Chef Traci Des Jardins, 41, opened San Francisco's Jardinière restaurant with partner Pat Kuleto 10 years ago, after perfecting her craft in California, New York and France. Born in California and raised on a farm, Des Jardins grew up in what she calls a "European-style" family, in which fresh food and fine wines were part of everyday life. Her first kitchen job was at Joachim Splichal's 7th Street Bistro in Los Angeles, and she went on to several apprenticeships in France, at Troisgros, Lucas Carton and L'Arpege, and at Le Louis XV in Monaco. Des Jardins also cooked at New York's Montrachet, Patina in Los Angeles and Aqua and Rubicon in San Francisco, at the latter as executive chef. Known for her ability to create seamless wine-and-food pairings, Des Jardins calls herself "an advocate of the demystification of wine ... in my restaurant, I'd like to make it as accessible as it can possibly be."
Wine Spectator: What were some of your earliest experiences with wine?
Traci Des Jardins: I grew up in California, and was exposed to wine at a fairly early age. I remember cases of wine stacked in my grandfather's closet, from the great California vintage [of] 1974. He used to buy Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon [Vintage Selection], with the special red label. My aunt and uncle also had a pretty serious wine cellar, so I started tasting their great Champagnes and Burgundies in my late teens. I used to go on these eating trips in France with my aunt and uncle. We would go to Michelin three-star restaurants, and they would order legendary wines. I was not necessarily studying them, but consuming them. Their focus was mainly Burgundy, which continues to be the wine of my heart. They had a great collection of Ramonets and Gagnard-Delagrange.
WS:And what about when you began to cook professionally?
TDJ: My wine knowledge really skyrocketed at Rubicon, working with Larry Stone. I can't say enough about Larry, as an inspiration, educator and aficionado of wine. He has a disarming approach—he's not snotty at all. He's absolutely brilliant. Working with him was my graduate degree in food and wine pairing.
WS: In addition to your travels in France with your family, have you spent much time in other wine regions?
TDJ: I've visited wine regions in Chile, the Rheingau, Rioja … in 1995 I knew some folks who were with the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic, so I went there to taste some wines. That was when the country was just transitioning [from Eastern Bloc rule]. The winery that we visited, it was incredibly primitive, relative to the modern wineries I'd seen in other parts of the world. There was no high-tech equipment whatsoever. I don't even think that they had stainless steel equipment. It was how I imagine winemaking must have been 100 years ago. The grapes had Czech names, so it was hard to figure out what they were exactly. … What I remember tasting, though, were super-crisp white wines, sort of a German-style Riesling taste, with high acidity and fairly low alcohol.
WS:Tell us about the wine program at your restaurant Jardinière.
TDJ: Though there is someone else buying and selecting the wines for the restaurant, I have some influence over it, too. Obviously it's important for me to have wines that pair well with the food. [Sommelier] Eugenio [Jardim] has an incredible palate, and we have an eclectic program of wines that I consider to be food-friendly—German and Austrian whites, Pinot Noirs, Rhône varietals—nothing with a lot of oak on it.
WS: Do you have a corkage policy at Jardinière?
TDJ: Yes we do, though we also have a "buy one, bring one" policy where, if you buy a bottle, we'll waive one corkage fee … But if somebody brings in a bottle of wine that we have on our list, I'm not keen on that. There's a lot of overhead that goes into having a fine dining restaurant … and we're providing [guests who bring bottles] with an overall environment, glassware and service. I don't think it's appropriate to bring in a bottle of [non-vintage] Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label when it's something that we serve on our list. But if someone has a special vintage for an anniversary or birthday, I have no problem with waiving that corkage, or in any situation when it's not excessive.
WS: What are some of your personal favorite wines to drink?
TDJ: I definitely lean toward Burgundies, although lately I think I've seen a bit of a change in the style, playing a little bit more to the American palate in the whites. There's a lot more oak—I've seen a trend toward more of a California Chardonnay style in white Burgundies, which I don't particularly like. But I have a little bit of a wine collection, which leans heavily toward Burgundy and Champagne. I love vintage Champagnes.
WS: In a recent interview on this site, chef Douglas Keane of Cyrus mentioned your ability to pair food and wines as an inspiration to him while working at Jardinière. To illustrate your pairing process, can you describe any particularly successful or surprising food and wine matches that you've engineered?
TDJ: About five years ago I went to Anguilla to do a food and wine festival. … Laurence Faller was there from Domaine Weinbach, and I was pairing a dish to one of her wines. I think it was a Riesling. I had done this particular dish at Rubicon, specifically for German or Austrian wine tastings—rouget with a tomato compote, with ginger underneath it, and a lime and ginger butter sauce, with a cilantro coulis that had a little bit of walnut oil. And Laurence said, "This isn't going to work." It was mainly the tomato that she had an issue with, but the dish had pretty exotic flavors—I mean, the French don't tend to love that kind of thing. But I said, "Believe me, this dish works with this style of wine. I've done it before. It's going be great." She wanted to taste it before the dinner, so I said, "I'll make it for you, if you don't like it, we'll do something else." So I made the dish, and there were a lot of other people sitting at the table, and everybody said, "This is brilliant." The event lasted seven nights, with a different chef cooking every night, and I heard somebody say at the end of the week that that was the best pairing of the whole week. So that was a great, symbiotic experience that really showed what can happen with an unexpected pairing of food and wine.
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