“I was certainly an anomaly when I was starting out,” says Traci Des Jardins, lauded San Francisco-based chef and Top Chef: Masters contestant. “I worked in four Michelin-starred kitchens in France in the ‘80s, and I was the only woman.”
Thirty years on, Des Jardins has certainly seen gender parity grow. But in an industry that remains decidedly male-centric, her lengthy and successful career continues to make her a unique entity—a female chef who dominates in both the culinary and business facets of the restaurant world. Her early experiences in French kitchens (she apprenticed with legends Michel and Pierre Troisgros, Alain Ducasse, and Alain Passard) displayed a willingness to ascend the ranks, regardless of barriers to entry.
“It’s a boy’s club out there,” she says. “The funny thing is, I feel more discrimination than I did at the start of my career, 30, 40 years later. Access to money and investors—I think the boys have a much larger advantage in that.”
At home in the San Joaquin Valley, however, Des Jardins grew up with a sense of equality in the kitchen; in her family, everyone cooked. Des Jardins carried this sense of purpose with her as she worked her way through kitchens in France, Los Angeles, NYC, and the Bay Area, where she eventually moved back to open Jardiniere in 1997.
“The funny thing is, I feel more discrimination than I did at the start of my career, 30, 40 years later. Access to money, and investors—I think the boys have a much larger advantage in that.”
In the eight years following, Des Jardins has opened four additional San Francisco restaurants, including fast-casual Mexican restaurant Mijita in 2004 and gastropub Public House in 2010. Her most recent projects in San Francisco’s Presidio, The Commissary (2015) and Arguello (2014), bridge the gap between her upscale and casual efforts, with their relaxed but meticulous interpretations of Spanish and Mexican cuisine, respectively. Her commitment to her vision has remained unwavering, too, regardless of outside critique.
“There was definite pushback when I opened Mijita,” she says. “People had resistance to tacos that cost $4. It’s ridiculous! We were using good, sustainable ingredients.”
Des Jardins is uncompromising when it comes to her food principles, but she’ll go outside of her comfort zone when needed—specifically by appearing on TV programs like Top Chef: Masters, Iron Chef, and Knife Fight.
“It’s part of my job to get out there and promote my restaurants. Of course, not all food shows are created equal—there are some, the good ones, that respect the chefs and the craft, and have integrity. Some are completely ridiculous.”
Des Jardins has a found a balance with food media that works for her—as a means to spread her ideas about sustainable agriculture and champion the cause of other female entrepreneurs. Still, her heart remains in the kitchen, which lately has been leading her back to her childhood—homemade tortillas and all.
“The most amazing dining experiences are less about the restaurants and more about who you’re with, the time of your life, the arc of your memories.”
From rolling fresh flour tortillas as a five-year-old with her grandmother, to decadent Michelin-starred meals in France, here are 10 experiences that inspired Traci Des Jardins.
My Father’s Whole Barbecued Chicken
Everyone asks me why I became a chef—it’s because everyone in my family cooked well. The fact that my dad cooked at all, and was super passionate about it, said a lot. Early in my career, when I was working so, so hard, I would always ask my dad to make this chicken. It was so comforting and good. Back when we lived in a small town and didn’t have access to fresh herbs, he would cover it with Dijon mustard and a mixture of dried herbs. Now, it’s evolved to fresh tarragon. He cooks it whole on the Weber barbecue and it’s delicious. It’s a recipe I still make. Roasting a chicken is an art, whether you do it in a BBQ grill or in an oven; lots of people do it, but lots of people don’t do it very well. Chicken is just vastly underrated! People think it’s boring, but it just can be so spectacular. (Photo: anbangbeachhideaway.com)
My Grandmother’s Hand-Rolled Flour Tortillas
My mom’s parents were both born in Mexico and I grew up eating Mexican food every day. That’s my strongest ethnic identity. I feel Mexican; I grew up in a predominantly Mexican community. My family is from Sonora, the northern-most part of Mexico, and flour tortillas are what they make. My grandmother had a vat of drippings under her sink, and she’d put bacon fat, lard, and so on in that tub. She’d use that to make these tortillas every day. I started making them with her when I was five. My grandfather made me a rolling pin from a broomstick that fit my hands. We used to eat them with just butter and salt. Eating one still brings me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen in a heartbeat. (Photo: clockworklemon.com)
Fish On a Stick on the Beaches of Puerto Vallarta, 1969
My parents started going to Puerto Vallarta in the early ‘60s, and we all started going as a family around 1969. From then on, we’d go down every other year for Christmas with a group of families from the U.S. As kids we just got to roam free; it was the best thing. On the beaches, there would be people building fires where they’d take freshly caught red snappers, score them, tie them to a stick, and roast them whole on the beach. They’d walk down the beach with the fish, plus limes and fresh corn tortillas, and that would be your lunch. There’s nothing that can mimic that flavor. The fishermen would pull up in their pangas and hand them to the people by the fires and roast them right there. (Photo: manilvalife.com)
A Whole Pig Rendered to Carnitas, Chorizo, and Chicharrones in a Mexican Village
This was also in the early years of these family trips to Mexico. We’d get into one of these little pangas and they’d take us down the coast. This one time we ended up in a little village where they’d just slaughtered a pig and were taking it apart. There were huge vats of oil over the fire, and they were using every single part of the animal. It was so impactful, the way that they were sharing this meal together. They had hand grinders to grind the meat for the chorizo, using all of the intestines, the whole thing. I grew up on a farm, so I was close to the source of food. (Photo: WikiCommons)
Canard à la Presse at Tour d’Argent, 1982 (my first three-star Michelin experience)
I was 16 and had just graduated from high school the first time I went to Europe. We started in Paris, and went to Tour d’Argent to order the famous duck. I’d eaten at so-called ‘fancy restaurants’ in San Francisco growing up, but going to Paris and eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant was quite an experience. There’s nothing quite like it, still. I think in the 30-plus years I’ve been cooking, the [fine-dining] experience has changed a bit, but the quality of service, the tabletop, the room—it’s still a very special one.
For me, another interesting thing about trying this classic pressed duck was comparing it to the primitive farm version I’d grown up with. My grandfather actually had a duck press and my family hunted ducks growing up; they’d press the juices out, which I actually found kind of repulsive. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of this duck press, the way it should be, looking over the backside of Notre Dame in this three-star restaurant. (Photo: Facebook/Tour d’Argent)
Salmon Oseille at Troisgros, 1984
I had an aunt and uncle who were big ‘gourmands,’ the precursor to foodies. They’d go to France twice a year on these insane culinary trips that involved multiple stops at Michelin-starred restaurants. I went on one of these trips with them right after I’d started cooking. We ate at six or seven three-star restaurants on this one trip, including Troisgros in Roanne.
The salmon Oseille is a thinly-cut piece of salmon that’s cooked medium-rare and served with a sorrel cream sauce; it’s one of their famous dishes. Being in that setting and going into that legendary kitchen, where Pierre (Troisgros, one of “Les Freres Troisgros”) was still active in the kitchen, was hugely influential. I ultimately ended up working there. My sights were set on this high level of experience. When I started cooking in 1983, I knew I wanted to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Back then, we didn’t have restaurants like the French Laundry [in the U.S.]. The only opportunity that you really had was to go to France. (Photo: Facebook/Troisgros)
Canard Apicius at Lucas Carton, 1986
Right before I started working at Troisgros in 1986, I lived in Paris for a couple months trying to learn French. Lucas Carton was a grand, Belle Epoque-style restaurant on the Place Madeleine, and the chef at that time, Alain Senderens, was one of the early adopters of internationally influenced food. He used different spices outside of the normal French arsenal—he had traveled to Israel a lot and was interested in Asian spices. He had a lot of complex dishes and this was one of them. This was a whole duck served tableside with a super complex sauce; I ultimately learned the recipe for it when I worked at Lucas Carton in 1988. He used coriander, which you didn’t see a lot of in France at that time. He made this honey-based crust for the top of duck that had coriander seed and fennel seed. (Photo: Facebook/Lucas Carton Paris)
Tasting Menu at Jamin in Paris, 1986
This was Joël Robuchon’s three-star Michelin restaurant. People always ask, “What was the best meal of your life?” And, in terms of start to finish, it was this one. This was a five- or six-course tasting menu and I remember every dish being astounding. I remember having a roasted squab with the buttery mashed potatoes he’s so famous for, and langoustine with cabbage and foie gras. But more than the individual dishes, the meal was memorable because the entire experience felt perfect, from start to finish. At that point in time, I didn’t think we would ever have three-star Michelin restaurants in this country. I didn’t feel that the model was applicable. The financial structure of it, the willingness for French people to spend that kind of money on meals, didn’t seem translatable to the U.S. (Photo: Facebook/Joel Robuchon)
Braised Short Ribs at Lespinasse
Chef Gray Kunz took this humble piece of meat—basically pot roast—and elevated it to the level of fine cuisine. That was remarkable. I believe he did it with some kind of mustard and horseradish. That influenced the way I cook. This kind of practice is pervasive now. Pork belly and short rib and beef cheeks—all of these things used to be cheap. We’ve had braised short ribs on the menu at Jardiniere since the beginning. It’s what people want. Now, everything we do now reflects the season. The original iteration was with horseradish mashed potatoes and an herb salad, which was something you could do year-round. Now, it changes depending on what’s available. (Photo courtesy frankenyimages.com)
Seared Scallops with Truffle Mashed Potatoes
The dish people ask me for more than anything else is seared dayboat scallops with truffle mashed potatoes. Today, you say truffle mashed potatoes and think, “Yuck!” But I was using real truffle oil, and fresh sliced black truffles. It’s an enduring dish. I originally made it in 1992, when I was cooking for [the critic] John Mariani at Elka, and it was really an off-the-cuff item. I used to improv cook quite a lot, just reaching for things that were around me. It was a dish I ended up serving on the menu at Rubicon, and was on the opening menu at Jardiniere. It sounds dated, but people still ask me to make it. We still do it at Jardiniere during truffle season. (Photo courtesy frankenyimages.com)