Even though he’s only 30 years old, chef Perry Hoffman seems too old to trace his culinary and family ancestry to the French Laundry: most people think the restaurant was pulled out of Thomas Keller’s toque when he took it over in 1994. But Hoffman, the award-winning chef at Domaine Chandon’s Etoile, grew up in the restaurant, as his grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, owned it well before Thomas Keller became a household name. The original French Laundry opened in 1978. Here, Hoffman spins the tale of the three generations who all got their start at the once-humble Napa restaurant, and who are all still ensconced in the food world today.
“I grew up in a family that was 100% focused on food and wine,” Hoffman says. His grandparents, Don Schmitt, son of a butcher, and Sally, farmer’s daughter, opened their first restaurants, two casual spots called the Chutney Kitchen and Vintage Café, in the sleepy Yountville of 1967. In 1978, the property across the street became available; the Schmitts sold the other spots and bought what they christened The French Laundry.
Sally was the cook, and though she had no formal training, she had a fierce following of fans. “At that point, the restaurant catered to old Napa Valley,” Hoffman says. “Their clients were Louis M. Martini, the Mondavis, Krug and so forth. They were booked three months in advance all the way back then.” Hoffman says his grandmother was a pioneer of “California cuisine” at the time, along with contemporaries such as Alice Waters. “She was one of the first people in all of California to have direct food and wine pairings on menus,” he says.
Hoffman’s mother, Kathy, worked as a waitress at the Laundry while doing the flower design as well; so the restaurant served as young Perry’s daycare, preschool and sitter. “My grandmother would put an apron on me and have me start roasting bell peppers and making crostini and chopping parsley. Those were my very first tasks when I was five years old,” he says. “But it was kind of funny, I was on the payroll, so I would get a paycheck at age five.”
In 1994 Don and Sally sold the French Laundry to an up-and-coming chef named Thomas Keller, who would eventually transform it into one of the world’s most famous restaurants. In the meantime, the Schmitts had literally already laid the seeds for their next chapter, having purchased a nearby apple farm, Philo which their daughter Karen currently runs, supplying many of the surrounding restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.
Kathy Hoffman moved on to start her own floral design business. Today, she continues to adorn Keller’s French Laundry along with popular Napa restaurants such as Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty and Bistro Don Giovanni. Kathy and Karen’s brother, John Schmitt, also carries on the restaurant gene: after a youth working at the French Laundry, he went on to cook in France before returning home to become the chef/proprietor of the nearby Boonville Hotel in 1989.
The Next Generation
Hoffman’s first work experience outside of his grandparents’ restaurant was when he was 15, at a neighborhood spot in downtown Napa. Like his grandmother, he obtained no formal training, preferring to learn on the job. He became a chef-prodigy of sorts, under the mentorship of Robert Curry at Auberge du Soleil before joining Etoile as sous chef in 2007. He was named executive chef at Etoile the following year, and the accolades started rolling in. In addition to being named a Zagat 30 Under 30 honoree, Hoffman was a San Francisco Chronicle “Rising Star Chef” and a two-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Hoffman laughs when he recalls when he first announced to his grandmother that he wanted to be a chef. She retorted, “No you don't!” Hoffman says. “She said, ‘You'll have no family. You’ll be at work all the time.’ But at the same time, she couldn't be more proud. I definitely wouldn't be doing what I do now, as far as cooking and running restaurants, if it wasn't for my grandparents and if I didn't grow up in that culture. So, I have every reason to thank them and owe them credit for where I am today.”
Hoffman says the most important thing his grandmother taught him was the importance of salt. “I remember when I was 15 years old, and I was helping my grandmother out with a cooking class. We were making a cold sorrel sauce to put on top of a smoked steelhead with German butterball potatoes. I think it was sorrel and crème fraiche together with Dijon mustard and a little bit of lemon juice. I remember tasting it and thinking, 'that's horrible.' And then she just added the smallest little pinch of salt, and the dynamic changed. It was eye-opening.”
Hoffman says that one day he’d like to follow in the family footsteps by opening his own restaurant. “It would be amazing to go back to my roots and have my own place. Something small. Dinner only. Or an amazing deli, just somewhere here in Napa. It would have a family vibe, of course, in the kitchen and in the dining room.” Whatever the project, Hoffman says his ultimate goal is to leave a mark in the culinary world as indelible as his ancestors did. “My grandparents helped put Napa Valley on the map for food. I am incredibly proud of that and am honored to carry on the traditions they started.”