The California native, who died in March this year at the age of 90, is the subject of Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot’s new documentary, The best cook in the world. The short debuts on Tuesday as part of The New York Times’ Op-docs series, but we’ve got your first look here in this exclusive trailer.
Schmitt and her husband Don opened The French Laundry restaurant in 1978, Napa Valley’s revered culinary mecca that has become the home of California cuisine, along with Chez Panisse a little further south. Thomas Keller then bought The French Laundry and brought it even greater fame, but the groundwork was laid by Sally. French ingredients, locally grown, in season. That was the idea.
“It was a bit of heaven,” Schmitt recalls in the film.
Proudfoot, who won his Oscar earlier this year for The queen of basketballabout Lucy Harris, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, is drawn to stories of people whose significant accomplishments have not been properly recognized.
“I love origin stories. I love stories that make you revisit something you thought you knew,” Proudfoot told Deadline. the story of two French laundries.”
That of Thomas Keller and that of Sally Schmitt. There’s a reason she never became as famous as the other chefs, the film reveals.
“She didn’t choose fame at all,” Proudfoot says. “Neither fame nor wealth.
Instead, she chose a life of balance – raising her five children while making the restaurant a success. Even inside the stone walls of The French Laundry, the emphasis was not on “turning around the tables” to seat the next customers and generate profits, but on the food, the conversation, the conviviality.
“Sally used to say… the purpose in life is really about people and family. You have to constantly monitor the balance between your work and your family and friends,” explains the director. “She led a very high quality life. And that didn’t necessarily include recognition or fame or money or awards.
Proudfoot acknowledges that the title he chose for his film could be perceived as provocative.
“I think it’s a title that dares you. [Some people may] say, ‘Oh, come on. Let’s see,” observes Proudfoot. “And of course his line in the movie is, ‘I don’t have to be the best chef in the world…’ You might wonder who the best chef in the world is? Is he the most famous Or is it the one who can charge the most? The one with the best rewards? Or is it the one who quietly and consistently nurtures their community and makes it a better place?”
The best cook in the world is a production of Proudfoot’s Breakwater Studios. It just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, where it received “thunderous applause and teary-eyed reactions,” according to one attendee. The film is directed and produced by Proudfoot. The editor is Nick Garnham Wright, with photography by Brandon Somerhalder and David Bolen. Katya Richardson composed and orchestrated the original score.
Watch the trailer above.