This month we’re thrilled to be featuring Traci Des Jardins, chef at Jardiniere and Mijita in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a culinary style that spans traditional French cuisine to authentic Mexican fare, Traci has a proven she can do it all — including television. Keep reading to learn her story, her best cooking tips, and how she’s teaching her son, Eli, to navigate the kitchen.
How did you become interested in cooking as a career?
I chose something I was really passionate about when I dropped out of college, and it has stuck with me for 30 years. I am still passionate about it.
How would you describe your cooking style?
The style of my restaurants is greatly varied, from refined French/California food to Mexican street food to American pub food. At home I cook rustic seasonal fare and a lot of ethnic foods.
What’s the most rewarding part about training other chefs?
To see them develop into their full potential.
Do you cook with your son, Eli? What are his favorite foods?
He is always around me when I am cooking. He loves to help me at events and knows exactly what to do. I think he really has learned to cook watching me — the other morning he surprised me by making his own scrambled eggs for breakfast.
What role did your grandparents play in developing your interest in cooking?
Food was always central in our lives. All of my grandparents cooked. I remember making tortillas from a very early age with my grandmother Angela. She used to make them every day and kept a bin under the kitchen sink for “drippings” — essentially lard for the tortillas.
What led you to open your own restaurant, Jardinière? What were some of the biggest surprises during the process?
Opening my own restaurant was always my dream. I don’t know if there were really any surprises — I was well prepared for the process having done it for many others along the way.
Your second restaurant Mijita is a big departure from Jardinière. What is special or unique about each of them?
Jardinière is reflective of my extensive training in French cooking, while Mijita is my soul food. Mijita is something I dreamed of doing for a long time as a tribute to my grandmother and the culture I feel so closely aligned with.
Tell us about competing on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters? What did you take away from those experiences?
TV is a whole other world. There are many opportunities associated with it, but at the end of the day, you just have to have fun doing it and not take it too seriously. I made some amazing friends in all of my TV experiences. It is an opportunity to really bond with others in the industry.
What advice would you have for young women starting out in a male-dominated industry?
Don’t think about the fact that you are a woman. Work hard, ignore any statistic, and believe that you can do anything.
What are 3 ingredients you use often in the kitchen that may surprise people?
I don’t think there are any. I keep things pretty basic. When I am cooking at home I think most of the dishes I cook have less than 5 ingredients in them. An essential is a tub of duck fat, but I don’t think that would surprise anyone.
What is your most prized kitchen possession?
A spice holder that I bought at a Paris flea market a long time ago, which contains a variety of salts from around the world.
What is one of your best cooking tips that people may not already know?
One of the keys to cooking anything well is the surface area in a pan. When a pan cools down too much, you lose control of how the food is being cooked. If you don’t crowd a pan too much, it retains its heat and you have more control over the outcome of the product.
What’s your biggest inspiration in the kitchen?