During National Hispanic Heritage Month* we’re partnering with Traci Des Jardins, the two-time James Beard award winner, philanthropist, and operator of Bon Appétit Management Company restaurants. We explore Traci’s upbringing, the alchemy of identity and cuisine, and what her Hispanic heritage means to her.
Traci Des Jardins grew up in the small agricultural community of Firebaugh, California, just northwest of Fresno. The daughter of a French-Acadian father and first-generation Mexican mother, Traci was exposed to a melding of culinary cultures from a young age. “My father’s side of the family was really engrossed in food and food culture,” said Traci, “and my maternal grandparents, who were both born in Mexico, made fresh tortillas every day and would pit-roast barbacoa and make Menudo among many other Mexican specialties.” Traci laughed, “the tripe smelled so bad when the Menudo was cooking that my mom set up a stove in the garage where it was relegated to simmering!”
As Traci began to pursue cooking as a serious hobby, she ventured from her family’s big backyard gardens into the gleaming big box supermarkets of Fresno. She learned to experiment with new ingredients from an aunt, who in her own right was a gourmet cook, and began reading Bon Appétit Magazine and the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine.
After attending college on a pre-med track with the intention of becoming a veterinarian, Traci gave in to her culinary calling. She traveled to France, where she was trained in classical French cooking techniques and soon returned to the United States to work in and later open restaurants. Paradoxically, becoming a practitioner of French culinary traditions caused her fascination with Mexican cuisine – and her Mexican heritage – to deepen.
She began to unpack experiences from her childhood – her mother’s experience of being discouraged from speaking Spanish at home, her mother being asked by strangers if she was her strawberry-blonde haired child’s nanny, people telling her that “she didn’t look Mexican,” “My mother was forced to veer away from her heritage,” said Des Jardins, “I’ve always felt it is a huge part of me and have made it my life’s work to embrace and broadcast it.”
Traci’s embrace of her Mexican heritage has translated into a wildly successful culinary and philanthropic career. She has created numerous celebrated restaurants, including the beloved Arguello and Mijita, which focused on using the ingredients and techniques of Mexico. She served on the board of La Cocina and has worked closely with Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen. In recent years, Traci has devised several restaurants in partnership with Bon Appétit Management Company. At each, she has focused on marrying the rich culinary traditions of her roots with the local heritage of Northern California, the Central Valley, and coast. A recent exploration has been a local apricot mole made with an heirloom variety from the Santa Clara Valley, which, according to Traci, offers an important lesson.
“People misunderstand mole – they think it’s a chocolate sauce,” she noted. “But when you visit Mexico you realize it’s actually a wide spectrum of sauces.” For her, there is a corollary from a cultural standpoint. “In California, people think they know what a Mexican person is, but this can be a limited view based on the Mexican people they know here in California, if you go to Mexico and travel, there is a huge spectrum of cultures and people’. Through her work, Traci seeks to illuminate these subtleties of culture and cuisine for her guests, increasing understanding of the exquisite details that emerge from cultural connection.
*A note on our choice to align with the federal name of the holiday as Hispanic Heritage Month: The term Hispanic came into official use in the United States in the 1970s to describe all Spanish-speaking people in the United States. However, because the term refers to the colonial power of Spain, it erases the identities of people indigenous to what is currently described as Latin America. Latino and Latina are gendered terms for people from Latin America. “Latinx” was created in part to be a gender-neutral term for Spanish-speaking people from Latin America, however a study by Pew Research in 2020 found that just 3% of Spanish-speaking people use the term. Further, Latine, though the correct gender-neutral term, is also not commonly used in the community. For future events, we are working on a process to engage members of the communities that the celebration is intended to represent to offer feedback on what it should be called moving forward.