Traci Des Jardins: the Quiet Swag

Our hero: This is what awesome looks like. I stole this image from the Internerd.

Swag. It’s a great word. It sashays out, comes out easy, slow, a summer night sweating on a wrap around porch in New Orleans. It’s laid back: LL Cool J wild in the sun. Cary Grant with a brass lighter, before public smoking became as stylish as necking with your brother at the Oscars.  But is swag necessarily about style, or can you be wearing Birkenstocks, all natural bug repellent, and a nicotine patch at a women’s festival in the woods of Michigan and still kill it with the perfect register of I Got It Handled?

Part of the answer surely has to do with the eye of the beholder, an easy response to almost any question throughout the history of aesthetic inquiry. Tevas? I say no. Leo Plass insists it’s possible here. Still, a Hard No from the Odessa Jewess camp over here. Traci Des Jardins would never wear Tevas. And Traci Des Jardins, it turns out, is my new model for the Quiet Swag.

First, trust me that she has a mind boggling and impeccable pedigree. Or don’t trust me. You can read this. The thing almost every bio fails at is context. I’ll say it, the F word: feminist context. Not a ton of ladies at the time were dropping out of college veterinary studies and heading to Los Angeles alone to convince famous dudes to train them in a male-reigned industry. At 17, people. Determination? Check. Mettle? Check. Chutzpah? Hell, yes. And moreover, within two weeks, with NO training outside their own, did women with whetstones focus earn their spot at a kitchen station. Traci’s mom estimates the chef’s entrance in the kitchen at about age 4. Then she couldn’t get her out. Thank Goddess. By the time Traci convinced Joaquim Splichal at 7th Street Bistro to give her a shot, she was already an unsung veteran of flavor.

Simple always works.

The other thing the bios don’t quite convey is her easy kindness. Chefs are known for big breeds of bonkers. As a writer and a visual artist, I have done my fair share, and possibly yours as well, of waiting tables. It’s a great job for creative types: piles of cash to lie about on taxes, flexible hours, everyone smokes, and usually one free meal a day. Downside: tons of bananas chefs. I am not using an idiom here. I am talking about majestic temper tantrums and serious verbal assassinations. Looking back, it makes sense that people working sixteen hour days for fourteen years, living on cigarettes, coffee, and bourbon might feel agitated. Now, all retroactive compassion aside, at the time, I just thought Why is Every Chef such an Asshole? Not our hero. Ms. Des Jardins, as the New York Times refers to her, is welcoming, relaxed, California-easy. The kind of easy that comes to a person after they have made their way in the world, trudged sweaty to lofty peaks and wallowed a little bit, or more, in alleyways. It’s the kind of easy a woman earns from knowing they are the best in the room and are completely over proving it. If you still need her to prove it, that’s Your Fucking Problem, Man. But still, The Quiet Swag won’t even be mad about it. She’s too busy taking care of business to notice you doubted her to begin with. Your doubt is none of her concern. I’m sure having amazing hair helps too.

But you want to see her shit. I don’t blame you. Let’s look at all her stuff. It tells the same story, really, enough room to make a signature on a thing, but still let the thing itself sing its song.

Start your day wrapped in cashmere: a great Rule For Living.

We’ll start in the kitchen. She starts in the kitchen. It’s the only room in the house she has had redone in the 17 years she’s lived there. Like the rest of the house, the palette is creamy and warm, the place done up in solid woods, iron, linen and stone. Barely a plastic object to be found. She’s built a table nook surrounded by antique chairs on the outside and a bench along the wall. Each morning begins here, on the bench facing the window where the sun can see her, but no mere mortal can glimpse her toiling at the table, hunkered down working atop a muted custom linen cushion and tangled in orange cashmere:

The table is in its natural state: a laptop, stacks of papers, pens. The tools of a visionary so accomplished, she is returning to simplicity. “I guess I made my way back to my own kitchen finally about five years ago. The food I make at home is simple. I don’t make that many things with more than five ingredients.” Here’s what she made for 15 friends on Labor Day weekend.

Fresh Mexican inspired BBQ. Tangy. But with a galette. Because one never escapes, or wants to, a classic French foundation. Also every single thing is fresh and in season.

I can’t give away any secret recipes because, well, she didn’t give any up, but she did tell me that the pork ribs were cooked in the oven first, real slow on 250 for like EVER, dressed only in S&P, kind of like a classic little black dress for a spare rib, then they bathed in the tomatillo sauce until finally the little suckers hit the grill. You can’t tell a Jewish girl enough about a pork rib. L’Chaim, I say. Treyf for everyone. And although bacon makes it to her restaurant menus, her personal mornings are anchored by coffee. Always. Pound after pound of complex earthy coffee. Her current dance card is occupied by a light roast from Four Barrel.

I wander the morning light and make my way over to the fantastic stove while she easily speaks about her travels: France, Italy, Africa, Lake Tahoe. She never boasts or brags. She is just a person, telling me her story through food. Her story is phenomenal, but conversational, mellow, buoyed under it by a fixed intensity.  (Scorpio.) It is her confidence that has fueled all its components. And also in the tank are the times where surely her confidence failed her, and she went forward anyhow, giving up sleep and eschewing recreation. The events marked by a courage with no audience. She spoke about early years of training, Alain Passard’s note to her framed and holding court on the far wall. I imagine her young, hungry, willing, awash in a man’s world with a song for an accent. Then I find these by the stove and they just about wipe me out:

From the famous Cookware store E.Dehillerin. Who wants to go with me?

She says, “They were bought on my second trip to France in 1985 and carted home in my luggage. The franc was 10 to 1 then so they were ridiculously cheap. They are a prized possession.” Um. Yeah. I have seriously never felt such funny tingly feelings about a set of pots. And I am prone to those sorts of feelings in well-appointed kitchens.They’re some kind of copper situation. I can’t even dream about what’s happened in these pots since 1985.

Later she tells me my favorite magical France story from her time with another Alain, this time, Senderens, possibly the mentor who she says has had the greatest influence maybe not on her food, but on her life.

“He is a great adventurer and has a tremendous sense of style that has evolved over time. His restaurant, then called Lucas Carton, now Senderens, is in a place with architecture of Art Nouveau before the turn of the last century. He has retained three Michelin Stars for many years and a very formal restaurant. Several years ago he denounced the stars and remodeled the interior, preserving the classic architecture while at the same time bringing it to a very modern look. Because I was the only girl working in the kitchen 20 plus years ago, I had to change in the linen closet upstairs next to the private dining room. One night I literally ran into Catherine Deneuve while coming out of my little changing room. She was having a fabulous party in the beautiful dining room overlooking the Place de la Madeleine.”

And so on that note, let’s go look at her closet where the classics continue to roll out. “You know,” she says, “Not a whole lot has changed. My lifestyle I mean. I’ve been in the Bay Area for 20 years. Most of those years I worked from 9am until 1am. The only difference is the coffee got better. The booze got better. But I still wear t-shirts and jeans. It’s just the t-shirts are cashmere now.”

Rag & Bone. Can't miss.

Staples.

The more she lets me wander around her house, the more I see how her being in the world is entirely her. Everything retains all the majesty of the classic, yet none of the stuffiness. Look at that dresser over there. There is the defined always with the softened. And the food is the same. “One must hit the proper notes in a dish with regards to texture. There has to be soft succulence, crunch. Well, really, balance. One wants a range of texture in a dish.” Now look, you take the denim, which tends toward structure and you add in these gems to balance out a classic look. I want to wear this grey fuzzy cashmere t-shirt every day for the rest of time. I didn’t even know people made cashmere t-shirts.

Oh. Hi. Don't mind me. I'm just a cashmere t-shirt.

Or what about me? I'm a modal t-shirt by bind. I'm so soft.

Should we look at her tennis shoes? No. She does not leave the house in such things unless there is exercise involved. These are shoes for, um, tennis. She loves boots. And here is the crowning glory of an extensive collection. These boots are the footwear version of the copper pots. They are quietly perfect, an impeccable set of choices made by a consummate professional to do exactly what they do: they go with jeans and cashmere t-shirts. They allow you to walk about a city for hours comfortably and then invite you to just touch them a little bit when you stop for a fish taco at Mijita by in The Ferry Building. This is the dish she told me to go get if I was seeking out something that represented her whole self. Mexican flavor, French precision, California. Did she send me to get the Local Ling Cod, Padrón Peppers, Summer Squash and Marcona Almonds, Sauce Romesco at Jardiniere? No. Would it have been, divine, soaring to hit every corner of the tongue in a gorgeous room, worth every penny? Of course.

Perfectly crafted. Perfectly worn in. Guidi. Thanks, Italy.

Gimme Shoes.

And like her skill set covering a thousand culinary landscapes, her shoes encompass not just three battered sets of Dansko clogs for cooking, but also these white loafers, which were among my favorites. She was considering, gasp, dyeing these beauts. They have that compelling filthy uncle feel about them, good for any day of the week, a tailored black walking short. Wear often, I insist! I forbid her to dye them. I forbid her with all the vast sway I hold.

Duccio Del Duca.

It is difficult for her to step out of her soul home, the boot. Clearly driven by the need to be wholly authentic to her work in the kitchen, this guide also deposits her to Gimme Shoes in Hayes Valley, the local home of an array of Fiorentini + Baker, the designer of the comfort class. Hand tooled, fastidiously edited profiles, and just enough detail to kill it. An old friend bought me a pair of their boots one time and they sat in my closet for an entire year before I collected to guts to wear the things. I still have to work up to them.

Look at that shoulder.

And maybe some days call for something a little extra, crisper. This is what Traci goes for. Rag & Bone. Again, no need to get all complicated about the damn day, just go to your corner, do exactly what you do, be yourself in a world that has trained you carefully to be something else. Anything else. Stack your spine tall because you know you can do whatever they ask you to. If you haven’t done it yet, you have enough experience with doubt to make it your foot soldier and your confidante, instead of your nemesis. This is how confidence works and it the exact difference between confidence and insolence, between assuredness and the affliction of pompousness.

This is the one you have made for you in Europe.

You pick details because they move you. You pluck artichokes that call to you from the market and build a menu around them. You don’t choose lobster to show off, the ingredients ask for lobster and you honor them. Although, who doesn’t want to eat lobster? And who doesn’t want this belt! Also, you want the belt Traci talked her Dad out of. I met him later in the kitchen. His pants seemed safely in place with a new belt, don’t worry. And it isn’t just the worn line of her father’s belt she sports in life.

Like father, like daughter.

“My Dad in particular has always managed to come up with the most simple one liners, statements about life that have seen me through the toughest of times. His wisdom is astounding sometimes.” Her mother’s boundless energy is noted as the other parental inspiration in town. Linda is the exclamation point in the room, the color and the melody. She’s the orange in the house, the warmth that winds through everything. She brought Traci up in the kitchen, peppers and lime and everything fresh. She’s the underlying accent that sets everything off.

The orange and the teal setting this Paul Smith wallet off? That's Mom's signature.

I tear myself away from the tailored utopia that is her closet and we go investigate the dining room, the bathroom, the living room overlooking a famous street a block up from the bustle. It’s an odd feeling to convey to a stranger the way their home feels. I’ve invited myself over after all, a completely anonymous woman at the door that opens magically at the bottom of the stairs from a button she’s pressed. And here I am, trusted to type a missive to a small world in a growing blog about… fashion? She says she doesn’t exactly know what her style is, and that statement is exactly the thing that drives the bus. Or the Lexus. Or whatever. Everything in the house is from a voyage, a life lived boldly and whole. Pieces are never chosen to achieve a look, the look exists because the pieces were so organically chosen. All edges in the house are evened out by subtly rounded fixtures or sanded corners. There is the combination of life force of leather and wood, the palpable heat of iron. A hand sewn backgammon set on the table. Let’s kick it, the thing says. Grab yourself a tumbler of good bourbon and shake it over a single gargantuan ice cube. Tell me a story. Let’s LIVE. Let’s RELATE. Her house is a monument that dismantles any notion of small talk. It is not a home of hustle or hellish networking. Here, Look:

She MADE this out of an antique cheese dryer and European cheese molds.

She collects antiquarian books.

The oldest known cookbook. Also handsome.

These books have been culled at the incredible Omnivore Books by her longtime friend, and genius curator, Celia Sack. Have you been there, San Franciscans? Run. Don’t walk. Maybe bring a hanky in case you weep .

Come in. Sit down. You tell me of your life, and I will tell you of mine.

Now, when I tossed the idea of this series to the editors of Ironing Board Collective, it was a little hard for me to keep it to myself when they agreed. I have told a few people that I got the guest spot and was surprised to find that folks were excited that I was going to have people cook for me. That was actually never part of the pitch, though. For one, I can go eat their food already, and two, their food and their success are things y’all can look right up. I just wanted to be around the base of it all, the home they might barely see in their early careers, their clothes they never get to wear to work, where they spend most of their time. I wanted to see what inspired their privacy. My own eating weirdly never occurred to me. I say weirdly because, of course, I love food. So it was incredible, as our time wound down, to be invited for a vinegar tasting in the kitchen. A chef is allowed to bring a small cadre of potions to the Top Chef Masters kitchen for battle. After making it to the finals in Season 3, Traci’s elixirs returned home where they still live.

Here is the secret parade of goods. She prefers French and Spanish oils to Italian. Boots? Italian.

This is going to stay with me. Both the generosity of the experience and the mystery taste.

She lines up the bottles for me to photograph and then uncaps a small blue one. You can see there’s no label on it. “Someone gave it to me as a sample. I don’t remember what it is,”she says as she extracts a few precious drops onto a spoon for me. Here is an ingredient she cannot replace. When this bottle is done, it becomes only what it has made, an ephemeral puff of smoke for those who enjoyed it. But she offers it up to me, a drop of the irreplaceable. Because, people, that’s what life is for in the world of Traci Des Jardins. You take bites and gulps and hunks and you live it. Vinegar is for the beauty of a palette, not to just sit in an unlabeled bottle, silent and hoarded. Eating is for people. The liquid, for the record, stopped short of a syrup. Came up thicker and more stewed than the balsamic in my house. And it hit the tip of my tongue first, sharp, a note you’d hit on a piano with your pinky, then it made its way everyplace else, sweet and then full. I imagined it later with gelato, a fig from a backyard tree, and a single dining companion, an old friend you haven’t seen in years and it’s just like last Friday.

I left her house humming Dream a Little Dream, the one where Mama Cass is an angel, my ribcage pounding with inspiration and light. I wanted to call everyone, not to brag but because I felt so moved by her presence. I was astounded at how this experience highlighted for me how rare it is to meet women at the top of their game and at peace with that. Sure she’s a genius. That’s been documented by writers, television crews, students, and diners. Great. Love it. But she’s, maybe more importantly for me, herself. She neither shrinks down for anyone’s comfort or puffs up at anyone’s expense. She takes up her space, and offers you plenty of room for yours as well, regardless of your resume. She talks, but then she listens too, an unusual skill to display in interviews.

“Confidence is what allows someone to be simple,” she tells me. “Having a restaurant that has survived 14 years in San Francisco has to bring at least a small air of confidence.” Yes, Traci Des Jardins. At the very least.

About Sara Elise Seinberg

I love a princely oak cabinet fronted with leaded glass and piled with Heath ceramics. Give me sun dried linen sheets and red ticking. I like wild and calm at turns, a person who can mix a pattern successfully, and I often daydream of paint chips tumbling in file across a wall at the hardware store. My longing to return to the outfits of Jewish summer camp has been fulfilled with a recent return to pond fashion and striping, raw leather, a fisherman's bracelet from a beach town for $2.95. Thanks, world. I can't wear ruffles or bows, even handsome ones, and honor those who can. I want my food on a pretty plate in explosions of color with exclamations of texture collisions. I want it healthy, divine, and crammed with life. I love a snack, a scarf, and a good belt. I have a running wish list for my dream kitchen. My favorite articles of clothing are a pair of used boots I got while New York living was eating me alive. They cost $42 and I couldn't afford them then, and they are my personal sign of the intrepid. The other thing is a stripy French sailor shirt, thick and too big, like wearing a friend on your shoulders into the world.

3 comments

  1. This was a delight to all senses from the sleight of hand writing to the photographic evidence of panache in diameter,. My heartstrings are being plucked by my very soul’s desire and you bet your thirifted vintage jade cookware that I am absolutely going to read this for the 3rd time and feast once again.

  2. This is fun! And now I would like a fig and raspberry gallette, please.

  3. Pingback: Bushi-Tei’s Michael Hung: Everything Counts in Large Amounts « Ironing Board Collective

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