How Chef Traci des Jardins Cooks at Her Lake House
It’s a warm August evening in Shaver Lake, California, and the air smells of chiles and pine.
Chef Traci des Jardins exhales into her blow poke, and flames lick the bottoms of achiote-marinated quail. She’s bent over the firepit outside her cabin. If Des Jardins were anywhere else, she’d be wearing an apron over her jeans and button-down. But up here, it’s no frills.
Des Jardins comes to Shaver Lake, her “happy place,” for fishing, waterskiing, and cooking outside. The town is about 60 miles south of Yosemite. It’s a scenic, hour-long drive from Fresno, past farmland and fig trees, up through the mountains and into the Sierra National Forest, where aspen and oak trees line the winding roads. The wildflowers up here haven’t been bulldozed, and the osprey nests remain untouched. Des Jardins says, “I can never get sick of being here.”
Des Jardins, a 1995 Food & Wine Best New Chef, is a partner in three San Francisco restaurants, The Commissary, Arguello, and Public House, as well as a bar, School Night. Last year, she closed her flagship restaurant, Jardinière, which opened in 1997. Jardinière was the first fine-dining restaurant in Hayes Valley and both a culinary destination and a community hub; locals often stopped in for a bite before heading across the street to the opera or ballet.
Although Des Jardins became known for her Bay Area spins on classic French food, her decision to move away from fine dining was partly motivated by her passion for Mexican cooking. Des Jardins grew up in the San Joaquin Valley; her father is of French Acadian descent, and her mother’s family is from Sonora, in northwestern Mexico. Des Jardins learned how to make tortillas with her grandmother at age four, and she has traveled throughout Mexico to learn more about this part of her heritage.
Tonight, Des Jardins is cooking a summer feast that reflects her roots as well as her style, which edges toward casual and communal when she’s in Shaver Lake. There are dishes like chile-dusted corn, salsa macha, and trout aguachile. Des Jardins has been hosting friends here since she bought the cabin from her parents in 1998. Tonight, many of those friends, who have become Shaver Lake regulars, are gathered for dinner on the front porch. They’re sipping verbena-infused tequila and tonics while Linus, Des Jardins’ family’s dog, runs around the table.
There’s Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of Border Grill in Los Angeles, and Loretta Keller, chef at Seaglass Restaurant in San Francisco, who have cooked with Des Jardins everywhere from Mexico to Mongolia. Kate Arding has flown in from Hudson, New York, where she owns Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions—Des Jardins can always count on Arding to bring everyone’s favorite fruit-and-nut loaf. Peter Martinelli, who owns Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas, California, first came here with Arding before he even met Des Jardins. Sallie Miller is a longtime friend, part of the “mom’s group” that started coming up when the kids were in third grade (Des Jardins’ son, Eli, is now 20 and a junior in college). Jennifer Roy is here, too—she’s Des Jardins’ partner and Dandelion Chocolate’s director of marketing and PR.
As the group pours wine into tumblers and grabs handfuls of limey pepitas, they talk over one another, sharing stories of Shaver Lake.
“I remember one time Peter and I were here in the winter, and the snow was halfway up [the house walls],” Miller says.
“We had to dig a tunnel to the door when we got here,” Martinelli recalls.
“We climbed out the window and up the ice,” Miller adds. “We put a barbecue up there and had steaks.”
Whether reminiscing about boysenberry milkshakes at Hungry Hut or arguing over who won the fried okra cook-off, nearly every memory of this place is tied to eating great food. For Des Jardins—who more than anything loves being here with Eli—it’s most fun to have chef friends, like Milliken and Keller, by her side, too.
“When I’m up here with non-chefs, it’s a heavy load, because typically we have 10 to 15 people here,” Des Jardins says. “When I have my friends to help me cook, it’s seamless.”
Earlier today, Des Jardins grilled peaches on the firepit while Keller and Milliken cleaned squash blossoms for a dish with epazote and poblano. After finishing the outdoor elements, the chefs came inside and stationed themselves around the island in the kitchen. Keller stirred a salad dressing in a stainless steel mixing bowl while Milliken poured in olive oil and Des Jardins cracked pepper. They moved quickly around one another, pausing only to spoon each other tastes.
“We love each other’s taste buds,” Milliken says, back at the table. “We have a really easy, fun way of cooking.”
“And for the non-chefs,” Arding teases, “it’s fantastic.”
“Well, there was the era of the rotten meat,” Des Jardins recalls, half-joking. “Before I got the freezer.” She can barely get the words out because she’s laughing so hard. “The most rotten thing would be what I cooked every night.”
“And then we started eating mice, after a while,” Miller says, cracking up along with everyone else at the table.
“And wolf spiders,” Keller adds, laughing.
Once corncobs have been gnawed, Des Jardins and her friends relocate from the table to the firepit, where nights always end. A tub of Mexican chocolate sorbet makes its way around the circle.
“Come and sit with us,” Des Jardins calls to Eli and the rest of the guests inside the cabin—this weekend, her partner’s mother, brother, and sister are all here, along with several teenage sons and daughters. “We’re telling Shaver Lake stories.”