“I have the opportunity to close gracefully rather than it being a crisis point," the legendary San Francisco chef tells Food & Wine.

By Nina Friend
March 27, 2019
Maurice ROUGEMONT/Getty Images

Traci Des Jardins, a 1995 Food & Wine Best New Chef and the powerhouse behind seven San Francisco restaurants, recently announced that she will close her flagship, Jardinière, at the end of April. The Hayes Valley fine-dining restaurant, which opened in 1997, has become known for marrying Des Jardins’ classical French training with the bounty of Bay Area produce. After 21 years, Des Jardins is ready to end that chapter of her career.

The decision to move away from fine dining, and French cuisine at large, stems partly from Des Jardins’ passions for casual dining and Mexican cooking—both of which she’ll continue to explore at her other restaurants: Mijita Cocina Mexicana, School Night, Public House, The Commissary, Arguello, and Transit. Upon hearing the news, Des Jardins’ longtime friend, chef Hugh Acheson, said, “It’s brilliant that she’s leaving fine dining to cook from her heart.”

Food & Wine sat down with Des Jardins to learn more about Jardinière's final chapter, her plans for the future, and the biggest changes she's seen in the industry. 

F&W: How did you come to the decision to close Jardinière?

TDJ: I have been contemplating some sort of a change here for three years. I've looked at various design iterations and talked about different changes. None of it has really felt right. And I think I realize now, based on the decision that I'm making, that it really was about not wanting to change this place. There's so much of it that I love so dearly and so much of it that I still think does work so well. The restaurant is doing fine, but we're not growing. I think I've made this decision because I have the opportunity to close gracefully rather than it being a crisis point. In the light of the day—after having gone through the most difficult part, which was certainly telling my staff—that feels really, really good to me.

What has the response been like among your staff?

I have to say that we had a lot of grown men weeping on Monday. It was a hard day. It was a hard day for me. One of the compelling reasons to continue running this restaurant as long as I have has been to support the community of people who work here. It's their livelihood, it's their community, it's their family. And that's really meaningful to me. I have a huge commitment to making sure that everyone is placed happily in whatever's best for them.

Why is it important to you to make sure that your employees find great places to work?

I want each of them to find a place that's the right fit for them. But I also want them to find a place where they feel taken care of, where they aren't going to be exploited or underpaid or taken advantage of. The Bay Area is full of thoughtful and caring restaurateurs who care very much about the wellbeing of their employees, and that's an important factor for me.

Outside of the restaurant, what has the response been like?

Lots of support and congratulations, which is awesome. And there are also plenty of people who are lamenting that they won't have this place to go to anymore. I think it'll take a little bit more time for that information to filter through to us. We have a huge regular clientele here. This restaurant has always been very focused on taking care of the theater goers and making sure that we're facilitating a dining experience that is on a timetable so that they can get across the street to their curtains on time. I think there will be a lot of folks that go to the opera and ballet and symphony on a regular basis that are really gonna miss us.

Why now?

A lot of it is about being able to continue the quality level that we have maintained for 21 years. This is a very high touch environment: personalized experience with the guest that is translated through our staff. They really take care of people and we have a connection with every guest. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and that really starts at the top. It starts with me and my commitment to being here. I guess that I'm more interested in a more casual world and environment now, and not that super intense, high-touch experience that requires my concentration and attention every day. I didn't want to see this restaurant become derivative, of for the quality to slip because I'm not able to give of myself to it.

As you think about the past two decades, are there any specific memories that stick out to you?

For the opening of Jardinière we did a party for Food & Wine. Dana Cowin was here, Danny Meyer was here. It was so special to have these amazing people as part of the opening of this restaurant. Danny was getting ready to open what was then Tabla. I was standing in the kitchen talking to him as hors d'oeuvres were being prepared. I think we had a truffled mushroom croquette, so it was like molten lava coming out of the fryer. As it was plating up, Danny plopped one in his mouth, which was way, way, way too hot, and I'll never forget, he opened his mouth and steam came billowing out. And I'm standing there going, oh my god, I've just scolded the inside of Danny Meyer's mouth!

When you opened Jardinière, you had already won a ton of acclaim within the industry, including being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 1995. How have you changed as a chef and a leader over the years?

I think that that the world of chefs was very different back then. Kitchens were ruled by the Europeans and there was this very hierarchical, militaristic attitude. Kitchens were pretty rough, and there weren’t laws that kept you from screaming and yelling at people. We didn't really have to think so much about leadership. Making great food was the way that you lead. That has changed completely. There's much more thought that's put into that today than there was when I started out. And I think that that's a way that I've changed, and perhaps it's because I have a lot more restaurants now. I have to be able to translate my skills over more locations. I have to think more intently about how to express what's going on in my head, how do I articulate that to my management team so that it can then be trickled down to the rest of the team.

How has San Francisco dining changed since you opened Jardinière?

You think about print media, and I remember back in the day, the reviews that were written by Caroline Bates were a big deal in the life of a restaurant. You opened and you got to that point where Caroline Bates was going to write about you in Gourmet. The review in the San Francisco Chronicle used to be a huge deal in the life of a restaurant. There are so many other mediums in which a restaurant is now reviewed that those become less pivotal in the life of a restaurant. That’s certainly a big, big change.

How has the restaurant business in general evolved over the years?

I remember coming in every day and looking at the physical reservation book. I’d make myself a cup of coffee and sit down and pour over the reservation book. That was a very tactile experience, and that was the beginning point of my day every day, that that process of taking that information in. And then, we became a beta test site for OpenTable, and obviously that book went the way of so many other things. I was very resistant to it. I didn’t want to have a computer screen at the maître d' stand. Restaurants are very tactile and technology obviously has advanced us beyond those archaic ways. But at the same time, it wasn't lost on me that you could really lose part of the experience by taking away that tactile part of what we do.

Social media influencers can have a huge impact on what you're doing, and reviews by guests, mediums like Yelp where guests have the opportunity to review their experience. I know a lot of restaurateurs take exception to that. I really don't. I think it's valuable. I think you can look at that information as a real plus, being able to gather feedback as a management tool about how you're doing things. There's some stuff that isn't positive. But the flip side is that there's a lot of information available that you can use as a tool to be better at what you do.

Another way the business has changed is that food TV really opened up the world of restaurants to a whole new population of people. Chefs got on TV and people started to be able to look into the world that we live in. When I started working in the industry in 1983, there was a very small part of the population that aspired to go to a fine dining restaurant. And now it's on the radar of most people everywhere.

How does it feel to have operated Jardinière for so many years, in an industry where it's so difficult for restaurants to stay open?

It's hard to take in. When you just sort of go through your life, year after year after year, you don't really think about it. Obviously, I'm reflecting on it a lot now. It feels amazing. We had a 20-year anniversary last year, and we decided that we were going to throw a big party for alum. We closed the restaurant and tried to find as many people as we could who worked here. We had people who came from as far away as London. To have this history in the room, I think we ended up with maybe 400 people, it was such an incredible experience. That idea that you have this intimate experience of working with somebody for hours and hours and hours, day and night, and there are literally thousands of them out there now, is kind of crazy.

What is it like for you when former employees who started at Jardinière go on to have careers in the industry?

You can't hope for a better legacy than that. Right? It just makes me feel so good about what I do, that I have that opportunity to touch people and change the course of their lives. There's not a better gift than that.

Do you have any advice to chefs who are just starting out and opening their own restaurants?

Think about leadership and translating what's inside of your head. If I reflect back, that was something I was always a little bit resistant to. I am not an amazing public speaker and I don't like to share easily like what's going on in my head, but I think that that's a big part of the process of leadership. And it's really valuable, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, to figure out how to do that—how to talk about what is happening inside of your brain, whether that's from a creative standpoint or an emotional standpoint or any standpoint. I think that the key to success is how you share your talent. And that isn't just what you're putting on a plate. It's a thought process. It's how something makes you feel. All of those are valuable and it's not easy for a lot of people to share those inner workings. I think it's really the key to getting your gift out there in the world.

In the statement you wrote about Jardinière's closure, you talk about creating a culture that you feel proud of. How did you facilitate the creation of that culture?

When I look around at the restaurant in how we do the things that we do, so many of them were developed in the very beginning years of the restaurant—from where things are put away physically to the maintenance of the space to our standard operating procedures. Most of that stuff hasn't changed in 21 years. We really got it right. And the culture of the restaurant has been so strong that despite that the fact that I've had many different general managers and many different bar managers and many different chefs, those decisions that we made early on had such an imprint that they never changed. I had an epiphany at some point in time that how we treat everyone—whether it's our purveyors or each other or our guests—really stems from the top. I create an outward facing care for everyone that we come into contact with, and that's a big part of the ethos of the restaurant.

What will you miss most about Jardinière?

I will miss the people. I don't even know yet what I’m gonna miss because this is so much a part of my daily habits. It's gonna feel pretty weird when I don't have this place to walk into anymore.

What are you most looking forward to once the restaurant closes?

Having more time in my schedule is always something that that I look forward to. Having more balance. But knowing myself, I’ll probably backfill it with something else.

Do you think you'll ever get back into fine dining?

I don't know. I absolutely appreciate fine dining. It was what I was trained to do. I wouldn't rule it out but right now, at the place I’m at in my life, I appreciate a taco as much or more than caviar.

What’s next?

I still have so much going on. I'm operating six restaurants. That's not changing. So it's not so significant as it certainly would be if I only had one. There will be an adjustment, but life isn't gonna be that different.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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