Garden Party: Jardiniere at 20

Traci Des Jardins celebrates two decades of kickass cooking.

Jardiniere (Photo by Ed Anderson)

Restaurateur and culinary maven Traci Des Jardins grew up on a 4,000-acre farm in the San Joaquin Valley and started college at age 16, only to drop out out in her first year. She landed in a kitchen.

“I wanted to ski and take some time off, and my parents weren’t too keen on that,” Des Jardins says. “So I thought, ‘I’ll become a cook, so I can support myself and ski and hang out and kind of mess around.’ But that didn’t last very long.”

What she thought would be a step back put Des Jardins on the trajectory that she would follow for the rest her life.

“I got recommended to work with a chef who’d just come over from France who was pretty ambitious and super intense,” she says, obliquely referring to the James-Beard-winning Los Angeles restaurateur Joachim Splichal, and to her apprenticeship under him at 7th Street Bistro.

“I started working with him and just fell in love with the really intense world of refined culinary pursuits and restaurants. For the next 20 years, basically all I did was work. It was a pretty intense path.”

It’s the one word that sums her up: intense. By the time Des Jardins opened Jardinière in 1997, she had spent time at four Michelin-starred restaurants in France, served as executive chef at Splichal’s flagship Patina, and received substantial recognition during her three-year tenure as executive chef at Drew Nieporent’s Rubicon, a seminal establishment in the San Francisco food scene that launched the careers of Stuart Brioza, Chris Cosentino, Nicole Krasinski, and Jeremy and Deanie Fox. Des Jardins’ Rubicon highlights include a James Beard Award for “Rising Chef of the Year” and designation as Food and Wine’s “Best New Chef.”

“There were high expectations around the kind of restaurant I would open,” she says. “And there was a lot of pressure associated with that.”

After serving as the opening chef and staffing the kitchens of both Rubicon and Patina, though, Des Jardins felt ready to meet those expectations. Now, 20 years and many more awards later, she’s expanded her reach to include Arguello, Transit, and The Commissary — all of which are joint ventures with the Presidio Trust and Bon Appetit Management Company — plus Mijita Cocina Mexicana, and Public House.

Des Jardins will mark the 20th anniversary of her initial venture with a three-day celebration this weekend, Saturday to Monday, Sept. 9-11. Kicking things off Saturday night are two seatings of a six-course tasting menu Des Jardins created and executed with the help of former pastry chefs and general managers, with optional wine pairings from past wine directors.

Sunday evening, a $195, five-course benefit for kitchen incubator La Cocina puts Hayes Valley women front and center, including Des Jardins, Elizabeth Falkner (of the former Orson and Citizen Cake), Sarah Rich (Rich Table), Gabriela Cámara (Cala), Kim Alter (Nightbird), and Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn and Petite Crenn).

Finally, on Monday, Jardiniére hosts a full house with a cocktails-and-canapés event in which S.F. bar directors like Thad Vogler (Trou Normand, Bar Agricole) and Elizabeth Takeuchi-Krist (The Starling) partner with former Jardiniére chefs like Douglas Keane (Two Birds/One Stone), and Deepak Kaul (Bhuna) to craft perfect party-sized pairings.

Jardinière, housed in a two-story brick building on the corner of Franklin and Grove streets, has evolved over the years, with traditional dishes like wine-braised short ribs gradually giving way to more innovative items like an Impossible Burger kibbeh — a plant-based dish that satisfies Des Jardins’ desire to provide sustainable alternatives that rival real meat and have a cult-like following among Bay Area eaters. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is Des Jardins’ love of the landmark Civic Center location, which was both strategic and fortunate.

“I used to drive past that building all the time when I was going downtown to Rubicon, and I just thought that [it] was really enthralling and beautiful — and I didn’t understand why it was empty,” Des Jardins says. “It seemed to me, logically, that being located next to the Symphony and the Opera would be a great thing, because you’ve got that pretty high-end clientele that’s attending those performances, and they need to eat.”

But even with hordes of diners regularly trekking past the doors in quest of pre-performance meals, surviving in this city is a verified challenge.

“Healthy competition is really good,” Des Jardins says, “but I think that, somehow, we’ve managed to flood the market. There are a lot of really good and significant restaurants, but there are just too many of them.”

Despite this, new places seem to open on the daily.

“I think that, in the dining public, that there’s a real hunger for novelty, and that does make it a challenge to operate a restaurant that’s 20 years old,” she adds.

Rubicon closed in 2008, but Jardinière’s doors are still open. Des Jardins’ tips to newcomers in the industry: scout out a great location, empower good leads, invest in your staff, reinvest in your restaurant, and take care of your people. She has also benefited from a long list of accolades, but notes that she’s still taken aback when people refer to her as a “celebrity chef.”

“I could never have imagined it when I started cooking,” she says.

One thing Des Jardins has done with her notoriety is use it as a platform through her significant involvement with La Cocina, a non-profit kitchen incubator that helps low-income women, especially immigrants, enter the food business.

“When I started out in the cooking world, it was a very sort of elitist business,” she says. “And it always felt to me like I needed some sort of an offset for that. Chefs, in general, are pretty philanthropic. We like to give back when we can.”

La Cocina was a natural fit.

“I’ve seen it from the original vision to fruition,” she says. “It’s a big part of me and my desires and life — a way that I can express myself in helping others.

“It’s been an immense pleasure to see these women who haven’t been given very many opportunities in their lives have the opportunity to support their families and create their own businesses,” she adds. “There are really inspiring stories of extraordinary people who’ve had a rough go of it and have the opportunity to do something great for themselves.”

Des Jardins recalls participating in a poignant panel discussion with three of La Cocina’s participants: “I was getting so emotional listening to them [and] to their stories of immigrating here and the challenges that they experienced as immigrants and this love of food they had that carried them through difficult times. It just blows you away to understand what these women have gone through to have the opportunities that they have.”

Des Jardins, who was officially honored at La Cocina’s fifth annual gala earlier this year, is looking forward to incorporating the organization into this weekend’s festivities.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “I’m super-proud, and I’m excited to celebrate it with my staff — who have contributed tremendously to that success — and my guests, who have been giving us their time and attention and gracing us with their company for so many years. The whole thing is going to be pretty thrilling, I think.”

Jardinière’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Saturday – Monday, Sept. 9-11, at Jardinière, 300 Grove St., 415-861-5555 or jardiniere.com

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