Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Traci Des Jardins

Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the one in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.

Raised on a farm near Fresno, California, Des Jardins grew up with the food traditions of her father's Acadian (Cajun) heritage and her mother's Mexican roots. As a young aspiring chef, she worked in France at La Maison Troisgros, among other places, and was executive chef at Joachim Splichal's acclaimed Patina in Los Angeles. Moving to San Francisco, she worked in the kitchens at such renowned establishments as Rubicon and Aqua, and in 1998 opened her own first restaurant, Jardinière. Today, she also has a taquería called Mijita, a sports-themed pub called Public House, and several other places. She has appeared on Iron Chef America and Top Chef: Masters, among other TV programs, and was named Best Chef: Pacific by the James Beard Foundation in 2007.

Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
Traci Des Jardins: 
I was passionate about all food from the very beginning of my life and tried absolutely everything. I can remember eating my porridge with great zeal as a little baby in a high chair, with butter, brown sugar, and milk. Things I tried that weren't so yummy: battery acid that leaked from one of my dolls and looked like Coke, a glass Christmas tree bulb... I would taste everything. My mother couldn't stop me from eating everything. I got salmonella. I was a little "Hoover." I tasted everything!

Are you the first chef in your family?
Yes, but I come from a long line of people completely passionate about food. My paternal grandfather should have been a chef. He grew up on the bayous of Louisiana, and when he moved to the landlocked Central Valley of California, he used to drive three hours in each direction just to buy seafood from the coast. I was surrounded by food growing up — my family grew it, hunted for it, and prepared it with great passion.

My grandfather was a Cajun. He grew up in the Lake Charles part of Louisiana. Where I grew up there were a lot of "crawdads" [freshwater crayfish], so in the fall we would go out and collect large quantities of them and do a big crawdad boil. He was a big lover of seafood and he would make shrimp Creole. He would drive over to the coast and we would also do cracked crab. My family also hunted. We had a lot of sheepherders in the area and they would use our property to pasture their lambs. So we also did a lot of whole animal cookery... wild ducks... all of that stuff I grew up with. Walking into my grandfather's kitchen was... the smell of him making stocks. It was like the smell of a French kitchen. He was always making stock. He used to made turducken! I remember him describing the process of doing it. How he would bone out each of the respective birds and how he would make the sausage stuffing and how he would cook it and then slice it like a galantine. I was a chef by the time my grandfather passed away. This is the lore of our childhood. It was what he loved. It was what he loved to talk about. He loved to have 30 or 40 people over for dinner and cook these huge quantities of food.

My dad's mother was Swedish-Norwegian. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She was an amazing baker. She was a really hard-working woman who had an enormous kitchen garden where she would grow rhubarb and okra. I remember things she used to grow, things we couldn't get in the store. She loved to make rhubarb pies. My grandfather always wanted to have okra around and you couldn't buy that in the stores. So she grew things they remembered from their childhood and wanted to have around. It was big, like half an acre. She would work out there all by herself.

When did you start cooking?
At 3, I started baking with my mom when my older brother went off to kindergarten. The first thing I remember learning how to make were chocolate chip cookies. But I also learned to make tortillas with my other grandmother, who was from Sonora, Mexico. She kept lard underneath her sink and made flour tortillas. I was fully in the kitchen from the beginning and that is where you could find me.

When did you realize that cooking was serious to you?
Probably in high school, though I didn't see it as a career path until I dropped out of college. 

Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
I knew it was what I really wanted to do the first day I spent in the kitchen with Joachim Splichal at Seventh Street Bistro in LA. I remember watching him styling food for a photo shoot and tears welled in my eyes, I was so moved by the beauty of what he was doing and I felt so strongly that it was my path. I was 17. 

What was the first dish you made that you felt proud of?
Somewhere in my first few years of cooking I made a dish of scallops, potatoes, and black truffles that really wowed my aunt and uncle who I was cooking for. 

Do you feel the cooking life caused you to sacrifice having a "normal" life?
[Laughs.] I don't think anybody in the restaurant business has a quote-unquote "normal life." I think we are cut from a different cloth, and it suits me. I don't know if I could be somebody who sits behind a desk. I think it is normal, as far as I'm concerned. The first 20 years of my career I did nothing but work. I didn't have a social life. And when I had a kid, things changed, priorities changed. I changed my orientation and spent more time doing leisurely things so I could spend time with him and not have the restaurant world be all-consuming. But I still love what I do. I am still working very hard, but I love what I do.

You have a 15-year-old son now. Does he like to cook?
Umm, you know, it's interesting. He engages in talking about it and stuff. I don't ever see him really cook. He does make his own breakfast, but I wouldn't say he cooks with me. I have a feeling, based on the fact that he watches me all of the time and that he is very observant, that he probably likes to cook.

Does he like to eat?
He loves all kinds of food.

You know, it's interesting. With our son, who is double the age of yours, we saw him go through the parts of his life where he ate everything and then through the part where he ate nothing — or so it seemed! And now he is back to eating everything. It is a cycle of change.
It is one of those things you — or we — don't have much control over. When they are little, you cannot make them eat. I say to people all the time, when talking about food and kids, that I think there is a problem in America. We think the kids are not going to eat what we eat; we are one of the only cultures that think that way, and I think we create monsters when we do that. In Japan or France you don't see kids saying, "Oh, I don't eat that." The kids eat what the adults eat. They don't have special meals. We are absolutely insane here with such things as a "Kids' Menu." That right there perpetuates the idea that the kids are not going to eat what the adults are going to eat.

Did you ever come close to quitting the business and finding something saner?
I guess I had my moments, because you don't have that normal life. Your social life revolves around the people you work with. You have odd hours. You work at night. You work on the weekends. And so your social activities have to conform to that. The exhaustion of working 16 hours a day, six days a week, might have more to do with that question than wanting to do something different.

You're one of the people I know in America who worked under a truly great chef.
Joachim [Splichal]?

Yes. At a fairly young age, you were working with a master. That must have had quite an effect on you.
Yeah. I think that because that was the first restaurant job that I had — I was 17 — it set the bar really, really high. Joachim had just come over from the Hotel Negresco. Jacques Maximum was one of the hottest chefs in Europe then, and France was the country with the biggest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. All of that existed in that country, and didn't exist here at all. You would have had to go to France to seek it out, and I think I had the next best thing, which was working with a chef of that caliber. So I got really lucky that that was my "landing spot," and that became my standard with which to judge everything else. It also gave me a vision for my career, for which I have no regrets. I went to France when I was 19. I worked there for a couple of years. I feel I had an education that... well, that opportunity would never have been available to me in this country. And now everything had changed. I have been cooking here for 30 years and America is a very different world now than when I started.

What made Joachim take a chance on a 17-year-old woman?[pullquote:left]
I made a connection to him via my aunt and uncle. They were big "foodies" who went to France a few times a year and ate in all the three-star restaurants, and they got to know many of the chefs there. They approached Joachim and asked, "Will you give Traci a chance?" He said, "Yeah, but I'm not going to do her any favors. I will give her a trial of a couple of weeks and then we'll see where she is." I was as green as green could be. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen before. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And I guess he saw a spark in me... that I knew what I was doing. And I get that. I think I can tell who is going to be successful in a kitchen, just by kind of how their brain works. How one organizes, problem-solving skills, all of those kinds of attributes that make you a natural in the kitchen. I assume those are the things he saw in me.

Who is the most important American-born cookbook author of the past 50 years, in your estimation?
If you hadn't said "American-born," I'd say Jacques Pépin. I always think of La Technique and La Méthode and how they still stand in terms of relevancy today. Since you stipulate "American-born," I would say the Judy Rodgers cookbook [The Zuni Cafe Cookbook] is one of the most brilliant. I think it is a work of art. I remember sitting down and reading the introduction of that book and literally tears were coming out of my eyes. Judy articulated so beautifully what so many of us chefs feel about food. It is an amazing book.

I share your opinion, and I try to encourage the chefs I teach to delve into it.
Here is an interesting little tidbit. I have always loved Mexican food. I sort of grew up eating it. It is my "soul food"; the food I could eat every day. When I started to do a little more research on Mexican cooking, and I started to read some of Diana Kennedy's books, I realized something. I have never been a huge cookbook reader. I learned from doing. It was very difficult for me to assimilate knowledge from reading about cooking. I can read philosophy and that sort of stuff about cooking, but for me to understand recipes... it is very difficult for me. But if I do something I will remember it for the rest of my life. Learning is different for many of us. I never realized that [learning by reading] was not working for me and I realized it when I tried to learn to make a mole from a cookbook.

Who is the most mischievous chef you have ever known?
[Laughs.] José Andrés popped into my mind. It's not that he is mischievous; it's just that he is kind of a jovial character in the kitchen...

What food or ingredient do you adore?
Can I be cheeky and say "salt"?

Sure, but tell us why.
Because it's essential to making food taste good.

What food, drink, or ingredient will never enter your body again?
I don't know. I consider myself to be a bit of an omnivore. I'm not super fond of calves' liver, honestly, but I will eat it!

What's your favorite food/wine/drinks holiday?
You know... let's see... I guess I would have to say Thanksgiving, just because of the abundance and the time of year. I grew up with Thanksgiving traditions that included cooking whole animals — a plethora of things besides turkey. Turkey is not anyone's favorite thing to cook or eat, I don't think.

Do you feel culinary schools are preparing young folks for lives as chefs?
I don't know if it is culinary schools or just the impression people have of what we do now, but a lot of young chefs have the wrong idea of what a culinary career is going to be like. They don't know it is going to be really, really hard.

Is there a school you'd recommend?
Having not gone to a culinary school, I don't have a good frame of reference. I think it really depends on the students themselves. I learned how to cook from cooking. Honestly, what I would like to see is the business side of things, because so many of us coming up through the ranks didn't get that.

Do you hire applicants for jobs in your kitchens if they haven't been to culinary school?
It's not really relevant to me. It's not the first thing that pops into my mind. I would not really advise someone to go to a school until he or she has figured out if this is truly his or her career path.

Where in the world would you like to dine right now, and why?
Where in the world? Hmm... You know, to me, a dining experience is so linked to who you're with, and some of my most memorable dining experiences are not necessarily about the food, although I have had those moments. It is usually more about the moment of your life and your companions. When I think back on my most memorable meals, it is about that.

What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?
I'm in pretty good shape. I have been in the business for 33 years. My back and my feet are all fine. Probably my brain! [Laughs] That's the part that is really fatigued these days.

Which famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
The biggest "wow" for me was when I cooked for Julia Child. I also always think of the time when I first met the winemaker Henri Jayer. I thought his wines were the best in the world. I think I met him on his first trip to the United States. I would say that was probably 1991 and we did a big winemaker's lunch at Patina, and I got to meet him. I think he was about 78 at the time. He was an incredibly humble old gentleman who was bowled over about how he was being honored here in the U.S. It was so good to meet him. But Julia Child... having her walk into the kitchen and hearing that voice and looking... up! — because, as you know, she was quite tall — and seeing her was pretty heart-stopping.

Which guests (famous or otherwise) will not be welcome back?
Oh... you know... if I did ban someone, I would never tell! No answer!

What's your favorite food movie of all time?
Babette's Feast.

Who would you say are the two most important chefs of all time?
Fernand Point revolutionized cuisine from his time. Ferran Adrià from our own time. I think both of those folks had immense effects. I started cooking in the early 1980s and you could still feel the impact of Point.

How did you become aware of Point in the first place?
By studying the history of cuisine and learning what had happened with Bocuse and Troisgros and seeing their trajectory in cuisine.

If it all came down to the world knowing your life's work through a single dish, as we sometimes know an author through a single book, what would that dish be?
I guess it would have to be my seared scallops with truffled mashed potatoes, which by now has been done a million, zillion times over. At that point in time, though, I had not seen that dish before. In 1992 I was cooking for John Mariani — I was the chef-de-cuisine at Elka in San Francisco — and I was making a dish for him on the fly, and just put it together. And that became the most requested dish. It carried me from that time on through to Jardinière.

If you had not made it as a chef, and money were not an issue, what profession would you have chosen?
I'd probably go back to what I thought long ago and that was to be a veterinarian.

Would you want your son to become a chef?
No. I don't think so. It's too hard. It's a tough life.

If you wrote a book of advice for aspiring chefs, what would its title be?
[Laughs.] OK, here's an idea: Be Careful for What You Wish For!