Opinion | Before Thomas Keller, It Was Her French Laundry

Sally Schmitt sold the French Laundry. Then it became
“the best restaurant in the world.”

Sally Schmitt sold the French
Laundry. Then it became “the best
restaurant in the world.”

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By Ben Proudfoot

Mr. Proudfoot is a documentary filmmaker.

When my father died, he held disappointment in his heart. He was 66 and had only just retired from a life of 80-hour workweeks as a successful lawyer, and this next chapter promised everything he had skimped on since deciding to go to law school: family time, creative pursuits, fun.

His liver paid no mind, however, and he died on the morning of May 1, 2020. Four days later, I interviewed Sally Schmitt, bathed in golden Californian light, via Zoom, from the damp and shadowy basement of my parents’ home in Nova Scotia.

As a filmmaker and entrepreneur, I had always admired and studied the chef Thomas Keller, a walking pinnacle of craftsmanship, refinement and success — my father’s kind of guy. I had only recently learned about Ms. Schmitt, a pioneer of the Napa Valley culinary scene and the creator of the French Laundry, the restaurant Mr. Keller made world-famous. Talking to Ms. Schmitt that morning, I learned she held a different kind of wisdom: that success may have other definitions.

Ms. Schmitt died on March 5, 2022. But in the short documentary above, she shares with delightfully coy candor a message about the rewards of balance and the trap of ambition. I made this film for all of us who struggle “to stir and taste the soup” that already sits in front of us. Perhaps with time and Ms. Schmitt’s example, we will.

Ben Proudfoot is a filmmaker and the founder and C.E.O. of Breakwater Studios. He directed the Oscar-winning Op-Doc “The Queen of Basketball.”

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