Keller's rarified French Laundry in Yountville, California, and it's hard to imagine that a dark-haired toddler once played amongst pots and pans here, managing even then to help slice bread for crostini and to hold crimson peppers up to a flame until their skins charred to a deep ebony. Perry Hoffman still remembers those wondrous moments decades ago. His grandfather would greet guests with glasses of wine at the restaurant, while his grandmother was ensconced in the kitchen, braising Zanzibar duck with heady five-spice that often graced the nightly country French prix-fixe menu.
Many chefs start cooking at a precocious age. But Hoffman, now the 27 year old chef de cuisine of the elegant Étoile restaurant at Domaine Chandon, blocks from the other landmark restaurant of his childhood reminiscences, may just have them all beat. At age 4, his day care was essentially the kitchen of the original French Laundry. Here, as a tot, he gnawed on day-old baguettes and picked herbs to keep occupied while his mom arranged flowers in the dining room and worked as a waitress. Hoffman's uncommon upbringing came courtesy of his grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, who transformed what was once variously a bar, laundry, brothel, and run-down rooming house into a destination restaurant in 1978. Even back then, their French Laundry attracted the likes of Julia Child, Richard Olney, and Marion Cunningham before the Schmitts made the decision to sell it to a down-on-his-luck chef named Keller. The couple then went on to refurbish yet another neglected property, the 30 acre Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino County. In doing so, the Schmitts set in motion an inimitable legacy, which all began when they moved to Yountville in 1967 to manage the Vintage 1870 marketplace, where the couple also ran a cafe and lunch spot, before buying The French Laundry across the street 11 years later.
Had it not been for what the Schmitts first nurtured in that distinctive 1900 stone building in Yountville, there might not be The French Laundry as we know it today. Nor the now-vaunted reputation of tiny Yountville as a culinary destination. Nor a thriving Philo farm with 80 varieties of heirloom, biodynamically farmed apples in a setting now so idyllic that Pottery Barn does catalog shoots there. Nor might there be the Domaine Chandon winery, where their grandson now works, and which was a development project serendipitously approved by Don Schmitt during his 13 year stint on the Yountville city council. Nor lastly, might there be the singular achievement of their grandson as the youngest chef in the country to garner a Michelin star in 2009 at Étoile, an honor that moved Keller to send Hoffman a hand-written congratulatory note, as well as a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
"I didn't think what we did was anything special," says Sally, 79, about what she and Don, 81, have accomplished over the years. "But I've come to realize what we've done is pretty remarkable only because so many people keep telling us that."
In Napa Valley, they are practically royalty. When chef Cindy Pawlcyn first started out in her career at a time when there were few women chefs, she carried in her wallet a photo of Sally torn from a magazine for 15 years until it plain wore out. "The valley would have been hugely different without the Schmitts," says Pawlcyn, who now owns Mustards Grill, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, and Go Fish, all in Napa Valley. "They touched a lot of the valley and taught so many of us to eat and cook. Sally brought globalness to the Napa Valley. And she kept us sensible."
Native Californians, Sally, who grew up on a farm near Sacramento, and Don, who hails from a family of butchers in San Joaquin Valley, have always been self-starters with a knack for seeing the potential in what others would have turned their backs on. That included Keller, whom the Schmitts knew from the moment he stepped through the door was the right person to take over The French Laundry in 1993, even if meant taking the risk of giving him 18 months to round up the money to do so.
That fearlessness and foresight are traits they've passed on to their five children, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Their daughter, Kathy, who is Hoffman's mom, now runs her own Napa Valley florist business and still supplies the blooms that decorate The French Laundry. Another daughter, Karen, runs the Farmhouse Mercantile store in Boonville, as well as the Philo Apple Farm, from which the Schmitts retired after Sally suffered a stroke in 2007. A son, John, owns and cooks at the quaint Boonville Hotel he revamped in Anderson Valley. Another son, Eric, is a contractor in Napa Valley. The youngest daughter, Terry, is a woodworker. And assorted grandkids help out by selling Philo Apple Farm products regularly at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco.
The Schmitts joke that Hoffman is the only family member who "kind of went corporate," heading a kitchen staff of 25 at the only fine dining restaurant at a Napa Valley winery. Raised in a household where soda and junk food were verboten and everything was made from scratch, the self-taught Hoffman never considered any other vocation. "I grew up amongst all of that and just loved it," he says. "Being in the kitchen has such a sense of comfort. It's a bridge to my family. I used to think, ‘My Grandma has such a legacy here, but nobody's going to carry it on. It's up to me.'"
He may no longer feel quite that weight of responsibility on his shoulders, but the influence of his grandmother is never far away. Hoffman's Asian-inflected contemporary California cuisine is based on the philosophy of "refined, simple, and clean," which isn't too far off the mark from his grandmother's belief that one "should never make food pretty just for pretty's sake."
Sally was cooking local and sustainable before it was fashionable. Hoffman follows that same path, but also cooks with fancier ingredients than his grandmother ever used, such as lobster and caviar. Philo apples from the farm she helped nurture star in dishes at Étoile with the likes of seared foie gras. Her five course French Laundry tasting menu topped out at $46, while his Étoile four course version is $85 and his six course is $110. Braised duck is a favorite of them both, but his rendition is more likely to top Fairytale pumpkin, cut into strips like fettuccine, compressed in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, then cooked sous-vide until they resemble al dente noodles. "I play with textures," he says. "But I'll often think, ‘If I fed this to my grandmother, what would she think?' It reminds me that simple is best. It doesn't have to be crazy to be good."
His grandparents have eaten at Étoile twice. Hoffman says he's never been more nervous than when cooking for them, an admission that tickles his grandmother. "I was blown away and in awe of his food," she says. "He's always been so focused. He set his sights and has never wavered."
Even so, Hoffman's first paying restaurant job happened purely by accident. When he was 15, he was strolling past a soon-to-open family-style restaurant in downtown Napa, when he stopped to peruse the menu. The chef came out and asked if he needed a job. Hoffman started the next day (just before opening day) at Zinsvalley Restaurant. When asked to julienne vegetables, Hoffman, who had never been formally trained, botched the task. "But then the chef asked if I could burn peppers," Hoffman says with a laugh. "Now, that I could do."
He stayed there three years, learning the basics, before joining his grandmother at the apple farm to assist her with the hands-on cooking classes she taught there. As a teen, he spent almost every summer at the farm, climbing ladders to pick the fragrant apples with nostalgic names like Golden Russet and Esopus Spitzenberg. He'd watch as visitors purchased them at the farm stand the old-fashioned way—by weighing them and then leaving their money in the till on the self-serve honor system. That was followed by cooking stints at his uncle's Boonville Hotel and the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, before stepping in as sous chef at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California, under the tutelage of Robert Curry, whom he credits with teaching him classical techniques. There, Hoffman helped oversee a kitchen team of 45 when he was 20 years old.
"It was tough at first," Hoffman recalls. "There were interns there who were older than me. But you just start cooking, and you know what's right and what's wrong."
In 2007, he came to Étoile as sous chef, then was promoted to executive chef a year later. Along the way, Keller offered him a chance to stage at The French Laundry. Hoffman was flattered by the opportunity but ultimately turned it down. It would have been too surreal, he says, to return to a place where he knows every tree, every path, and every stone, but from a time that no longer exists. Keller understood that. He remains grateful for the confidence the Schmitts had in him and for what they created before turning the restaurant over to him. Over the years, Keller has added improvements to The French Laundry, but none too drastic so as not to detract from what the Schmitts originally built. There are still subtle reminders aplenty of the couple, including a Pink Pearl tree planted in the restaurant's courtyard, a birthday gift years ago from the Schmitts, who knew it to be Keller's favorite apple variety.
"It's a nice story to have another Schmitt to continue to be a part of our profession," Keller says of Hoffman. "It's a great tribute to his grandmother and grandfather."
The Schmitts can't wait to see what the future holds, too. Hoffman would like to open his own restaurant some day. But don't look for it amidst the bright lights of New York City or San Francisco or some other big city. Hoffman is committed to staying in Wine Country, where he's attached to the peace and quiet of its rolling hills, picturesque vineyards, and good fishing holes.
Sally Schmitt can't help but smile at that.
"What am I proudest of? Knowing that I've been able to give all of my family valuable lessons about food and cooking, and more importantly, about a way of life," she says. "My mind is boggled by what Perry has accomplished. I hope I live long enough to see his next step because I'm sure he'll have a next one."
In this family, there always is.