Antoinette Bruno: There seem to be so many more successful women chefs in San Francisco than in other cities like New York. Is it different for women in San Francisco versus New York?
Traci DesJardins restaurants in New York are still dominated by European or French chefs. The model may make it different for women to succeed. Look at France: there are far fewer but still some top chefs. How many 3 star woman chefs are there — maybe 2?
In essence, I think women have different priorities. Women are more oriented towards taking care of their relationships than their career. To run a restaurant like Per Se or Le Bernadin the number one priority in life has got to be that restaurant. Thomas Keller would be the first one to tell you that his number one priority is to make sure his restaurant operates to perfection. I now have a 7 year old daughter and my number one priority will always be my child before my restaurant. I'm okay with that.
AB: Marco Pierre White recently said that he thought it was the physical nature and macho culture of the modern restaurant responsible for women being less likely to reach the top. He said “Restaurant kitchens are a man’s world. The work is physical and demanding. It is the men who rise to the top.” Do you agree with him?
TDJ: Is that to say that if you’re physically stronger you’re a better chef? That’s absolutely absurd…that’s insane!
AB: Another general stereotype circulating is that women chefs have “more soul” so to speak, and cook from the heart. It’s true that I can’t think of very many experimental female chefs, apart from Elena Arzak, but I’m not sure that it’s a fair generalization. How do you feel about it? Is the experimental kitchen more gendered than the regular professional kitchen?
TDJ: I couldn’t say — molecular gastronomy and/or experimental cuisine seem to be something that’s more engaging, more titillating for men. But again it’s such a small segment of all chefs that are experimenting. For instance, is Thomas Keller experimenting?
AB: What about sous–vide?
TDJ: Sous vide has been around since the 80’s — it’s not experimental! It’s a more precise method of braising, basically: cooking slowly in circulating water baths. How you apply it is a whole different story.
AB: And what about women and molecular gastronomy?
TDJ: The idea of using chemicals in food is not that appealing to me. We’ve been working so hard to get chemicals out of our food — it’s interesting, but do I want to cook with it every day? Absolutely not. You should talk to Elizabeth Faulkner, she’s doing it.
AB: The stereotypical chef is a divorcee. The lifestyle challenges relationships like no other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect women differently from men?
TDJ: Again it’s all about your priorities. Running restaurants requires a tremendous amount of dedication. Where do you put your priorities — child, partner, significant other, or the restaurant? This has a high impact on the way our restaurants are run. But it’s the same with celebrity chefs who own or run multiple restaurants today — how do you decide which restaurant to be at? What if you’ve got one critic in one and another critic in another? It’s the same thing as leaving the restaurant to take care of a crisis with your child at school. These are choices we make all the time. Same as chefs with multiple restaurants; you make the choice with highest impact. I would say many women when given the choice of a relationship versus restaurant, will choose the relationship — they’ll put their personal life first.
AB: Everyone seems to ignore the issue, but women have kids. How does your family life and the choices you’ve made, have to do with your success?
TDJ: You never hear men talk or get asked about their kids as an issue — it’s because they probably have a wife who takes care of the kids. I have my son only 2 days a week and I’m not available to the restaurant on the days that I take care of my son. So if a critic walks in that day, I’m not going to be there, I’m going to be with my son. Period.
AB: Who have your biggest mentors been? Men vs women?
TDJ: Joquim Splichal — he’s a man!
AB: How is a kitchen run by a woman different from a kitchen run by a man — or is it all nonsense?
TDJ: I think that there are a lot of different styles of running a kitchen. It’s harder to say if gender is the reason. We all have our styles. You could make a generalization that kitchens run by women are different. But I have a reputation as being a hard ass — and I have mostly men working for me.
TDJ: I have never felt hindered in my career because I’m a woman. Nor because I’m short (barely 5’2"), nor because I’m not as strong. I’ve never felt truly discriminated against and I’ve worked in some really great kitchens. I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder. I worked in France in 1986. It was irritating because they test you. But if you are up to snuff, they recognize that you’re as good as they are. However, I did have to change in a linen closet because there was nowhere for the women to change!
AB: I worked in France as well in the 1980’s. I found that my size did matter. I couldn’t lift the heavy stock pots and carry the 50lb bags of potatoes. I was the only woman in the kitchen and the chef suggested that I go to the gym and lift some weights. Problem was I barely weighed 95 lbs myself.
TDJ: I started cooking when I was 17. I was an athlete so I was strong and I got stronger. I built muscles so that I could pick up the stock pots and the 50lb bag of potatoes but I had no problem asking for help when I needed it. However, when I worked in a kitchen in New York, there was a pot rack that hung high above the dishwashing station and one day and I asked the chef to grab the pot for me. He said “if you want it bad enough you will figure it out how to get it down.” I told him it would be so much easier for him to help me than for me to orchestrate getting it down. He was such a jerk.
AB: Was he French?
TDJ: Ha, no he was American. It made me furious! Most chefs I’ve come across in my career were not like this prick in New York.
AB: How did you raise the money for your restaurant?
TDJ: My business partner helped me — he was a man.
AB: I’m always asked why we don’t pick more women Rising Stars and my answer is that in some cities there are less female chefs from which to choose. Where there are female chefs like in San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, and Boston, we’ve picked them. Many women seem to leave the kitchen for other positions like catering or pastry. However, there seem to be several top female chefs these days just now having kids like Suzanne Goin, Ana Sortun…
TDJ: Yes! And Diane Forely, Gabriel Hamilton etc. I waited until I was 34 to have my son. I always knew I wanted kids and made it a priority to be in a position, professionally, where I could make that choice.