Johnny Schmitt – April 17th, 2009

GEDC0141I met with Johnny a couple of weeks agao at The Boonville Hotel and we sat down to talk in the hotel’s lounge/sitting room as his sister Karen and niece Polly set up fresh flower arrangements for the upcoming weekend guests to enjoy.

Johnny was born in Fresno in the fall of 1957, the middle of five children born to Don and Sally, who had met whilst attending U.C. Davis, and later went to U.C. Berkeley together. Kathy, Karen and Johnny were born over a four year period with two other siblings, Eric and sister Terry coming a few years later. Johnny’s father was a farm appraiser for Bank of California and he and Sally decided to move the family to Yountville in the Napa Valley when Johnny was ten years old.

It was a rural community – until 6th grade Johnny was in a class of just eight to ten children – and some of the kids would drive tractors to school. Johnny attended Junior High and High School in Napa but didn’t really like school. ‘Fortunately there were a couple of teachers who prevented me from going off the deep end…I had long hair and hung out with an ‘alternative’ group. I enjoyed some subjects – photography and English – and did well in them but in the others I got ‘D’s. It all depended whether I gave a shit or not.”…Don and Sally had instilled a strong work ethic in all five of their children and they had to earn their pocket money. “’If it was light outside then there was some work to be done somewhere around the home or yard. We were not that interested in school and none of us went to college for more than a semester or two at the most. We did not fall far from the tree and today we all work for ourselves – just like our parents. It was apparent from an early age that this was the way we were going to be.”

Through contacts made by Don, Johnny’s parents were offered the opportunity to manage a complex of about twenty shops and a couple of restaurants. One of these restaurants, The Vintage Café, was run by the family and had the first espresso machine in the county, complementing the soda fountain and burgers they served. Sally and the three older siblings basically ran the restaurant and had a staff of people several years older than themselves – “Most were dropouts from the Bay Area who had no use for the system – a potter, a brewer, a wine-maker, a candy store owner – we became like one big family, later running another restaurant there called The Chutney Kitchen. My father tried to create a good mix of tenants for the building that would benefit the community – as I’ve tried to do as a landlord at the Ferrer Building here in Boonville. I guess I have followed in his footsteps – the local businesses should be a part of the community and add something to it. It worked very well for my father who was the Mayor of Yountville for many years.”

When he was twenty-two, in 1979, Johnny took off and traveled to Europe. He was gone for a year, running out of money in Provence, in southern France, where he got a job during the grape harvest. “I was driving a ‘cat’, looking after the fish ponds, the gardens, the olive trees, and did lots of cooking. I also spent a lot of time eating and drinking.”

In his absence, Don and Sally had opened the French Laundry in Napa  – a restaurant that was to have extremely significant impact on cuisine everywhere. Johnny went to work there but over the next three years became more interested in doing his own ‘thing’. By around 1982 Johnny’s parents, who had been looking for a beach house, had decided instead on what is The Apple Farm in Anderson Valley. They bought it and began transforming the property from what was basically a farm labor camp. With sister Karen and her husband Tim Bates here in the Valley working on the Apple Farm, Johnny spent the next three years working alongside his mother at the French Laundry and coming up to the Valley at weekends to work on the property – cleaning it up, pruning, and generally getting it turned round into an organic farm. “My parents retreat had become a project and I wanted to help with this project. It was during this time that I fell in love with the Valley.”

Johnny had a strong desire to do his own restaurant and in 1986 an opportunity in the Valley came his way. Jerry Cox owned the Floodgate Store but in Jerry’s words, “I was not a businessman at all and so when Johnny Schmitt came along looking for a place to set up a little restaurant it was like a gift from God. We became partners and The Floodgate Café was born. We served predominantly upscale Mexican dinners at the weekend, good salads and desserts, and a Sunday breakfast – a very simple menu actually.”

Johnny says, “It worked really well. We did fifty to seventy breakfast/lunches and the Mexican dinners on Friday and Saturday nights were a big hit. I had Lidia working for me – she still is! – and Libby (now of Libby’s Restaurant) too. I brought a knowledge of Mexican food that I had learned from working alongside Mexican chefs in Yountville. I’d done a really good breakfast at the French Laundry that had worked well plus I also decided to leave the kitchen open and exposed to the diners to see what was going on. Some people thought this was ridiculous and were very vocal about what I should do. However, I had worked in Napa and felt definitely tested in the business so I stuck with it and it worked.”

In 1988, the Boonville Hotel became available and Johnny jumped at the chance, leaving Floodgate and taking Jerry, for a short time, and Lidia with him. “The operation at the Hotel was both amazing and strange. It was owned by Vernon and Charlene Rawlins and had a very odd mixture interior décor such as a grand piano, Timothy Leary poems written on the walls, very little lighting, no music, often no heat, but the food was incredible, some of the best in the State. My mother said, ‘They had an amazing vision but forgot to include the people.’ It was very high end which at the time had no place in Boonville. They disappeared in the middle of the night owing all sorts of money to staff and others, having apparently embezzled nearly two million dollars. I was intrigued by this weird but beautiful place…Meanwhile, a short time earlier, I had been fixing the dishwasher at the Floodgate, lying on the kitchen floor, when a women had come in looking for work. She told me she was a baker and had graduated from cooking school. I had nothing for her but a couple of days later she was coming through the Valley again and she stopped by when we were really busy. She jumped right in and helped – and did a great job. Her name was Jeanne Eliades and within no time at all we were a couple and in love, and soon after got married!”

“Anyway, when the Hotel opportunity came along we managed to get some investors but it was not enough so my family, particularly my Aunt Kay who had always encouraged my food interests, and Jeanne’s family came up with the rest, and against all the odds we pulled it off, buying in December 1987. After six months of preparations we finally opened the restaurant here on June 15th 1988 with many friends and family, such as my cousins P.J. and Jennifer, all involved in some way…Jeanne and I were a strong partnership, opposites in many ways but our experiences blended well together and her sense of caution and realism worked well with my more carefree and easy-going style.”

In 1988 a son, Brooks, was born, with another boy, Willy coming in 1991. It was around this time that the Hotel opened up eight guest rooms, with the studio and bungalow coming later. Jeanne and Johnny divorced in the early nineties but remained business partners until 2004 and are friends to this day. “Jeanne was a very good baker and also took care of the books and management. She provided the realistic aspect to some of my ideas and we were a good team together…I do have a ‘rich’ life but The Hotel is not the moneymaker it may appear to many. We have nearly lost it on several occasions and the Eliades Family and my Aunt Kay have bailed us out at crucial times. Various investors have wanted out so we have also changed investors over time, with two major ones bailing us out just in the past few years.”

“I think the running of such a fragile business took its toll on Jeanne sometimes. She was from a background that believed you worked hard, made your money, and then played. My family is used to working hard and then losing money, and then borrowing others money and getting by thanks to the generosity of others who believe in you and your ideas. Jeanne felt very responsible for the employees whereas I felt they would understand if we simply talked to them about our difficulties and it would all work out – as I said, we are very different in many ways, but I do believe that opposites attract.”

Lidia Espinosa has been Johnny’s “rock” for twenty-one years. “Without her we would not have survived.” Jonesy has been with Johnny for at least ten years now, doing pastries and desserts, and Elaine has also been vital to the success in her role as ‘manager’. “She is a manager and gets all the grief and no glory, but really we don’t have any hierarchy. We get together to discuss any problems and work out ways of how to make it work. I have never lost the love I have for this project despite the fact that it has not made financial sense at times.”

These days the Hotel’s earnings primarily come from the rooms. “The restaurant is a liability – a loss leader for the rooms. I am very stubborn on the quality of our food and its organic nature. We call the kitchen ‘the great churn and burn’ – it costs us a lot of money and we are really close on food costs with the expensive stuff we buy.”

Johnny is still the primary chef and sets up the menu each week and does the ordering. “It can run without me and chefs Lidia and Joel are very capable in the kitchen but my formula is not easy to follow. I am not willing to give it up. They are my ideas and I’m a little stubborn about that I suppose.”

Johnny is happy with the relatively simple menu he offers. “We used to try to cater to everyone when there were few options in the Valley but now other businesses have filled various niches and we have ours. We are the place you go to when you really want to go out to eat, to enjoy the dining experience, not just if you’re hungry. We try to keep our prices reasonable for the quality of food you get. The 10% return that restaurants might usually expect would mean our prices would have to be double. I am not going to do that. The pretentiousness of some restaurants is not part of this. We have a great local following and probably know half of the dinner guests on most weekends  – that is important to us. We offer healthy food to the community and our employees are all on board with that. Our kids are also involved and its great to see the family involved in so many ways around here…I grew up eating together as a family. It’s always been important to me. I love the process and the act of eating, it’s probably more important these days than ever – family, food, community.”

In recent times, Johnny has branched out into running his own design business. “I’m a facilitator. People come to the Hotel, see ideas here on how they might want their home to look, interior and exterior, and then I take over from there. I have helped on the design of about twelve houses now; it’s about three or four projects a year. The Hotel has become a showroom for my ideas. Anyone staying here would hopefully get a sense of continuity – from the food to the design, it is a vision of one person.”

I asked Johnny about his experience of being a gay man in the Valley. “I have been a bisexual all of my life, I never had to come out of a ‘closet’. It has not come up much in my daily life here and I have never felt any animosity from anyone around here as a result of being gay. My family was always very supportive. As a teenager I remember my mother once asking me if there was anyone at the restaurant who I hadn’t slept with – boys or girls!”…

“I am very comfortable around here with my sexuality; very comfortable as a gay man and father. It’s been great. I have had several great loves in my life. Jeanne knew that I had had been with men; in fact at our wedding several of my gay friends were there. She took a chance and we had two incredible kids and a wonderful business together. She is one of my best friends and the best possible mother for my kids. I remember my mother saying she had no problem with me being gay other than the fact that it would be a pity to miss out on being the good father she thought I could be. That was wise advice”…

“Now I have been with Marcus for three years and he will soon be leaving San Francisco and moving up here full-time. I must admit that I have wondered at times how I am being accepted around here. We have been quite affectionate in public – we walk along holding hands. There has never been a problem. I am in love with a wonderful man and I’m not going to hide it.”

I asked Johnny what he liked most about the Valley. “I believe this Valley has an opportunity to offer a different pace of life to people – it should be a strength of the Valley. I love the Valley and try not to take it for granted. There are an eccentric group of people here and I like that. The sense of community is a big draw to me, along with the many beautiful places of course. People may not realize what they have here until they leave.”

Anything you do not like? “Well, in a small community everyone’s opinions frequently get heard. Some people do nothing but complain and I try not to listen to those people. I ask myself what are these people adding to the community themselves? I guess I have learnt to consider the source of the comment before taking it seriously.”

I next asked Johnny for his brief responses to some of the various issues and entities that frequently crop up in conversations in the Valley…The School System? – “I am an advocate of sending your kids to the local schools. Brooks did fine but several of Willy’s close friends were sent to schools outside the Valley by their parents and he was very unhappy – so much so that we felt in the end that we had to send him to Mendocino. I am somewhat disappointed with parents who decide to move their kids out of the local system if it’s due to their perception of the quality of the education. There is little that the school does not provide and I think its bullshit to think they can get better education elsewhere. Sure the school could be better, and I do think they should concentrate on teaching more about life skills and experience than concentrating so much on getting the grades to get you into college, but overall it’s a fine system.”…The modernization of Anderson Valley? – “It’s a beautiful Valley close to the Bay Area on the way to the Mendocino Coast so sure it’s going to change. It is inevitable but let’s do it right. Meanwhile, we need to support the local community businesses more. Fill up with gas in the Valley if you can. Shop at A.V. Market – they have done a great job in recent years.”…The wineries? – “They are big employees for many people but we need diversity in our agriculture – more veggies, apples, prunes – not a monoculture. Do we really need any more spaces for retired dentists to pursue their hobbies? I am very concerned about the future when I hear Mr. Ledson of Zina-Hyde Cunningham winery say, ‘Anderson Valley is not ready for my class of people…yet’. When I hear such things I fear we are vulnerable to the kind of change I do not want.”…The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I love the A.V.A. – it’s a big asset to any small community to have a newspaper that provides a forum for the community to express its views. Sure, I may not always agree with Bruce Anderson’s opinions but that’s fine. I don’t understand why some people complain so much about the paper – I am a staunch advocate…In fact, for your question about who I would vote for Mayor, if there was such a position, I’d go for Bruce – he’d be perfect.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Johnny, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Cohesive”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? –“I’ll pick ‘No’ – I really don’t like that as an answer and try to concentrate on the positive.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Building – a restaurant, a doghouse, a community.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Commonality – the ordinary.”

What sound or noise do you love? – ‘All sorts of music – loud.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Whining”

What is your favorite curse word? – “These days it would be ‘shit’ – I cleaned it up when the kids kept saying ‘fuck’ which they’d heard us say so often.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A book – ‘Rural Studio’ by Samuel Mockbee. It is concerned with the social responsibilities of architectural practice and for providing safe, well-constructed and inspirational buildings in a community – very inspiring.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Cars – I can’t kick the habit. Fast German cars in particular.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “An architect.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Anything in an office.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The days my two kids were born – they were both quite dramatic births. Knowing life would never be the same again is a powerful feeling.”

What was the saddest? – “Not just one day but certainly one event – my divorce. It was a very low point in my life. It was the death of a vision I had of family. You feel like you’ve failed the family.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “That I trust people, sometimes blindingly. It has never hurt me. I trust that people will do their best and I do tend to see the best in people.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I have no afterlife aspirations but I suppose if he said, ‘I hope you like it here’ that would be good…My life has been very privileged and I see it as an opportunity that I have seized. My parents instilled in me the desire to be involved in things that I love to do – my work and life are not separated.”

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Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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