In 1994, Sally and Don Schmitt sold The French Laundry to Thomas Keller, one of their chefs, and retired to Mendocino County on a modest fruit farm in the Anderson Valley, which is lined with vineyards growing excellent Pinot Noirs. After putting some time into the farm, they decided to give small, very intimate cooking classes to round out their retirement. The courses they taught were booked months in advance and began taking up most of their time. (“Some retirement,” says Sally.) I arrived at The Apple Farm on a Friday evening after a drive through a stunning stretch of redwoods and settled into one of the three rustic-but-chic cottages amid the orchards. Then I went right to the kitchen, put on an apron, and very quickly figured out that this place is all about authenticity, about true flavors and developing good kitchen habits. One of our first dishes, cauliflower soufflé with brown butter, sounded intimidating but turned out to be quite easy: The most important part was mastering the art of handling eggs and properly whipping the whites. I came away from this course understanding not only the right way to brown butter but also exactly why biodynamic farming is important (those apples that fall to the ground become mulch or feed for the animals). At The Apple Farm, novices learn the basics; more-seasoned cooks pick up plenty of tips and inspiration—all made possible by the personal nature of the classes. So many areas are covered: cheesemaking, butchering, sauces, baking, braising, roasting, and the essence of making preserves. Right after my visit, though, Sally, who learned to cook from her mother, announced that she really was going to take some time off. Appropriately, classes from now on will be taught by Karen Bates, Sally’s daughter and her apprentice for the past 13 years. (707-895-2333; philoapplefarm.com; $1,750 per couple, $1,150 per person, for the weekend, including accommodations and meals)
What I Learned
Roasting peppercorns before grinding them (preferably with a mortar and pestle) imparts a deep, smoky flavor.
Sally’s “keep it simple” mantra never varied, and I realized that, even after years of cooking, I learned more than I could have imagined over the weekend.
Before You Go
Plan to linger in the area: Aside from the wineries and redwoods, The Apple Farm is only 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, where Highway 1 runs along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world.