Valley native Traci Des Jardins has been called “theculinary star.”
A celebrity chef in his own right, Des Jardins has operated well-known San Francisco restaurants – some upscale, others more casual.
Appetite for Fresno
“I grew up with food all around me. It was the center of celebrating everything we did,” Des Jardins said in a recent interview.
His roots are in Fresno County, having grown up in the small farming town of Firebaugh, home to 7,772 people.
“I used to say I was the most famous person in Firebaugh,” Des Jardins joked.
She concedes the title now goes to Buffalo Bills star quarterback Josh Allen. Des Jardins says she attended high school with Allen’s father.
Currently, Des Jardins operates two restaurants – Public House, attached to Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; and a new concept restaurant called El Alto.
From Firebaugh to Elite Bay Area Chef
Des Jardins’ family tree — her mother Linda is of Mexican descent and her father Bill is of Cajun descent — helped her develop her love for food and cooking.
They operated a farm growing cotton, sugar beets and rice. Traci worked on the farm “more like a punishment than anything else.”
“On my mother’s side, there were immigrants from Mexico and they knew a lot about Mexican cuisine. My grandmother made tortillas, fresh tortillas every day,” she said. “My (paternal) grandfather was from Louisiana and was also an amazing cook. And then my grandmother was Norwegian and Swedish and was an amazing baker.
She remembers that her grandfather “was very passionate about cooking”. He often entertained 30 people with elaborate dinners.
Its roots in the Central Valley have inspired the menu choices at Des Jardins.
Mentored by a celebrity chef
“I really like seasonal regional products. It’s always the thing I think about, it’s what comes out of the ground. What our farmers produce, what’s from that moment and the menu is always really driven by that,” she said.
After graduating from high school early, Des Jardins tried out UC Santa Cruz. But college wasn’t for her. She began her professional cooking journey in Los Angeles, with no formal training.
At 17, she met the celebrity chef Joachim Splichal.
“I met a chef who had just arrived from France who was very well regarded and did his apprenticeship with him, and then I eventually went to France to do a series of apprenticeships there,” said Des Jardins. .
She said her experience in France was unique in the 1980s, as a woman and an American working in France.
“The chef I started with was like, ‘this is the thing you have to do.’ And I just said, okay, this is the thing I have to do,” Des Jardins said.
At that time, Europe was the place to find world-class quality restaurants.
“I had to seek out that particular experience there in France,” Des Jardins said.
She toured between New York, France and Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco in 1991. She earned her reputation as an executive chef at Rubicon – with famous investors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
“(Rubicon) really got me into the spotlight and into the food world,” Des Jardins said.
She opened her own restaurant in San Francisco, La Jardiniere, in 1997 and ran it for 21 years. It also operated now-closed restaurants or bars such as Mijita Cocina Mexicana, a Mexican fast-casual inside the Ferry Building; The Commissioner and Arguello (both formerly located in the Presidio); and School Night.
His efforts have been rewarded with two James Beard Awards (an honor among chefs), among other trophies.
In 2002, she became involved in the restaurant of the new Giants baseball stadium. It was formerly known as “24” and the “Acme Chophouse”. It has been “Public House” since 2010, in collaboration with Bon Appetit Management.
“It’s more laid-back American style, really thinking about the baseball fan. On game day, they might be in shorts and a t-shirt and just want a really casual and fun experience,” Des Jardins said. “I just wanted to do something that someone wanted to go to on a football game day.”
A return to Fresno?
Could Des Jardins open a restaurant in the Fresno area?
“It’s something I’ve definitely considered. The valley is an inspiring place for me. Many people don’t know how much of our food in the United States comes from the Central Valley. So I like this idea that this is the bounty… the breadbasket of the United States,” Des Jardins said.
“The opportunity to highlight this would be a pleasure. So I thought about it. Having restaurants in remote locations is a challenge. You end up spending a lot of time going back and forth. That would probably be my biggest hesitation,” she said.
She has looked at Fresno’s opportunities in the past. “Sniffling,” she said.
Her favorite place to eat in town? The annex kitchen.
“I was quite impressed. I thought it was a really good restaurant. Vibrant, lively and beautiful,” she said.
It’s all about food and beer
The Public House is a few meters from the famous statue of Willie Mays in Oracle Park. It has a full menu at reasonable prices, especially for a ballpark and especially for San Francisco.
“Beer is a big part,” Des Jardins said. Public House offers 24 draft beers, stored in barrels inside the restaurant.
Public House beverage director Greg Stone says the Russian River Blind Pig IPA ($13 a pint) is the top seller.
The restaurant has a dedicated entry point into the stadium, a plus for those who want to have their beer inside.
“Anything we sell, as long as it’s in a plastic cup, can go in your seats,” Stone says. And it’s cheaper in the restaurant too. Customers can get a pass to and from the stadium at Public House.
Stone says breweries claim their foam inside the restaurant. “Exhibition,” Stone says. Being a Giants fan also helps.
Executive Chef Joshua Saenz says Public House isn’t like a typical stadium restaurant. All the food, except the bread, is homemade.
“We do cool stuff with food. So the burgers, we basically dry-age all of our beef in-house. So we have the chuck, the chest. It is 28 days, dry age. We grind it here. It comes out really well. It’s Smashburger style,” Saenz says.
The basic burger sells for $19; a double-dough fondue is only $2 more.
Saenz introduced Baja Fish Tacos ($22), the most popular item. He said Mexican dishes outsell traditional burgers.
“We get locally sourced halibut and it’s breaded and fried. There’s coleslaw in it. We make a Guajilo salsa that goes in there. A few pickled Fresno peppers. Really good dish, really tasty,” Saenz said.
Saenz praised Des Jardins.
“She has good and good taste when it comes to food. So it’s good to learn things from her,” Saenz said. “She definitely has a strong background in Mexican cuisine and all of her flavor profiles play into it very well.”
Stone calls Des Jardins “one of his favorite people.” He followed her from the Jardiniere.
“She’s paid her dues and she’s really focused on quality and service,” Stone said.
Previously, Public House was open daily, but is now only open on match days and for special events. The pandemic and business trends forced this decision.
Des Jardins said the restaurant is busier if the Giants are playing well. But Stone says customers drink as much, win or lose.
A new restaurant
Recently, Des Jardins opened a new restaurant, El Alto, in the town of Los Altos (which happens to be the hometown of this writer).
The menu reflects Des Jardins’ Mexican roots.
“El Alto is truly a new celebration of California history. I’m half Mexican and I grew up with Mexican food and became interested in it professionally later in my career. Although I grew up with family food and recipes, I haven’t expanded it into the larger context of Mexican cuisine, which is very regional.
“(I) decided to conceptualize a restaurant that was really based on that history of Mexican food in California and a celebration of looking at what kind of seasonal produce we can work with in California through the lens of flavors mexicans. And that kind of sums up how we approach food in El Alto,” Des Jardins said.
Des Jardins hopes to incorporate family recipes in the future, including his grandmother Angela’s Chile Verde.
Almost Lost Shaver Lake Cabin
Des Jardins owns a cabin in Shaver Lake, which his colleagues have dubbed his “happy place.” It was nearly lost in the Creek fire in 2020.
“It’s a place very near and dear to my heart,” Des Jardins said. Her son is currently working as a camp counselor in the area.
Des Jardins knew that a traumatic fire was likely. She was waterskiing the day the Creek fire broke out. She saw the firefighters intervene.
“I thought it was not good. I woke up the next morning and our patio was covered in ashes. And, you know, it’s a little scary, Shaver, because of this two-lane road,” she said.
Fortunately, Traci, her family and the cabin survived.
“It was quite a traumatic time. And we were very lucky,” she said. “I cry every time I drive down this road.”