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The Interview: Traci Des Jardins

by Janet Reilly

A Culinary Voyage with Traci Des Jardins

When Traci Des Jardins opened Jardinière in Hayes Valley, the soon-to-be culinary legend—then 32 years old and already knighted as The Next Big Thing by foodie institutions from the James Beard Foundation to Food & Wine—felt the weight of the positive buzz surrounding her. She delivered on the hype: Her very first restaurant, now celebrating its 21st anniversary, became an instant sensation, taking Des Jardins to the next level of her career. But it was her appearances on food-competition series like Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters that catapulted her to celebrity chef status—a role that doesn’t come naturally to the somewhat introverted Des Jardins.

Born in the Central Valley, daughter of a farmer, Des Jardins is living her dream. With six restaurants in San Francisco and a passion for using her fame to help others, Des Jardins is not only a star in the kitchen but in her community.

On a sunny February afternoon, I booked a reservation for two at Jardinière, where Des Jardins opened up about her beginnings as a young woman in male-dominated kitchens, the pros and cons of reality TV stardom, and the state of restaurants in SF.

Bon appétit!

You grew up in Firebaugh, California, a small agricultural town. Were food and cooking important parts of your childhood?

My dad was farmer. He grew cotton, sugar beets and rice, a small-scale sort of agribusiness. His dad was born in Louisiana, so that’s where the big food culture came from. He was an avid hunter and cook. No problem inviting 45 to 50 people over for lunch or dinner. He just loved food. And then on my mom’s side, I’m Mexican more than anything else. So on that side, I grew up with my grandmother making flour tortillas every day.

When did you realize you had this passion—talent—for cooking?

I became a real hobbyist cook in high school because I was so bored. I had subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appétit and I would work my way through these really elaborate recipes, driving to Fresno to get the ingredients. I ended up graduating from high school a year early and started at UC Santa Cruz when I was 16. But I was too young. I had a typical teenage meltdown and I dropped out of college. My parents were pretty pissed at me because they didn’t have a college education, so I was the first great hope.

What did you do then?

Well, I had two passions—skiing and cooking. My parents said, “We’re not supporting you if you’re not going to college.” I said, “OK, I’ll become a cook.” I found this really serious job in LA working for a chef who had just come over from France and was cutting-edge. So, I didn’t ski for 15 years. I just went full force into the world of cooking and working 12 to 16 hours a day for 20 years.

When you were starting out and doing your formal training in France, LA and New York, I doubt there were too many women in those kitchens at that time. Did you face some unique challenges as a young woman?

It was hard. I think I was so young and so focused on what I wanted that I didn’t let it get in the way. I never thought about what I couldn’t do. I was just focused on what I could do and making it work for me. But there was a lot of noise. For years I defended that and said, “Oh, it was fine for me. There was no discrimination.” But, of course, there was discrimination! It was very challenging to be a young woman with 17-to 23-year-old guys— I was in France in a kitchen with 25 to 30 people and I was literally the only girl. We know what goes on in the minds of young men at that age. They’re thinking about one thing, and it’s tough.

Where did your steeliness and sense of adventure come from?

I think it was just a “can-do” attitude. I look back on it now and I think I was just really naïve. I loved cooking. The restaurants we have here now—like the French Laundry—didn’t exist then. There were a few in New York, but not the Michelin-starred restaurants we have now. So, the only place you could get that experience was in a foreign country. I was determined to make it work.

What was your path to San Francisco?

Growing up in the Central Valley, I was always more of a Northern California person. My mom would always bring me here to restaurants and plays and for school shopping. I felt like San Francisco was my big hometown. I knew I wanted to live here, where an interesting food scene was happening, but I also knew if I came here immediately I would never go anywhere else. So I made myself move to LA, and then to France and New York—always with the goal of coming back here. I moved here in 1991, which was part of the master plan. It was coming home for me.

In 1997, you opened Jardinière. Was it a success from the get-go?

It was. I was already pretty well established by then. I had been the Executive Chef at Rubicon and had won James Beard’s “Rising Star Chef of the Year” and Food & Wine Magazine’s “Chef of the Year.” I was 28 when I won both of those. I loved working [at Rubicon] with Drew Nieporent—and, of course, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams were investors. I loved that restaurant, but there wasn’t room for me to be a partner there.

Pat Kuleto acquired the option to open a restaurant in this building [where Jardinière is now located], and got in touch with me and said, “Would you be interested?” He had already opened Boulevard with Nancy Oakes, and I was like, “Yeah, let’s start.” But it was a lot of pressure. I had already hit a really high bar so there was a lot of expectation around what I was going to do.

More than 20 years later, Jardinière remains a beloved San Francisco institution. To what do you attribute its longevity?

I think it’s the commitment to quality. It’s hard to maintain that over a continuum and to stay interesting and relevant. Our core business is the people going to the theater and we play to that strongly. We make sure we’re efficient. Also, look what’s happened in Hayes Valley. It was a derelict location when we opened. What’s happened two blocks over is remarkable.

You’ve since opened five other restaurants (Arguello, The Commissary, Mijita Cocina Mexicana, Public House and TRANSIT). Did you always want to have a restaurant empire?

I’m a businessperson, obviously, but I’m a creative person when it comes down to it. None of the restaurants is formulaic. They’re all a little bit different from each other They’re each a creative expression of myself. Honestly, if I had my whole career back and I could go back to my 17-year-old self, I think I would go deep into Mexican food. There is so much richness to explore there and I just love it.

How has the industry changed since you started out?

We’re facing a lot of challenges in the restaurant business today. The restaurant world in San Francisco is a huge part of the tourist industry and part of what is wonderful about San Francisco. But we’re really struggling, financially. We’ve seen our margins diminish in the last 20 years from 12 to 15 percent to 3 to 5 percent. And it’s true for a lot of my colleagues, too.

Because of the high cost of rent and labor?

Mostly, it’s labor. We’re bearing 100 percent of the burden and it’s taking down our margin. I’m happy, philosophically, doing it. I think it’s the right thing to do, but we’ve got to have breaks someplace else, so we can continue to be viable. We’re operating at a nonprofit level, so to speak.

What could be done to take some of the pressure off?

I think it could come in tax relief. Payroll taxes. Something that’s going to give us some relief. I think the city administration needs to pay attention. When I talk to restaurateurs from other cities, they say, “I would never go into San Francisco.”

How would you describe the San Francisco food scene right now?

It’s really dynamic. It’s drawing from a lot of deep interest in different ethnic foods and bringing those forward. We’re seeing a little bit with the Taj Group that has elevated Indian cuisine. Californios is doing Mexican food. Cala is also doing more elevated Mexican food. Mister Jiu’s is doing Chinese—that’s what we’re seeing in terms of trending.

But right now, I think we have too many restaurants. I’m seeing this trend of restaurants that get great press, open to lots of accolades, great reviews, Bon Appétit Restaurant of the Year or whatever, and it feels like a year and a half down the line they’re not full and that really alarms me—so if I were opening a new restaurant, I’d be worried. It’s a concern that we have so many choices and people are very fickle right now.

The Lightning Round

If I had a magic wand, I would…
Fix the financial model for restaurants

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken…
Being in the restaurant business

My Biggest Regret…
Not ever having worked at Chez Panisse

 

You competed on Iron Chef America—beating Mario Batali!—and Top Chef Masters. What did you take away from those experiences?

Looking back on them, what I value most is the friends I made. Even though I beat Mario, we became pretty good friends. We’ve hung out a lot since then and he’s amazing. The Next Iron Chef was a show I was on that I didn’t want anyone to see. I was on the first season and it was a disaster. I was the first one off the island, but I became great friends with Gavin Kaysen and Michael Symon, who went on to win. I went on Top Chef Masters with my best friend, Mary Sue Milliken. You’re kind of thrown into disastrous circumstances together, and you come out really close.

It must be exhausting.

For Top Chef Masters, we filmed 22 days in a row.

What do you make of the whole celebrity chef phenomenon?

When people say you’re a celebrity or a celebrity chef, it still startles me. It used to make me really uncomfortable. I’m OK with it now, but I don’t love it. I really don’t relish celebrity at all—I’m pretty introverted. There’s a reason I’m a cook: I like to hide in the kitchen. But part of my job now is to promote my restaurants, and you can’t beat those shows as a marketing tool. The value to the restaurants is huge.

I bet.

When I started out, a sliver of the population was enjoying fine dining. It was really rarefied. The world of wine, sommeliers, collectors was tiny, tiny, tiny. Food TV has brought this world to everybody—into every home in America. Now people are eager to go to a nice restaurant. They follow celebrity chefs, or their kid wants to be a chef. But the thing I love most is the ability to leverage my so-called celebrity for greater good and philanthropy, and to be able to raise money for causes I believe in. That’s really meaningful to me. That’s my silver lining.

You are so generous and so involved in the community. What are your passion projects?

I have been involved in Share Our Strength, which is a longtime national hunger relief organization. It was one of the first organizations to put on chef-driven events to raise money. Hunger relief and chefs is an easy connection to make, so I’m really supportive of that.

I’m also involved with La Cocina, which is a business incubator for low-income and immigrant women. I was on the advisory board before we became our own 501(c)(3) company; I’ve done two terms on the board. I love the organization—it is amazing. The women are so inspiring. The organization gives them tools to change their lives. They’re giving people who have never been given anything—the opportunity to learn, to be respected, to have credibility, to have access to the market. It’s so, so inspiring. I feel humbled in their presence.

Where did this desire to give back come from?

I think it’s kind of a Robin Hood thing. It occurred to me really early on in my career when I was in the very fine dining realm. It was a limited demographic we were reaching—it was wealth and privilege. On the flip side of it we had these immigrant communities supporting the restaurants. They were dishwashers and prep cooks, with little or nothing. It became obvious to me that I could do good in the world by working to advocate for people who were the backbone of what I have been doing for 35 years. Without that community of people, we wouldn’t be functional.

What’s your favorite meal to cook?

I like to grill on live fire when I’m at home. I like little birds. I’m probably obsessed with the quails that we get, the Wolf Ranch quails. My favorite is probably grilled quails and some kind of salad.

What won’t you eat?

I don’t really like calf’s liver. But I’ll eat anything.

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