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The best chef in the world

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Founding the ‘world’s best’ restaurant made Sally happy. So did selling it

Although her name might not be familiar, if you’ve ever dined ‘farm-to-table’ you’ve likely tasted the influence of the visionary chef Sally Schmitt (1932-2022). She and her husband Don Schmitt founded the renowned restaurant the French Laundry, putting the Napa Valley outpost on the map as a culinary destination, and transforming an unassuming stone cottage in Yountville, California into one of the most exciting restaurants in the world. But, as The Best Chef in the World attests, this was not a title she ever aspired to hold. Filmed two years before her death, the short documentary celebrates her legacy and captures her sage perspectives on food, family and ambition – including her decision to sell the French Laundry at the peak of its success.

The film’s opening minutes provide a culinary tour of Schmitt’s kitchen, and beyond, to explore where her love of food began. In quick close-ups, butter melts on the hob, fresh peppercorns grind in a pestle and mortar, and bright, home-grown leaves tear, ready to be plated. Viewers travel via archive footage and photography to 1930s California, the time and place of Sally’s birth. It was an era marked by the dawn of supermarkets and a move away from a soil-to-table connection to food. However, growing up in a ‘food-centric family’ that lived off the land, Sally’s enthusiasm for fresh, seasonal ingredients started early, and sprung from necessity. From braised meats to citrus fruits, the dishes served up throughout her childhood inspired the menus that would later dazzle diners at the French Laundry.

Following the restaurant’s opening in 1978, Schmitt’s talent for elegantly simple and deeply flavourful recipes soon established her as a pioneer of ‘Californian cuisine’ – a culinary movement built on local, seasonal ingredients. Planting the seeds of the restaurant’s success, Schmitt knew that hearty, home-grown food tastes better in good company. More than a place to enjoy simple food at its best, the restaurant was a meeting hub, a passion project and an act of love. But after years of mounting accomplishments, in 1994 Schmitt made the difficult decision to sell the French Laundry to a young and ambitious chef named Thomas Keller, knowing that she valued her tight-knit family lifestyle more than whatever money, accolades or fame may have been on the horizon. In the years since, the restaurant has received countless awards, including first place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2003 and 2004, and Keller’s current total of seven Michelin stars reserves his spot among the most celebrated chefs in the world.

Known for championing the stories of people who’ve lived just below fame’s radar, it’s no wonder that the Academy Award-winning Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot was drawn to Schmitt. Through his ‘almost famous’ framework – and with no shortage of mouthwatering culinary close-ups – Proudfoot returns, again and again, to questions about what makes for a successful life. When do we have enough? And what is the cost of ambition? For Sally Schmitt, the answers seem to evoke her recipes – made close to home, kept simple but refined, crafted with passion and dedication – and with comfort and, above all, balance in mind.

Written by Olivia Hains

Director: Ben Proudfoot

Website: Breakwater Studios