Twenty years ago, a new high-profile restaurant called Jardiniere opened on a sunny Friday in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. That year, Bill Clinton began his second presidential term. The world was reeling from Princess Diana’s death in a tragic car accident. J.K. Rowling’s debut novel published in the U.K., and 32-year-old star chef Traci Des Jardins was about to open a restaurant that would make it big.
Des Jardins was recruited to partner in the restaurant by Pat Kuleto, the moneyed winemaker, designer, and entrepreneur who had already made a reputation for himself as a “dream maker” for chefs.
In the restaurant world, it was a time of decadence. San Francisco was flush in the cash of the dot-com era. Dinner portions were Flinstonian. Expense accounts, bottomless. Fitting the mood of the time, Kuleto wanted Jardiniere to be a supper club with live jazz and crowds that were four-deep at the bar.
But with a hotshot chef like Des Jardins involved, the food was bound to take center stage. Des Jardins had already been dubbed Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. She already had a James Beard Award.
She was also a recovering, self-described “tyrant” chef. “I came up in an era where there was no management style,” she explains. “You screamed and yelled. It’s how I was trained, but I didn’t want to be like that anymore. My goal was to create a management style that was disciplined and rigorous without being abusive.”
Of course she would achieve this. Since a very young age, Des Jardins didn’t see convention as a barrier. “When I started high school I was sick of living in a silly little farm town,” she says of her Central Valley birthplace. “I approached the principal and said, ‘Listen, this is how I can graduate in three years with full credit.’ I went to UCSB for a summer program. I went to night school. I went to college when I was 16.”
Sixteen years later, the same headstrong determination attracted a powerhouse kitchen staff at Jardiniere. In turn, it attracted powerhouse guests. There were nightly 50-person VIP lists of CEOs, sports stars, celebrities, chefs, and wine makers. In the words of former executive chef Robbie Lewis, “Every night was balls-out crazy.”
Des Jardins would go on to score stars upon awards upon Iron Chef America victories on behalf of the restaurant, but she cites the many great chefs, general managers, sommeliers, and other staff members that she’s trained as her biggest legacy. She created a work environment so magnetic that many staff who went to work elsewhere eventually found their way back.
“We have this joke,” she explains. “We ask people, ‘Is this your first tour, or your second, or your third?’”
In honor of this momentously rare occasion — a restaurant’s 20th birthday — Eater spoke with Des Jardins and a handful of her accomplished alumni scattered around America to hear their best stories about the legendary restaurant and chef.
Elizabeth Binder, former sous chef at Jardiniere, owner of Handcrafted Catering, South Africa native, contestant of Top Chef Season 10
On the extravagance of the time: When I first came to the restaurant, customers would come in and just spend, and spend, and then tip outrageously. I’d never seen anything like it. It was obscene and quite glamorous at the same time. The extravagance would trickle out to us. After service we would go out and be just as extravagant in our own way: We would spend a lot on eating, drinking, and tipping into the middle of the night. We used to go to Absinthe a lot. We would go out nightly. We were a family and so many people met their partners at Jardiniere. Robbie [Lewis] met his wife at Jardiniere. I met my husband. There’s so many who at some stage met their partner.
On the work environment: Everyone had a common goal: to produce the best food possible. It was a pretty long service, at least 250 multi-course tasting menus a night. You wouldn’t stop moving from 5 p.m. until midnight. You would be on the line for hours — huge adrenaline. I remember waking up sometimes at night and I’d have to peel open my hands. They were still clenched from grabbing and holding pans all night.
Rebecca Chapa, Jardiniere’s opening wine director, owner of The Hungry Minnow on Nantucket
On opening night mayhem: I’ll never forget opening night. For some reason they pulled our liquor license at the last minute. We were freaking out. I had all these booze companies on call with liquor wrapped up in their cars. They were waiting to drop off the booze as soon as we got the license. It came through in the eleventh hour and they literally all came out of their warehouses to pull up to the door at 5 p.m. — just as we were opening. The salespeople formed a chain across the street and they were passing cases and cases of alcohol, handing them off and going up the stairs into the wine room.
At the same time, Michael Bauer had shown up and was sitting in the restaurant and I was dealing with him for the first time. As he was asking for wine recommendations, I was trying to picture what boxes had just come in and suggesting wines according to what I thought would benefit his order. I was able to find a wine for Bauer — nothing fancy, I think it was like a Bareboat Pinot Noir — and he liked it.
On Metallica: We used to get Metallica in the dining room and Kirk Hammett came in once. I remember I stupidly asked him how his wine was when he was in the middle of a bite. I was like, “Oh man, I’m such an idiot,” but he put his hand in the air with a horns symbol. Will never forget that.
Deepak Kaul, former Jardiniere sous chef, former Serpentine chef, chef-owner of a to-be-announced project in Portland, Oregon
On Des Jardins’s persona: Traci was definitely intimidating as a boss. I didn’t speak to anyone for like six months after I started. She’d come down for service and everyone would just put their heads down and work. She would come on line and taste your stuff every now and then. It was so over the top and intimidating to me as a young cook.
She was the shit. And she is the shit. She was young, like 32 at the time. There weren’t that many female chefs that ran kitchens in San Francisco. Hayes Valley was still the outskirts. If you turned left, you were in a very poor blue-collar hood. Traci had this rep as a badass cook and chef and it drew people from everywhere.
If she came in and things weren’t made right, they would be eighty-sixed immediately. Nothing would slide. For her, it was never overtly about the stars, either. It was about making food and being proud of what you’re doing.
She would walk in the door and know everyone’s name. To me that was surprising and refreshing. It told me, “Hey, this person really gives a shit about the people that work for her.”
Her door was always open. I think that’s really important. Back in the day, someone with her authority would [normally] be totally unapproachable, but I never got that feeling from her. She was always more than happy to talk to anybody about whatever.
Douglas Keane, former Jardiniere executive chef, chef-owner Two Birds One Stone, Top Chef Master
On her conviction: At the same time I was interviewing with Traci about a line cook position, MC Squared offered me a job in management. I went back to Traci and said, “You know, I think I’m going to go work with these guys; they’re offering me a management position.”
Immediately she said, “No you’re not going to do that. You’ve invested a lot in your resume and I don’t know anything about these people. San Francisco is a tough town. You have to pay your dues. I think you should stay here and you should work your way up.”
I went home, thought about it, and came back and told her I was going to go to MC Squared. And she came right back: “Actually, I know you’re not.” I just kinda looked at her and I was like, “Okay.”
She wasn’t at all strong-arming me, but she knew what was right for me. She’s always had this protective nature. She’s definitely like a big sister. I thought, “You know what? If Traci des Jardins is saying that I’m going to work with her, I’m going to do it.”
On her lack of ego: If it wasn’t for Traci, I actually don’t think I’d have a career out here. She was so comfortable with her stature that she didn’t care if I got noticed. My name was on the menu.
She instilled in me how to run a kitchen; how to treat people. When the reviewers came in, they mentioned me and she was happy about it. I’m not sure I would’ve had the opportunity to open Cyrus if it hadn’t been for her lack of ego. I translated that over to Cyrus, too. I realize you have to give your people the spotlight.
On the biggest disaster: I remember doing the foie gras terrine when Traci was checking in and out because she trusted me. We did 20 loads of foie a week and it was a three-day process to make the terrine. In general, I was working a ton. I went up to the office to do something quickly, and one of my sous chefs ran up and was like “Chef, the terrines!” All of them had been rendered to shit in the stove. They were dead and I didn’t know what to do. If it’d been anyone else that did this, I would have fired them on the spot. It was a $1,000 screw up.
I went to Traci and said, “I have to talk to you about something that I did and I don’t know what [you should] to do to me. I insist on paying for these.” She just looked at me and was like, “Mistakes happen Doug, just don’t do it again.” She actually refused to let me pay. I had to bribe the accountant with a bottle of scotch or something and made him take a check.
Michael Hung, former Jardiniere sous chef, partner at Ardour Hospitality
On charities: It made a huge impression on me that she is somebody who always thinks about community. She’s been working with charities for a long time. She was chairperson for La Cocina and Share Our Strength. She takes part in almost every major charity event in San Francisco. A lot of times when she and I have sat down and talked about things we could be doing — a lot of it has been about what we can do to make the world a better place.
On the kitchen: Initially I was getting reprimanded a lot. But I have a pretty thick skin: When I was at Daniel [in New York] some of the ways those French guys talk to you is pretty cruel. That was my first relationship with her and it was a very strict chef and line cook relationship.
I definitely think that she has a lot of soul. That’s what I love about working with her and for her. The kitchens in New York are very technique driven. You execute the technique, you’re judged, and your growth happens based on skill. Traci has all that technique. She worked for culinary legends like [Alain] Ducasse and [Michel] Troisgros. And then she spent time as a sous chef at Montrachet, one of the busiest restaurants in New York. She’s an outstanding cook.
But there’s so much soul involved in her cooking, as well. Jardiniere is also where I learned what “rustic” really is. A lot of people say rustic food is loose technique, but what she taught is that rustic is a flavor profile. They are flavors from a particular socio-economic class, but it shouldn’t be executed sloppily. We should still bring technique.
On her palate: There was one day when Traci had a VIP in the building and she asked Robbie to make something for this guest. Robbie comes up with a dish of petrale sole, pan-roasted nice and slow. There was a butter sauce and he folded English peas into it. When I was a line cook, I would do most of the cooking and pass it off to the chef. Before I pass anything off, I always taste to see if it’s good. And we both thought it was pretty good.
We put it to Traci to taste, over the pass. She takes one tiny taste and didn’t even look in our direction and she said “needs tarragon.” We shrugged and added some and it was so incredibly much better.
She doesn’t do any parlor tricks. She’s not tweezing stuff onto the plate. She doesn’t add flowers. Everything she does is based on an incredible palate, layered flavors, and fundamentals. It makes for incredible food.
Robbie Lewis, former executive chef at Jardiniere, Culinary Director of Presidio Foods
On heart: She’s in this business to make people better cooks and better people in general. You get young people in kitchens that are sometimes a little lost and wayward. Kitchens aren’t charity, but there are a lot of instances where Traci has helped people, loaned people money, hooked them up with apartments, and things like that. She helps set people on the right course in a life sense, not just a professional sense. I think that’s why all of us think so highly of her and feel that we owe so much to her. It rubbed off on all of us. There were these ESL classes she held so our Latin prep cooks could learn English, make more money, and improve their lives.
On the incredible energy in the kitchen: For me as a young line cook, it was a really aggressive kitchen, which was fine. Services are largely defined by the curtain time across the street. We’d call it four-star cuisine at 200 miles an hour. You’d do 200 covers in 90 minutes. You have all these ticket holders that come in at the same time and need out at the same time. Traci would be there at the pass barking it up. It was an all-hands-on-deck, Code Red like you’re landing aircrafts, white-knuckle, heavy-duty situation every night. Traci is pretty hardcore, running her kitchen and getting everything going. It was an incredible experience from a cook’s standpoint.
Today, when asked about her biggest goal for the future of Jardiniere, Des Jardins immediately deflects the question to talk about her current executive chef, Audie Golder.
“I want people to understand just how forward thinking our food is now,” she says. “Audie is super into Asian ingredients, applied with a light touch that makes sense with our French backbone. He incorporates fermentations into our cuisine in a very interesting way. I think the food is really surprising, innovative, and interesting. What I want is for people to come experience this if they’ve never been to Jardiniere before. I want to continue to make magic at Jardiniere every day.”
Carolyn Alburger is Eater’s Cities Director
Copy edited by Eater’s Deputy Editor Erin DeJesus