Day 6·Q&A

Sally Schmitt could have been a superstar chef, but chose a balanced life instead

Sally Schmitt started what went on to become one of the world’s best restaurants, but Schmitt wasn’t one for awards or accolades. She could’ve started a global chain, but she chose to remain in the town of Yountville in California.

Ben Proudfoot explores founder of famed French Laundry restaurant in new film The Best Chef In The World

Sally Schmitt in her kitchen in a scene from the short documentary The Best Chef In The World. (Courtesy of Breakwater Studios, LLC)

Sally Schmitt started what went on to become one of the world's best restaurants, but Schmitt wasn't one for awards or accolades. She could've started a global chain, but she chose to remain in the town of Yountville, California. 

That's because, until her passing in March, Schmitt's life was all about balance, and success wasn't connected to fame. That's the story Nova Scotia filmmaker Ben Proudfoot explores in his new documentary, The Best Chef In The World.

On the heels of winning an Oscar for his documentary The Queen of Basketball, Proudfoot spoke to Day 6 host Saroja Coelho about his new film. Here's part of that conversation. 

Sally's story went untold for such a long time. Many people thought that Thomas Keller started the restaurant. How did she feel about sharing her story after so many years? 

The story wasn't truly untold. If you buy Thomas Keller's book, The French Laundry Cookbook, which is probably one of the best selling cookbooks of all time, the book ends with a big section on Sally and Don Schmitt, the ultimate purveyors. 

But outside of a certain very close circle, they weren't well known. And so I think what's happened here is her story has just been brought to a much, much wider audience and put into a much larger context outside of a small group of people who have been telling the story. 

Schmitt was the founder of the legendary restaurant The French Laundry. (Courtesy of Breakwater Studios, LLC)

Sally and her husband started the French Laundry in 1978, but the French Laundry in 1978 isn't the one that we think of now. What was it like when Sally started it? 

It's so fun to imagine, right? Because we have the benefit of the of the dramatic irony of knowing what this place would become. But they bought a derelict fieldstone building on a corner of a sleepy town in the Napa Valley. And Sally and Don and their five kids literally hired a carpenter and swept it out and cleared the cobwebs and put down the floors and built a kitchen and built the whole thing from the ground up in order to start the restaurant.

And it was a family operation. Her kids were in the kitchen or doing the flowers or serving, and Sally was the chef, and Don, her husband, was the front man. 

So they were kind of like this this hub, this cultural spot that everybody in the community came to. And as is shown in the film, the first menu, opening night menu, you get this amazing price fix meal for $12.50. 

What do you think they thought the reason was that the restaurant did so well?

Sally was able to make food that tasted great. It was sourced locally. All the ingredients were local, brought in from just right around where they were. I mean, she didn't even market it that way or know what the term locavore was. It [was] just how she did it. 

And I think they just created a real family, community environment. And they took cuisine and cooking and having an amazing meal extremely seriously. 

And if you combine that with a place as beautiful and fertile and such an epicentre of wine as Napa Valley, you have a tower of positive things working in your benefit, and they just kept at it and it kept growing and grew to legendary status amongst the locals. 

Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot accepts the Documentary Short Subject Award for 'The Queen of Basketball' onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on Sunday. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

But it could have grown even bigger than that. She could have opened other locations. She could have had incredible reach, but she actively chose not to. Why not? 

Sally was someone who had great conviction about the way she wanted to live her life and how much time and emphasis she wanted to place on different things. 

And her family and the balance in her life were extremely important to her. And when it got to a point where that balance is out of whack, she would pull back. 

Unlike most of us, she was not tempted and did not fall prey to the trap of bottomless ambition and career orientation. She was someone who is committed to a certain lifestyle that she had a clear vision for and she just didn't take the bait of, bigger is better. 

Thomas Keller took her big dream and then he ran with it. He turned it into a three star Michelin restaurant hailed as one of the best in the world. Do you think she had any regrets about that? 

I think she was proud of Thomas, and I think she might have had regrets if she wanted to make a three star Michelin restaurant, but I don't think that was Sally's goal. The honest thing is, I think she was wistful and missed that beautiful time when her and her husband and her family had this amazing 16-year-long dinner party of running the French Laundry.

From her garden to her table, Schmitt brought only the freshest food and ingredients to serve at The French Laundry (Courtesy of Breakwater Studios, LLC)

She was probably a little prickly about the commercialization of the Napa Valley in comparison to the Napa Valley she found. But I think she was proud of what he built. She was proud of her role in it. And I think if he had done something that she wanted to do, maybe. But I think she achieved exactly what she wanted. 

It really comes across in the film how comfortable she is in her life. What do you think her definition of success was? 

Her first words in the movie are, "it's all about balance." I think her children and grandchildren would agree that Sally's focus was on balance in all things. It was a focus on family and a lifestyle that they enjoyed and were excited to engage with on a day to day.

Awards and glory and recognition and money and fame just we're not that high on Sally's list. Especially now that she's passed away, I think her story is very much worth recognizing and celebrating and learning from, despite the fact that that wasn't something she saw during her lifetime. 

Schmitt didn't want to be a superstar, but preferred to balance serving good food with enjoying her family. (Courtesy of Breakwater Studios, LLC)

Did her definition of success change your view of success? 

A hundred per cent, yeah. My dad was a lawyer and very ambitious and drilled into us as kids very high expectations, especially he had that focus on me of like, nothing was ever good enough. You've got to do it. 

And he was a great guy and he had a lot of positive attributes, but he was definitely a workaholic.

But I think what was beautiful for me in experiencing Sally's story was just such a rich explanation and such a rich embodiment of a very different life's orientation, which was all about listening to yourself and listening to what satisfies you rather than building a life that you is really in service of the expectations of others and the expectations of society. 

Produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A was edited for length and clarity.


Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at

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