Valley native Traci Des Jardins has been called a “culinary superstar.”
A celebrity chef in her own right, Des Jardins has operated well-known San Francisco restaurants — some fancy, some more casual.
Appetite for Fresno
“I grew up with food all around me. It was the center of the celebration of whatever we were doing,” Des Jardins said in a recent interview.
Her roots are in Fresno County, having grown up in the small farming town of Firebaugh, population 7,772.
“I used to say I was the most famous person from Firebaugh,” Des Jardins joked
She concedes that title is now bestowed on Josh Allen, the star quarterback with the Buffalo Bills. Des Jardins says she attended high school with Allen’s father.
Currently, Des Jardins runs two restaurants — Public House, attached to Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; and a new-concept eatery called El Alto.
From Firebaugh to Elite Bay Area Chef
Des Jardins’ family tree — her mother Linda is of Mexican descent and father Bill has a Cajun background — helped foster her love for food and cooking.
They ran a farm growing cotton, sugar beets and rice. Traci worked on the farm “more as punishment than anything.”
“My mom’s side were immigrants from Mexico and know a lot of Mexican food. 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 her grandfather “was very passionate about cooking.” He would often entertain 30 people with elaborate dinners.
Her Central Valley roots have inspired Des Jardins’ menu choices.
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“I’m really into seasonal, regional produce. That’s always the thing that I’m thinking about is, what’s coming out of the ground. What our farmers are producing, what is of this moment and the menu is always really driven by that,” she said.
After graduating high school early, Des Jardins tried UC Santa Cruz. But college wasn’t for her. She began her professional cooking journey in Los Angeles, without formal training.
As a 17-year-old, she met celebrity chef Joachim Splichal.
“I connected with a chef who had just come from France and was very well regarded and apprenticed with him and then eventually went to France to do a series of apprenticeships there,” Des Jardins said.
She said her experience in France was unique in the 1980s, as a female and American working in France.
“The chef that I had started with was like, ‘this is the thing you need to do.’ And I just said, okay, this is the thing I need to do,” Des Jardins said.
In that time period, Europe was the place to find international-level quality restaurants.
“I had to seek out that particular experience over there in France,” Des Jardins said.
She rotated between New York, France and Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco in 1991. She gained her reputation as the executive chef at Rubicon — with celebrity investors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
“(Rubicon) really kind of made me step into the spotlight and be kind of known to the food world,” Des Jardins said.
She opened her own restaurant in San Francisco, Jardinière, in 1997 and operated it for 21 years. She also operated now-closed eateries or bars such as Mijita Cocina Mexicana, a Mexican fast-casual inside the Ferry Building; The Commissary, and Arguello (both formerly located in The Presidio); and School Night.
Her efforts has been recognized with two James Beard awards (a top honor among chefs), among other trophies.
In 2002, she got involved with the restaurant at the newly opened Giants’ baseball stadium. It was once known as “24” and the “Acme Chophouse.” It has been “Public House” since 2010, collaborating with Bon Appetit Management.
“It’s more American casual, really thinking about the baseball goer. Gameday, they might be in shorts and a t-shirt and just want a really casual, fun experience,” Des Jardins said. “I just wanted to do something that someone wanted to go to on a ball game day.”
A Return to Fresno?
Could Des Jardins open a restaurant in the Fresno area?
“It’s something I’ve definitely contemplated. The Valley is an inspirational place to me. A lot of people don’t know how much of our food in the United States comes from the Central Valley. So I love that idea that it’s the bounty … the breadbasket of the United States,” Des Jardins said.
“The opportunity to highlight that would be a pleasure. So I thought about it. Having restaurants in remote locations is challenging. You end up spending a lot of time traveling back and forth. That would be my probably my biggest hesitancy,” she said.
She has looked at Fresno opportunities in the past. “Sniffing around” she said.
Her favorite place to eat while in town? The Annex Kitchen.
“I was pretty impressed. I thought it was a really good restaurant. Vibrant, lively and great looking,” she said.
It’s All About the Food and Beer
The Public House is just yards away from the famed Willie Mays statue at Oracle Park. It offers a full menu at reasonable prices, especially for a baseball stadium and especially for San Francisco.
“Beer is a big component,” Des Jardins said. Public House has 24 beers on tap, stored in casks inside the restaurant.
Greg Stone, Public House’s beverage director, says Russian River Blind Pig IPA ($13 a pint) is the top seller.
The restaurant has a dedicated entry point into the stadium, a benefit for those who want to take their brew inside.
“Everything we sell, as long as it is in a plastic cup, can go into your seats,” Stone says. And, it is less expensive in the restaurant, too. Patrons can get a pass to go back and forth from the stadium to Public House.
Stone says breweries clamor to get their suds inside the restaurant. “Exposure,” Stone says. Being Giants fans helps, too.
Executive chef Joshua Saenz says Public House isn’t like a typical ballpark restaurant. All the food, except for bread, is made in house.
“We’re doing some cool stuff with food. So burgers, we’re basically dry aging all of our beef in-house. So we have some chuck, some brisket. It’s 28 days, dry age. We grind it in here. It comes out really well. It’s Smashburger style,” Saenz says.
The basic burger sells for $19; a double patty melt is only $2 more.
Saenz showed off the Baja fish tacos ($22), the most popular item. He said the Mexican dishes sell better than traditional burgers.
“We’re getting locally sourced halibut and that’s battered and fried. There is some cabbage slaw in there. We make a Guajilo salsa that goes in there. Some pickled Fresno chilies. Really good dish, really tasty,” Saenz said.
Saenz praised Des Jardins.
“She has good and great taste in food. So it’s good to learn some stuff from her,” Saenz said. “She definitely has a strong background in Mexican cuisine and all of her flavor profiles play into it really well.”
Stone calls Des Jardins “one of his favorite people.” He followed her from Jardinière.
“She’s paid her dues and she’s really about quality and service,” Stone said.
Public House used to be open every day, but is now only open on game days and for special events. The pandemic and business trends forced that decision.
Des Jardins said the restaurant is busier if the Giants are playing well. But Stone says patrons drink just as much, win or lose.
A New Restaurant
Recently, Des Jardins opened a new restaurant, El Alto, in the Bay Area town of Los Altos (which happens to be this writer’s home town).
The menu reflects Des Jardins’ Mexican roots.
“El Alto is really a celebration again of the history of California. I’m half-Mexican and grew up with Mexican food and and became interested in it professionally sort of later in my career. Although I grew up with food and family recipes, I didn’t broaden it into the sort of larger context of of Mexican food, which is highly 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 kind of the seasonal produce that we can work with in California through the lens of Mexican flavors. And so that’s kind of the summation of how we approach the 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 Cabin
Des Jardins owns a cabin in Shaver Lake, that her colleagues called her “happy spot.” It was nearly lost in the 2020 Creek Fire.
“It’s a place that’s very near and dear to my heart,” Des Jardins said. Her son currently works 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 thought that’s not good. I woke up the next morning and our deck was covered in ash. And, you know, it’s a little scary, Shaver, because of that two lane road,” she said.
Fortunately, Traci, her family and the cabin survived.
“It was a pretty traumatic time. And we got very lucky,” she said. “I cry every time I drive up that road.”