This month in Hayes Valley, Jardinière Restaurant and chef-owner Traci Des Jardins celebrate 15 years of business, a notable feat for any fine dining spot. Along with launching a revamped menu, Des Jardins and executive chef Morgan Mueller hosted a party at Jardinière attended by luminaries from both the culinary and political worlds, including Jardinière alums and folks like Willie Brown. In other exciting news, Des Jardins flew to Southern California days later to help her friend Mary Sue Milliken — along with Suzanne Goin, Karen Hatfield, Hans Rockenwagner, Michael Cimarusti, and Josiah Citrin for a sold out dinner event to raise funds for President Obama’s re-election.
Des Jardins is known for her cooking, awards from Esquire, SF Chronicle, James Beard, Food & Wine, philanthropy and time on TV for Top Chef: Masters, Iron Chef (remember how she beat Mario Batali, anyone?), and The Next Iron Chef. Des Jardins is chef/co-owner of Mijita Cocina Mexicana as well as Chef and Partner of Public House and Manzanita. She shared her thoughts with Bay Area Bites via telephone interview and her comments have been edited for clarity and grammar.
Bay Area Bites: How have you stayed in business for 15 years? What are the secrets of success? Do you have any horror stories?
Des Jardins: There’s been a lot of ups and downs and we had the boom years in the early years. Back then, the restaurant was so busy and honestly there was a lot of money coming in. Our problems were control and keeping track of everything and the real trick was getting ready for service every day. I was 32 when I opened the restaurant and was more the chef in the kitchen. I’ve evolved to more of a business person and am always looking at how to stay in business. You have to have business acumen and know what’s happening behind the scenes. Drew Nieporent said “it’s a nickel and dime business and you have to track every nickel and dime.”
The most important thing — and I tell my managers this all the time — is the guest experience. That is the best marketing tool. You have to be a good listener and listen to what the guests feedback is and what that means. It’s key to being a good chef or restaurateur. The guests will tell you and that’s the name of the game.
The first three to four years with Jardinière were insanely busy and then after 9/11 things got a lot trickier. When 9/11 happened our revenue dropped by 20 percent or something like that day to day. That was our most challenging time. 9/11 just sort of sealed the deal and it was really hard. I think a lot of people went out of business at that time. Over the last decade, we haven’t had as many fluctuations but the costs have gone up so much. The public doesn’t really see that. How much things cost has changed so much. Our percentages have dwindled due to uncontrollable costs on things like mandatory healthcare.
Bay Area Bites: What are the best and worst things about running a restaurant?
Des Jardins: The best is that our job is to make people happy. That makes it super, super fun and satisfying. It’s horrifying when they aren’t happy. People are coming in to have a good time and our job is to deliver. It’s kind of like theatre and you’re putting on the best show possible. When the day ends, then the show begins again. There are a lot of tiny, tiny details. My job is super fun; the business part I don’t love but the feeding people part is fantastic.
The worst part is the amount of effort that goes into what we do every day. There’s not a huge monetary reward. It’s an act of love. Maybe people are making a ton of money and yet — it seems so expensive. If you knew what goes into that experience then that’s hard. It’s even been exacerbated with the whole celebrity thing because people think that if you are on TV then you must have millions of dollars and you must have a Ferrari (laughs). People are making money from product lines and endorsements and there are folks making a tremendous amount of money but I’m not one of them. With the whole celebrity thing, people think that’s the kind of lifestyle were living. Right now, I’m sitting in my office and it’s really a storeroom. There are dry goods, an ice cream machine, and no place to sit. It’s not all that glamorous. But I love it. That’s the great thing.
Bay Area Bites: Can you talk about your role becoming a successful woman in the culinary field? Do you have any positive versus negative experiences regarding being a female in a male dominated profession?
Des Jardins: I’ve never felt discriminated against in this business. I was so young when I started. A lot of what I endured was pure naïveté and putting my head down and I was determined and dogged and I didn’t think about “yeah, I was the only woman.” I didn’t focus on that. I was smaller and wasn’t as strong and the actual physicality was a challenge. It’s harder for me to pick up big bags of stuff; that’s made it harder. Was it hard? Yeah. But it’s hard for everybody. You’ve got to be tough and strong. I think it’s the same answer as every other industry: when faced with taking care of family — when women have to make that choice, they’re always going to pick the family. That kind of bleeds a lot of people out of the field. When they get to childbearing years, it’s pretty hard to be able to that in our business. Is that discrimination? I think it’s choice.
One form of discrimination is more to do with a woman who’s older, which is a Hollywood thing. Actors can be sexy into their 60s and 70s and the women actresses aren’t. It’s the same thing and exacerbated with the celebrity of chefs.
Bay Area Bites: Did you feel or notice that when you were on TV?
Des Jardins: I didn’t feel it personally. If you look at the men who have been successful and most of the women who are successful, it’s sex appeal and showing cleavage. Right? That’s kind of interesting. For the men, that’s not criteria. They don’t have to be strikingly handsome. None of it’s absolute. There are exceptions.
Bay Area Bites: What are you most excited about on the new menu?
Des Jardins: The evolution of the food. I’m excited about the next 15 years. I want this restaurant to be 30 years old. It requires evolution and change. We’ve started out kind of small by changing the format and focus. The menu changes are about my own taste and about what I want to express in the food: I want to have smaller portions because it’s healthier. I don’t like a ton of ingredients — mostly three to five ingredients. I also want distilled flavors. I’m returning to simplicity. The evolution of the menu is also driven by the products we have here, and the idea is to let them shine. Less is more; accent natural fabulousness and let the ingredients shine.
Bay Area Bites: You’ve groomed many chefs who have gone on to do their own thing. What’s that like and who are your mentors?
Des Jardins: I don’t know that I’ve been so great at mentoring. That’s shepherding. The people who have come through my kitchen have been influenced by me. But I wish I had been more of a mentor. It could be something I work on in the next 15 years. I give just by being. I learned by watching. Drew Nieperont and Joachim Splichal are people who had the same sort of huge influence on me. There are also people who’ve taught me a lot about business. I’ve sought out counsel from people and that’s been key to learning for sure.