Traci Des Jardins
F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Jardinière, Mijita Cocina Mexicana (San Francisco)
Recipe you’re most famous for?
Scallops with truffle mashed potatoes. I think it’s something rather dated, but people love that dish.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I started baking when I was like three, with my mom. So the first thing I made was chocolate chip cookies. I grew up in a rural town in the Central Valley, and I got very bored in high school, so by that time I took up cooking as a hobby. We had subscriptions to all the food magazines and I would drive 45 minutes to Fresno to get ingredients, and that’s when I got really interested in cooking.
Who is your food mentor?
Joachim Splichal. I started working for him when I was 17. I think the lessons were really the basic tenets of executing great food—flavor balance, seasoning, taste, taste, taste.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I think the cookbook that I’ve used my whole life that I still use is probably the Joy of Cooking. There’s a reference point for almost everything in there. And it’s encyclopedic. I still pull it out once in a while and check, how long do you cook an 18-pound turkey?
Is there a culinary skill you wish you were better at?
If I had to do it all over again, restart my career, I probably would have studied Japanese food rather than French.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Good olive oil, you get a lot of mileage out of that.
What is your current food obsession?
Tacos. I’ve been kind of a traditionalist when it comes to Mexican food, but now I’m thinking maybe I should expand my horizons. You have to start with a good tortilla and balance crunch, acid, salt. The best one I’ve had recently I made at home: duck and black mole with duck cracklings. That was pretty amazing.
When I was in Paris years ago I got this crazy thing that was probably a spice holder. It’s a wooden structure with six little drawers at the top and six larger drawers below it. The drawers are made out of glass with a handle on it, and a pour at the end. It’s just totally amazing. I use it for salts and I’m always terrified I’m going to break one of the glass inserts because I would never be able to replace it.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Coffee beans and a coffeemaker. It’s pretty important for me to have a great cup of coffee to start every day; I would be greatly hindered by not having that.
How do you make coffee at home?
I have a collection of espresso machines. La Pavoni is my first love, and I have a machine that I’ve actually had since I was 16. I keep it in shape, it’s my baby. It’s sort of my backup one if another one has to be repaired. I also have a subscription to Craft Coffee, and they send me three different coffees every month. I love the variety, and you get to check out new roasters from across the country.
Salsa and chips are my downfall to fitness. Really good chips—there’s nothing better. I have to keep them away from me.
Skiing. I probably ski about 20-30 days a year, which is a lot if you don’t live in the mountains.
Won Best New Chef at: Rubicon, San Francisco
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.