Valley native Traci Des Jardins is known as a “cooking superstar.”
Des Jardins is a celebrity chef in his own right, running well-known San Francisco restaurants—some upscale, some more casual.
“I grew up with food. It’s at the center of celebrating everything we do,” De Jardins said in a recent interview.
Her roots are in Fresno County, and she grew up in Firebaugh, a small farming town with a population of 7,772.
“I used to say I was the most famous person in Firebaugh,” jokes Des Jardins
She acknowledged that the title now goes to Buffalo Bills star quarterback Josh Allen. Des Jardins said she went to high school with Ellen’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, of Cajun background—helped nurture her love of food and cooking.
They run a farm that grows cotton, sugar beets and rice. Traci works on the farm “It’s more of a punishment.”
“My mom was surrounded by immigrants from Mexico and knew a lot of Mexican food. My grandmother made tortillas every day, fresh tortillas,” she said. “My (grandfather’s) grandfather was from Louisiana and was an amazing cook. Then my grandmother was Norwegian and Swedish and was an amazing baker.”
She remembers her grandfather being “passionate about cooking”. He often entertains 30 people with exquisite dinners.
Her Central Valley roots inspired Des Jardins’ menu choices.
Guided by celebrity chefs
“I really love seasonal regional produce. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, what’s coming out of the ground. What our farmers are producing, what’s at the moment, the menu is always driven by that, “she says.
After graduating early from high school, Des Jardins tried UC Santa Cruz. But college wasn’t for her. She started her professional culinary journey in Los Angeles with no formal training.
At 17, she met celebrity chef Joachim Splichal.
“I connected with a chef who had just come from France, who was well respected and apprenticed, and then ended up doing a series of apprenticeships there in France,” says Des Jardins.
As a woman and an American working in France, her experience in France in the 1980s was unique, she said.
“The chef I started was like, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I just said, well, this is what I need to do,” Des Jardins said.
At that time, Europe was the place to look for restaurants of international quality.
“I had to look for that special experience in France,” Desjardins said.
She rotated between New York, France and Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco in 1991. She has earned a reputation as Rubicon’s Executive Chef – alongside celebrity investors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
“(Rubicon) has really put me in the spotlight and known in the food world,” Des Jardins said.
She opened her own restaurant in Jardinière, San Francisco in 1997 and has been in business for 21 years. She also runs now-closed restaurants or bars, such as Mijita Cocina Mexicana, a fast-food Mexican restaurant in the ferry building. Commissary and Arguello (both at The Presidio); and school nights.
Her efforts have been recognized with two James Beard Awards (the highest honor among chefs), as well as other trophies.
In 2002, she set foot in the restaurant at the newly opened Giants baseball stadium. It used to be called “24” and “Acme Chophouse”. It has been a “Public House” since 2010, in partnership with Bon Appetit Management.
“It’s more of an American casual style, really thinking about baseball fans. On game day, they might be wearing shorts and a T-shirt and just want a really casual, fun experience,” Des Jardins said. “I just wanted to do something that someone would want to go to on game day.”
Returning to Fresno?
Could Des Jardins open a restaurant in the Fresno area?
“It’s something I definitely thought about. The Valley is an inspiring place for me. A lot of people don’t know how much of our food in America comes from the Central Valley. So I like the idea that there’s a bounty… America granary,” Des Jardins said.
“It would be a pleasure to have the opportunity to highlight that. So I thought about it. Opening a restaurant in a remote area is challenging. You end up spending a lot of time traveling back and forth. That’s probably my biggest hesitation,” she said.
She has focused on opportunities in Fresno in the past. “Sniff around,” she said.
Her favorite place to eat in town? Annex kitchen.
“I’m very impressed. I think it’s a very good restaurant. Vibrant, lively, beautiful,” she said.
It’s all about food and beer
Public House is just metres from the famous Willie Mays statue in Oracle Park. It has a full menu at reasonable prices, especially for baseball stadiums, especially San Francisco.
“Beer is a big part,” says Des Jardins. Public House has 24 bottles of beer stored in wooden barrels inside the restaurant.
Greg Stone, director of beverages at Public House, said the Russian River Blind Pig IPA ($13 a pint) was the best seller.
The restaurant has a dedicated entry point into the stadium, which is a bonus for those who want to drink a beer inside.
“Everything we sell, as long as it’s in a plastic cup, can fit on your seat,” Stone said. Also, it’s cheaper in restaurants. Customers can get a pass to go back and forth from the stadium to the public space.
Stone said breweries were clamoring to get their soaps into restaurants. “Exposure,” Stone said. Being a Giants fan also helps.
Executive Chef Joshua Saenz says Public House is not like your typical baseball stadium restaurant. All food, except bread, is homemade.
“We’re doing some cool things with food. So burgers, we’re basically drying and aging all our beef internally. So we’ve got some chucks, some brisket. It’s 28 days, dry age. Here we are Grind it up. It turned out great. It’s Smashburger style,” Saenz said.
A basic burger costs $19; a double patty melt is just $2 more.
Saenz showcased the most popular item, the Baja Fish Tacos ($22). He said Mexican food sells better than traditional burgers.
“We’re sourcing locally sourced halibut and it’s mashed and deep fried. There’s some cabbage salad in it. We made a guajiro salsa. Some pickled Fresno peppers. Very good dish , very tasty,” Saenz said.
Saenz praised Des Jardins.
“She has great taste in food. So it’s good to learn something from her,” Saenz said. “She definitely has a strong background in Mexican cuisine, and all her flavor profiles work well.”
Stone called Des Jardins “one of his favorites.” He followed her from the garden.
“She has paid her dues and she really cares about quality and service,” Stone said.
The Public House used to be open every day, but is now only open on game days and special events. Pandemic and business trends forced the decision.
Des Jardins said the restaurant would be busier if the Giants played well. But Stone said customers drink the same amount, win or lose.
Recently, Des Jardins opened El Alto, a new restaurant in the Bay Area town of Los Altos, which happens to be the writer’s hometown.
The menu reflects Des Jardins’ Mexican heritage.
“El Alto is really another celebration of California history. I’m half Mexican and I grew up eating Mexican food and became interested in it professionally throughout my career. Although I’m in food and family recipes I grew up in the middle, but I didn’t extend it to the wider range of highly regional Mexican food.
“(I) decided to conceptualize a restaurant that is truly based on California’s Mexican food history and celebrates the seasonal produce that we can use in California through a Mexican-inspired lens. That’s a summary of how we approach food at El Alto,” Des Jardins said.
Des Jardins hopes to incorporate family recipes in the future, including her grandmother Angela’s Chile Verde.
Nearly Lost Shaver Lake Lodge
Des Jardins owns a cabin in Shave Lake, which her colleagues call a “happy place.” It all but disappeared in the 2020 Creek Fire.
“It’s a place very close to my heart,” Des Jardins said. Her son is currently working as a camp counselor in the area.
Des Jardins knew a traumatic fire was likely. She was water skiing the day the creek fire broke out. She saw firefighters respond.
“I don’t think it’s good. I woke up the next morning and our deck was full of ash. And, you know, it’s kind of scary, razor, because of that two lanes,” she said.
Fortunately, Tracy, her family and the cottage survived.
“It was a pretty painful period. We were very lucky,” she said. “Every time I drive down that road, I cry.”