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In certain moments, Traci Des Jardins embodies the stereotype of an elite French chef: the way she glides coolly into the room, her impenetrable gaze fixed on you in a manner that makes you question why you have the right to be interviewing her in the first place. She is, after all, a two-time James Beard Award-winning culinarian, head of five Northern California restaurants, and one of the country’s top female chefs who recently bought out her partner to become sole owner of the very classy San Francisco establishment, Jardinière, where the menu offers morsels like a $75 helping of White Alba Truffled Tagliatelle.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that the short, muscular, sandy haired woman—who beat out Mario Batali on Iron Chef—was raised in the 70s in an immigrant farming community in California’s Central Valley. Her family cultivated cotton, sugar beets, and rice—”none of it organic, lots of chemicals used”—she told an audience at a TEDx conference in San Jose where she gave a talk in early December. In fact, her dad “would get angry if you mentioned organic at the dinner table.” Des Jardins’ mother and grandparents were Mexican and her father came from French Acadian roots; the whole family shared a love for hunting, growing, and preparing meals.
After a childhood spent making Mexican soul food with her grandma, who called her “mijita” (meaning “my little one,” and also later the name of two of Des Jardins’ San Francisco restaurants), she dropped out of University of California-Santa Cruz at 17 to work in kitchens so she could support her dream of becoming a ski bum. A chef she apprenticed with in Los Angeles saw more than skiing in her future (though nowadays Des Jardins still rips in Tahoe when she can), and advised her to make her way to France.