By Matthew Carey
Documentary Editor, Awards
EXCLUSIVE: Among the pioneers of California cuisine, several chefs are very well known: Wolfgang Puck, of course, Thomas Keller, and Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse. But there’s another woman who deserves equal recognition for her contribution to a way of cooking that changed America: Sally Schmitt.
The California native, who died in March of this year at the age of 90, is the subject of Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot’s new documentary, The Best Chef in the World. The short film debuts Tuesday as part of the New York Times Op-docs series, but we have your first look at it here in this exclusive trailer.
Schmitt and her husband Don opened The French Laundry restaurant in 1978, the revered culinary mecca in Napa Valley that became the locus of California Cuisine, along with Chez Panisse a little further south. Thomas Keller later bought The French Laundry and brought it even greater renown, but the groundwork was laid by Sally. French ingredients, locally grown, in season. That was the idea.
“It was a little bit of Heaven,” Schmitt recalls in the film.
Proudfoot, who won his Oscar earlier this year for The Queen of Basketball, about Lucy Harris, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, is drawn to stories about people whose important achievements have not been properly recognized.
“I love origin stories. I love stories that make you look again at something you thought you knew,” Proudfoot tells Deadline. “And this story really appealed to me because it’s really kind of the tale of two French Laundries.”
The one of Thomas Keller and the one of Sally Schmitt. There’s a reason she never became as celebrated as other chefs, the film reveals.
“She did not choose fame at all,” Proudfoot says. “Nor glory, nor riches.”
Instead, what she chose was a life of balance – raising her five children while making a success of the restaurant. Even within the stone walls of The French Laundry, the emphasis wasn’t on “turning around tables” to seat the next customers and drive profits, but on food, conversation, conviviality.
“Sally was saying… the goal in life really is about people and family. You should be constantly monitoring the balance between your job and your family and your friends,” the director says. “She led a very high-quality life. And that didn’t necessarily include recognition or fame or money or awards.”
Proudfoot acknowledges the title he chose for his film might be perceived as provocative.
“I think it’s a title that dares you. [Some people may] say, ‘Oh, come on. Let’s see,’” Proudfoot observes. “And of course, her line in the movie is, ‘I don’t have to be the best chef in the world…’ You can ask yourself, who is the best chef in the world? Is it the one who is the most famous or the one who can charge the most? The one who has the best awards? Or is it the one who quietly and consistently feeds their community and makes it a better place?”
The Best Chef 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 cinematography by Brandon Somerhalder and David Bolen. Katya Richardson composed and orchestrated the original score.
Watch the trailer above.
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