Restaurant Confidential

As renowned chef and restaurant entrepreneur Traci Des Jardins has learned, running a restaurant can be a lot like—and at the same time radically different from—running other businesses

By Jackie Krentzman

CEOWoman_Art_ThumbToday, the big food and health trend is sustainable organic cuisine, which generally means cooking with fresh ingredients free of additives and sourced from local farms and ranches.

For San Francisco chef and entrepreneur Traci Des Jardins, this isn’t a new trend—it’s the way she was raised.

Des Jardins grew up in Firebaugh, a farming community in the Central Valley of California—the nation’s bread basket. Her father was a second-generation farmer. His father was French Arcadian from the Louisiana Bayou. His mother was Swedish and Norwegian and was beloved as the family baker. Her mother’s family came from Mexico. So Des Jardins’s whole childhood revolved around food. She helped her grandmother make fresh tortillas. Everyone in the family hunted and ate wild game, and they all cooked.

Today, Des Jardins owns six restaurants in San Francisco, ranging from the casual Mijita (the nickname her grandmother bestowed on her), featuring regional Mexican cuisine in the bustling Ferry Building, to her elegant namesake, Jardinière, in Hayes Valley. Before opening Jardinière in San Francisco in 1997, Des Jardins, who was classically trained in French cuisine, worked in highly acclaimed kitchens in Los Angeles, France, and New York City. She was named Best Chef: Pacific by the James Beard Foundation in 2007, and is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year, in 1995, and Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef, in 1995.

Diversity Woman sat down with Des Jardins in her latest venture, the Commissary, a warm Spanish-influenced restaurant in San Francisco’s Presidio, a former military base, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

DW: You grew up enmeshed in a food culture. When did you know you wanted a career in restaurants?

Traci Des Jardins: I graduated from high school when I was 16. I was young for my class anyway, and then I graduated a year early because I was from this really small town and wanted to get out of there. I didn’t make it through my first year of college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I think I was too young. I had really taken up cooking as a serious hobby when I was in high school, and so after I dropped out, I thought I wanted to try being a professional.

DW: The world of high-powered restaurants is infamous for its macho atmosphere. Have you ever faced any overt 
or covert sexism in your career?

TDJ: If you look at the statistics [of the ratio of men to women in the restaurant industry], I would have to answer that absolutely it’s a male-centric field. Have I felt like being female has been a huge obstacle for me? No. But I have been able to look past a lot of fairly egregious things in my career. When I worked in France for a total of a year and a half, I was the only woman in each of the kitchens in four different restaurants. So what’s the reasoning behind that?

DW: Why do you think that is?

TDJ: I think there are a bunch of reasons. I think that when women get to the childbearing years, they tend to drop out of our industry. The years it takes to become a restaurateur or a chef-owner coincide with when women are ready to have children or they’re at the tail end of their childbearing years. So I think a lot of women—and I’ve seen this—drop out. It’s also due to the fact that running a restaurant has historically been male dominated, and that’s not easy to change.

DW: Is there an association of women chefs?

TDJ: There is. There’s Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, WCR. I was on the board many years ago. I would imagine there are the same sorts of obstacles in the regular business world as in ours, in terms of having kids and finding work-life balance. The big difference, though, is that most of what happens in the restaurant world happens at night. That’s a bigger challenge in terms of managing day care and managing a family. How do you do that?

DW: How have you managed that schedule?

TDJ: I have a 15-year-old son. But I can’t say it’s been easy. It took planning. I had to be at a certain point in my career in order to make that happen. When I was 17, I had the plan in mind that I wanted kids in my early 30s—and it was another 17 years before I had my son. By that point, my feet were firmly planted, and I already owned my own business by the time I had a child, so I had a lot of flexibility. As a business owner, I could write my own ticket.

DW: Are there certain working styles that are acceptable in the restaurant industry but may not be acceptable in other industries?

TDJ: Oh, yeah! I was on a panel on stress recently, which included an NFL quarterback, a psychologist, and a FEMA first responder. I said to the quarterback, “We’re both in industries that I consider to be the last bastions of bad behavior.” In sports and in restaurants, there is still a lot of motivation by intimidation and threats and profanities. It certainly is the way I was trained. I was trained in an environment where what we considered normal behavior anyone of a sound mind would have said was abusive. There was a lot of yelling and screaming, and there were fistfights. People got beat up or had things thrown at them, and they had plates smashed down in front of them. The stories you read are true. It was a large part of my learning experience in restaurants.

Early in my career, when I first became in charge of a kitchen, I ruled that way. But quickly I realized I didn’t want to be that way. I didn’t want to be a yelling, screaming, tyrannical, threatening, intimidating person. It took a lot of energy and it felt like negative energy. I reflected on that and tried to figure out a way that it could happen better. But there are still residuals of that in our industry, and fairly dominant ones.

DW: But given the stress in the job, aren’t restaurants owned by the most enlightened executive chefs still challenging work environments?

TDJ: Yeah, that was definitely one of the challenges in my career, to sort of figure that out. There are still residual parts of that in my kitchens. It’s still very hierarchical. It’s still kind of run like the military. There is a hierarchy and a precision that is necessary in the heat of battle. In the moment during what we call “in-service”—when there are guests in the restaurant and we’re servicing those guests—if I tell my sous chef, “This chicken is undercooked” or “It’s not seasoned correctly,” he might not agree with me. He might think it’s cooked perfectly or seasoned correctly, but he’s not going to argue with me in that moment. If the server comes back to me and says, “This isn’t to the guest’s liking,” I say to the chefs, “You need to make this again, and this is what they didn’t like about it.” They don’t have time to discuss who’s right and who’s wrong. It just needs to get done.

So management techniques in a restaurant are somewhat different than in other industries. It’s not unlike athletics. You have this team, but it’s not a democracy. There is a hierarchy to it and there is an order in which things have to happen. I know that there are kitchens that are democratic and everybody’s opinions matter, and everyone gets to weigh in, but that’s not the kind of kitchen I was trained in or the kind of kitchen I run.

DW: What would you say are the major differences between challenges you face versus those of other customer-oriented businesses?

TDJ: I think that the restaurant business is full of a lot of people like me who are self-made and have learned by doing. For example, I’m not super recipe-based. I don’t have precise recipes in my organization. I teach people how to cook and how to taste. In some cases we might have precise recipes, but mostly we’re learning by doing and tasting and learning to cook the foundations. To your question, in the restaurant business, I would venture to guess that 65 percent of the people who work in restaurants have no formal training. So they adhere to that learning by doing and lack formal training and structure.

It makes sense. Cooking is a creative endeavor, right? Those are the sorts of people it’s going to attract. Some other customer-centric businesses have creative aspects, but many don’t. If you’re making coats, if they all have to be exactly the same, there’s a pattern.

DW: You are very customer-centric. How do you teach that to your staff and what do you emphasize?

TDJ: One of my points of pride in running Jardinière for 18 years is that the feedback is always, “Your staff is so friendly.” That’s a really important piece for me, that we have a sense of hospitality in welcoming people. We’re in the business of making people happy, which I take great pleasure in. People can come in a bad mood, and our job is to turn them around. Sometimes it almost seems like an impossible task. You have somebody who’s had a really bad week or they just had a fight with their wife or whatever, and our job at the restaurant is to balance that. We need to take them in a different direction. This is a time when you get to relax and share food and have a good time. It’s a time to live in our little tactile world for an hour, or two or three. That’s our job—to create that sense of hospitality and to welcome and take care of people.

DW: It’s very intimate.

TDJ: It is. We’re creating an experience with someone. We’re giving you things to put inside your body. Consuming something is a very intimate act, I think. It’s an act of mutual trust, and you have to have confidence in the person giving you that product. So you think about it like that, and it’s different than just eating.

DW: How do you hire? Is there any one question you always ask?

TDJ: Not really. I’m a very intuitive person, so I kind of leave it to my instincts in terms of the feeling that I get from someone. I started out in this industry with no experience whatsoever and have become very successful. I didn’t go to school to learn it. I feel like you can go a long way in this industry with common sense, and that’s usually something I’m looking for—emotional intelligence, common sense, and a good work ethic. It’s really hard work that we do. That’s never going to change. Those are attributes that lead to success in our industry.

DW: Did you have any formal or semiformal management training? Was there ever a management mistake you made that you learned from?

TDJ: I think there are a million little mistakes [I’ve made]. I haven’t made any huge resounding ones—well, that’s not true. The answer is yes, I’ve made mistakes. One of the things that I always preach to my managers is to look at the things that you do well and understand your strengths and weaknesses and be self-reflective. Managing a team of people in a restaurant is a very complex thing to do. You’ve got a lot of different people with different attributes, and you need them for their different attributes. Some of them are more creative, some are going to be your workhorses, some of them are going to be organizers, and that team, working together, is going to create what you need to run a restaurant.

Likewise as a manager, you have strengths and weaknesses. You have some people who are just great people-people. They’re going to be out there greeting the guests and will be amazing at that, but they may not be the most organized people. You need that team and you need those different aspects. I guess it’s really not that different from any complex organization.

DW: Do you have a vision not only of your cooking but of where you want to go? Do you always have a long-term plan in mind? Or do things just happen?

TDJ: It happens both ways. I certainly do have a long-term plan for financial stability and the things that everybody else wants. I try to have a 10-year strategic plan, but sometimes things come up that I didn’t necessarily anticipate, and that takes me on a path that might be a deviation from what that vision is. DW

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