When I was a naïve twentysomething planning our California honeymoon, I bookmarked two days in Napa Valley. I had A VISION for this portion of our trip, and it involved three things: a dreamy vineyard inn, a hot air balloon ride and dinner at the French Laundry. Spoiler alert: Only one of these things happened (the hot air balloon ride for the three people who are curious). We still had a lovely time vineyard hopping and soaking up those gorgeous Napa Valley vistas, but I told my husband that when we returned, he owed me dinner at the French Laundry.
I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by this restaurant. Maybe it’s the name, which somehow makes the word laundry sound elegant and worldly? Or the fact that Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it “the best restaurant in the world, period”? Or that it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation?
Last week I watched a fascinating documentary short on the restaurant’s origins, by Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot. The restaurant was originally founded by Don Schmitt and his wife Sally, a pioneer in California cuisine. The Schmitt’s ran the restaurant for 17 years with a casual, gracious touch (there were no second seatings; if you booked a table, it was yours for the night), and as its popularity soared, the couple fielded offers to open locations in New York and other big cities. But Sally and Don wanted no part of it. They had five children, and they felt an expansion would destroy their work-life balance. Money, awards and fame meant very little to them. So they sold the restaurant to Thomas Keller, who took it from an excellent restaurant to a world-famous destination with three Michelin stars.
In the documentary, Sally seems wistful at times about what could have been. But she knew she couldn’t have it both ways, and while food was always central to her life, family trumped everything. After she sold the restaurant, she and Don retreated to their 37-acre farm, where she taught cooking classes and opened a bed and breakfast. Don died in 2017, and Sally passed away this past March, one month before the release of her book.
It’s funny…I expected the documentary to teach me the ins and outs of the fabled French Laundry. But it also taught me something about life and the choices we make.