Arts

Star chef Traci Des Jardins turns the page on Mexican cuisine with el Alto

New Los Altos restaurant pulls from abundant agricultural resources of California's Central Valley

Dishes at el Alto combine the wide assortment of techniques Traci Des Jardins and Robert Hurtado learned in fine dining restaurants with their personal memories of Mexican food. Courtesy Aubrie Pick.

Renowned chef Traci Des Jardins, a James Beard award winner and recognized leader of the California cuisine movement, is bringing a fresh focus on food to the Midpeninsula. This week, Des Jardin opened her new California-Mexican restaurant el Alto at the State Street Market food hall in Los Altos.

El Alto, which Des Jardins will operate with chef de cuisine Robert Hurtado, pulls from the abundant agricultural resources of California's Central Valley to celebrate Mexican culinary traditions. The menu is a departure from her early days at the famed San Francisco restaurant Jardinière, which catapulted her into the spotlight as the leader of California-style cuisine in the late 1990s. Many of the nation's best chefs passed through the kitchen, and celebrities sought out seats in a multistory dining room, which could accommodate 600 customers a night.

Despite her early success, Des Jardins, whose maternal grandparents were from Mexico, said that if she could start her career over again, she would have focused on Mexican food from the very beginning.

Inspired by the rise of regional Mexican cuisine's popularity and the work of writer Diana Kennedy, who spent decades writing Mexican cookbooks based on research in home kitchens, Des Jardins wants to be a part of this movement showcasing the depth and variety of Mexican cuisine.

I spoke with Des Jardins and Hurtado to learn about el Alto's modern Mexican menu, which features dishes like King City Pink Beans refried in duck fat and apricot mole inspired by Los Altos' orchards.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Peninsula Foodist: I don't know if you both would identify as second-generation Mexican Americans, but I'm wondering if you could talk to me about the cuisine at this restaurant. What does it mean to you to serve this food?

Traci Des Jardins: I grew up with Mexican food as my soul food. I ended up studying French cuisine and working in that world that has morphed into being California-French food, which is what I was known for.

I opened my first Mexican restaurant in 2004. If I could turn back the clocks and redo my whole career of 38 years, I think I would have really focused on Mexican food from the very beginning and gone deep into Mexico to experience (the cuisine) firsthand because it really is very regionally specific. There are a lot of ingredients that you only find in one place in Mexico, and it's definitely a lifetime of learning.

I remember opening Mijita in 2004. And the understanding of what Mexican food was, even at that time, was more focused on burritos, and burritos you don't even find in Mexico. So the understanding of Mexican food has really changed in the last 20 years. I think that this moment is really perfect for this restaurant and for us to explore California ingredients through that Mexican lens.

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Robert Hurtado: You could go to both of the taquerias here (in downtown Los Altos), and they serve the same things. There's definitely a place for that, but I want people to be able to explore Mexican cuisine through a different lens; there's more to Mexican food.

I've taken stuff that I've learned from every chef that I've ever worked with and made that into the cuisine we're doing here. Where it's a lot of California cuisine, but at the same time, we're using Mexican ingredients and turning the whole page on what Mexican food is.

Going to Mexico now, you'll see different styles of moles, you'll see very modern plating, but they'll use very old-school techniques, Indigenous ingredients. And it's a really cool thing to see, small Oaxacan farmers growing these heirloom varieties of corn. And (then when chefs combine) that with the new, everyone's just like, "Oh my God, this is the best corn tortilla I've ever had!"

El Alto partner and chef Traci Des Jardins and chef de cuisine Robert Hurtado in the Los Altos restaurant. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Peninsula Foodist: Robert, you mention some travels through Mexico. But also, the both of you grew up in California experiencing Mexican food with your families. I was wondering, what are some of those inspirations, dishes or flavors that stick with you?

Hurtado: I've grown up eating Mexican food (in San Juan Batista). My grandma used to make flour tortillas from scratch every single day, and that was comfort food to me — a flour tortilla with a little bit of butter and salt.

Des Jardins: So funny. We never talked about that. I have the exact same thing. What kind of fat did your grandmother use?

Hurtado: She always used Crisco.

Des Jardins: My grandmother had drippings underneath her sink, so it was bacon fat or whatever.

Hurtado: That's what my grandma would use, duck fat for refried beans, so that's why the duck fat refried beans we do here make sense. It's comfort food.

The confit liberty duck leg at el Alto is served with apricot mole, a tribute to Los Altos' stone fruit orchards. Courtesy Aubrie Pick.

Des Jardins: My grandmother moved to Colorado when she was 5, and then my mom's dad came to Los Angeles in the 1920s. He was a minor league baseball player, and he came from Sonora, so the Mexican food I grew up eating was really derived from Sonora.

Grandma made tortillas every day. And that's what we grew up with. My grandfather used to make menudo, though. My grandmother wouldn't let him make it in the house, so my mom set up a stove out in the garage because the tripe smelled so bad. ... So I grew up with those traditions.

Peninsula Foodist: Going back to one thing you said Traci, how if you could go back in time, you would cook Mexican food in your restaurants. Is that something that even was on your mind at the time? Or were you chasing that French-Californian (culinary standard)?

Des Jardins: It wasn't really. It was when I started to study Mexican cooking through books and reading about Diana Kennedy's odyssey through Mexico.

She's really much more of an anthropologist than she is a cookbook author. I mean, her study of Mexican cooking was just driving to these little villages. And the thing about Mexican food is (that) it was always so hidden because it happened in homes. So even if people were traveling in Mexico, they would experience just the surface level.

But the best food was happening in people's homes, and Diana penetrated that world. She would go to a village and say, "Who's the best cook in this town?" And then she would go and find that person. And she would go to their house. And she would document what they were doing.

The dining room at el Alto in Los Altos on March 15, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Once people started to realize the depth of those flavors, ingredients and techniques, they started to become curious about them. And that's what has made Mexican food burgeon in the world's view.

It really took a long time for that discovery and understanding of the breadth of Mexican cooking. So if I could take all that time back and retrace Diana Kennedy's steps, that seems like it would be a lifetime of discovery and learning. That would be pretty cool.

Peninsula Foodist:You have an opportunity here, Robert, to run this kitchen. I'm wondering about a similar question. I saw you worked for Coi, Rich Table and restaurants in San Francisco. Did you see yourself cooking Mexican food when you first set out to be a cook or a chef?

Hurtado: I wanted to work for the best. And at that point in time, Coi was the only two Michelin star restaurant in the city.

I still really appreciate fine dining at that level, and it has its place, but I just don't see myself doing that style, a tasting menu ... at least not at this point in time. But once I went to Incanto and started working with Chris Cosentino and offal, I was like, "Dude, I really like this." This is kind of what I grew up with, but with Mexican food. (Hurtado's grandfather was a butcher).

I'm working at all these places, learning all these different techniques, but I still kind of miss cooking Mexican food and what I'm used to. All these restaurants have fantastic food, but is it really my passion? I wasn't really sure.

It took me traveling after I was done at Rich Table to realize that I just liked Mexican food. I was looking at Mexican restaurants, staged at Californios, but they weren't hiring at the time. So the next best place was (Des Jardins') Arguello. I was there for four-ish years, and I haven't looked back since. It was probably the most educational time (in my life), and Traci gave me a lot of creative freedom — maybe a little bit too much creative freedom.

Peninsula Foodist: It's cool to see how this opportunity was there for you to work at Arguello and stage at Californios. Traci, you were mentioning, it's just 20 years ago that there was not this respect for (Mexican) cuisine or this knowledge (in the United States).

Des Jardins: It happened in (an instant). I remember going down to Mexico City with a bunch of my chef friends, and we went to Diana Kennedy's house and spent the day with her. It was extraordinary.

I remember reading a Oaxacan black mole recipe, and I was just like, "I don't know what's going on with this." And then I went to Oaxaca and followed that Diana Kennedy rule. I went to this market and asked, "Who's the best cook around here?" And they're like, "Dominga. You gotta go see Dominga."

I went and found Dominga, and I cooked Oaxacan black mole with her and her sisters. She didn't have any electricity. Her house was literally half-built from the bottom up, so it didn't have a roof.

The bar at el Alto. The wine list will highlight regions outside of Napa and Sonoma, Mexican wines and Hispanic winemakers. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

She had a little coal-burning stove that she was working on. We built a fire, and she soaked the hominy. And so we went to the molino (mill), and we had the hominy ground for the tortillas. I got to go through this process, and it was just mind-boggling to me, to have that firsthand experience of (learning from) this indigenous woman to whom this recipe had been handed down (over generations). She was so precise.

She was really testing me. She made me stir the mole for probably an hour and a half. And she thought, "There's no way this little wimpy white chick is gonna be able to do this." And I was like, "Okay, well, I got this no problem." But she totally made me prove myself. And then I just, you know, fell in love with her. She ended up being featured on one of Anthony Bourdain's shows.

Hurtado: There's a great quote that I've seen a couple times. It goes: "Patience is the essence of Mexican cuisine." Mexican food is just not fast food, you're supposed to love, nurture and care for it.

Peninsula Foodist: So why is it important for you to take those traditions or lessons you learned (in Mexico) and from your own families and bring it here to a restaurant in Los Altos? How does that fit into that larger movement of Mexican food or awareness around Mexican food?

Des Jardins: I just want people to understand. If you polled 100 people and asked what a mole sauce is, they would say it's a chocolate sauce. Yes, there's a little bit of chocolate in some moles, but not a lot. And they'll think it's a sweet sauce. Some of them are kind of sweet, (but) there's this huge range of what a mole can be.

We have the opportunity to allow people to experience real Mexican food, and that's a gift. We get to share the gift that we have with others and take them on an experience.

el Alto, 170 State St., Los Altos; 650-949-1247. Instagram: @elaltolosaltos.

Dig into food news. Follow the Peninsula Foodist on Instagram @peninsulafoodist and subscribe to the newsletter to get insights on the latest openings and closings, learn what the Foodist is excited about eating, read exclusive interviews and keep up on the trends affecting local restaurants.

Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.

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Anthony Shu, a Palo Alto native, started working at Embarcadero Media in 2022. He writes the Peninsula Foodist blog and newsletter and feature stories for The Six Fifty. Read more >>

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Star chef Traci Des Jardins turns the page on Mexican cuisine with el Alto

New Los Altos restaurant pulls from abundant agricultural resources of California's Central Valley

by / TheSixFifty.com

Uploaded: Fri, Mar 25, 2022, 3:54 pm

Renowned chef Traci Des Jardins, a James Beard award winner and recognized leader of the California cuisine movement, is bringing a fresh focus on food to the Midpeninsula. This week, Des Jardin opened her new California-Mexican restaurant el Alto at the State Street Market food hall in Los Altos.

El Alto, which Des Jardins will operate with chef de cuisine Robert Hurtado, pulls from the abundant agricultural resources of California's Central Valley to celebrate Mexican culinary traditions. The menu is a departure from her early days at the famed San Francisco restaurant Jardinière, which catapulted her into the spotlight as the leader of California-style cuisine in the late 1990s. Many of the nation's best chefs passed through the kitchen, and celebrities sought out seats in a multistory dining room, which could accommodate 600 customers a night.

Despite her early success, Des Jardins, whose maternal grandparents were from Mexico, said that if she could start her career over again, she would have focused on Mexican food from the very beginning.

Inspired by the rise of regional Mexican cuisine's popularity and the work of writer Diana Kennedy, who spent decades writing Mexican cookbooks based on research in home kitchens, Des Jardins wants to be a part of this movement showcasing the depth and variety of Mexican cuisine.

I spoke with Des Jardins and Hurtado to learn about el Alto's modern Mexican menu, which features dishes like King City Pink Beans refried in duck fat and apricot mole inspired by Los Altos' orchards.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Peninsula Foodist: I don't know if you both would identify as second-generation Mexican Americans, but I'm wondering if you could talk to me about the cuisine at this restaurant. What does it mean to you to serve this food?

Traci Des Jardins: I grew up with Mexican food as my soul food. I ended up studying French cuisine and working in that world that has morphed into being California-French food, which is what I was known for.

I opened my first Mexican restaurant in 2004. If I could turn back the clocks and redo my whole career of 38 years, I think I would have really focused on Mexican food from the very beginning and gone deep into Mexico to experience (the cuisine) firsthand because it really is very regionally specific. There are a lot of ingredients that you only find in one place in Mexico, and it's definitely a lifetime of learning.

I remember opening Mijita in 2004. And the understanding of what Mexican food was, even at that time, was more focused on burritos, and burritos you don't even find in Mexico. So the understanding of Mexican food has really changed in the last 20 years. I think that this moment is really perfect for this restaurant and for us to explore California ingredients through that Mexican lens.

Robert Hurtado: You could go to both of the taquerias here (in downtown Los Altos), and they serve the same things. There's definitely a place for that, but I want people to be able to explore Mexican cuisine through a different lens; there's more to Mexican food.

I've taken stuff that I've learned from every chef that I've ever worked with and made that into the cuisine we're doing here. Where it's a lot of California cuisine, but at the same time, we're using Mexican ingredients and turning the whole page on what Mexican food is.

Going to Mexico now, you'll see different styles of moles, you'll see very modern plating, but they'll use very old-school techniques, Indigenous ingredients. And it's a really cool thing to see, small Oaxacan farmers growing these heirloom varieties of corn. And (then when chefs combine) that with the new, everyone's just like, "Oh my God, this is the best corn tortilla I've ever had!"

Peninsula Foodist: Robert, you mention some travels through Mexico. But also, the both of you grew up in California experiencing Mexican food with your families. I was wondering, what are some of those inspirations, dishes or flavors that stick with you?

Hurtado: I've grown up eating Mexican food (in San Juan Batista). My grandma used to make flour tortillas from scratch every single day, and that was comfort food to me — a flour tortilla with a little bit of butter and salt.

Des Jardins: So funny. We never talked about that. I have the exact same thing. What kind of fat did your grandmother use?

Hurtado: She always used Crisco.

Des Jardins: My grandmother had drippings underneath her sink, so it was bacon fat or whatever.

Hurtado: That's what my grandma would use, duck fat for refried beans, so that's why the duck fat refried beans we do here make sense. It's comfort food.

Des Jardins: My grandmother moved to Colorado when she was 5, and then my mom's dad came to Los Angeles in the 1920s. He was a minor league baseball player, and he came from Sonora, so the Mexican food I grew up eating was really derived from Sonora.

Grandma made tortillas every day. And that's what we grew up with. My grandfather used to make menudo, though. My grandmother wouldn't let him make it in the house, so my mom set up a stove out in the garage because the tripe smelled so bad. ... So I grew up with those traditions.

Peninsula Foodist: Going back to one thing you said Traci, how if you could go back in time, you would cook Mexican food in your restaurants. Is that something that even was on your mind at the time? Or were you chasing that French-Californian (culinary standard)?

Des Jardins: It wasn't really. It was when I started to study Mexican cooking through books and reading about Diana Kennedy's odyssey through Mexico.

She's really much more of an anthropologist than she is a cookbook author. I mean, her study of Mexican cooking was just driving to these little villages. And the thing about Mexican food is (that) it was always so hidden because it happened in homes. So even if people were traveling in Mexico, they would experience just the surface level.

But the best food was happening in people's homes, and Diana penetrated that world. She would go to a village and say, "Who's the best cook in this town?" And then she would go and find that person. And she would go to their house. And she would document what they were doing.

Once people started to realize the depth of those flavors, ingredients and techniques, they started to become curious about them. And that's what has made Mexican food burgeon in the world's view.

It really took a long time for that discovery and understanding of the breadth of Mexican cooking. So if I could take all that time back and retrace Diana Kennedy's steps, that seems like it would be a lifetime of discovery and learning. That would be pretty cool.

Peninsula Foodist:You have an opportunity here, Robert, to run this kitchen. I'm wondering about a similar question. I saw you worked for Coi, Rich Table and restaurants in San Francisco. Did you see yourself cooking Mexican food when you first set out to be a cook or a chef?

Hurtado: I wanted to work for the best. And at that point in time, Coi was the only two Michelin star restaurant in the city.

I still really appreciate fine dining at that level, and it has its place, but I just don't see myself doing that style, a tasting menu ... at least not at this point in time. But once I went to Incanto and started working with Chris Cosentino and offal, I was like, "Dude, I really like this." This is kind of what I grew up with, but with Mexican food. (Hurtado's grandfather was a butcher).

I'm working at all these places, learning all these different techniques, but I still kind of miss cooking Mexican food and what I'm used to. All these restaurants have fantastic food, but is it really my passion? I wasn't really sure.

It took me traveling after I was done at Rich Table to realize that I just liked Mexican food. I was looking at Mexican restaurants, staged at Californios, but they weren't hiring at the time. So the next best place was (Des Jardins') Arguello. I was there for four-ish years, and I haven't looked back since. It was probably the most educational time (in my life), and Traci gave me a lot of creative freedom — maybe a little bit too much creative freedom.

Peninsula Foodist: It's cool to see how this opportunity was there for you to work at Arguello and stage at Californios. Traci, you were mentioning, it's just 20 years ago that there was not this respect for (Mexican) cuisine or this knowledge (in the United States).

Des Jardins: It happened in (an instant). I remember going down to Mexico City with a bunch of my chef friends, and we went to Diana Kennedy's house and spent the day with her. It was extraordinary.

I remember reading a Oaxacan black mole recipe, and I was just like, "I don't know what's going on with this." And then I went to Oaxaca and followed that Diana Kennedy rule. I went to this market and asked, "Who's the best cook around here?" And they're like, "Dominga. You gotta go see Dominga."

I went and found Dominga, and I cooked Oaxacan black mole with her and her sisters. She didn't have any electricity. Her house was literally half-built from the bottom up, so it didn't have a roof.

She had a little coal-burning stove that she was working on. We built a fire, and she soaked the hominy. And so we went to the molino (mill), and we had the hominy ground for the tortillas. I got to go through this process, and it was just mind-boggling to me, to have that firsthand experience of (learning from) this indigenous woman to whom this recipe had been handed down (over generations). She was so precise.

She was really testing me. She made me stir the mole for probably an hour and a half. And she thought, "There's no way this little wimpy white chick is gonna be able to do this." And I was like, "Okay, well, I got this no problem." But she totally made me prove myself. And then I just, you know, fell in love with her. She ended up being featured on one of Anthony Bourdain's shows.

Hurtado: There's a great quote that I've seen a couple times. It goes: "Patience is the essence of Mexican cuisine." Mexican food is just not fast food, you're supposed to love, nurture and care for it.

Peninsula Foodist: So why is it important for you to take those traditions or lessons you learned (in Mexico) and from your own families and bring it here to a restaurant in Los Altos? How does that fit into that larger movement of Mexican food or awareness around Mexican food?

Des Jardins: I just want people to understand. If you polled 100 people and asked what a mole sauce is, they would say it's a chocolate sauce. Yes, there's a little bit of chocolate in some moles, but not a lot. And they'll think it's a sweet sauce. Some of them are kind of sweet, (but) there's this huge range of what a mole can be.

We have the opportunity to allow people to experience real Mexican food, and that's a gift. We get to share the gift that we have with others and take them on an experience.

el Alto, 170 State St., Los Altos; 650-949-1247. Instagram: @elaltolosaltos.

Dig into food news. Follow the Peninsula Foodist on Instagram @peninsulafoodist and subscribe to the newsletter to get insights on the latest openings and closings, learn what the Foodist is excited about eating, read exclusive interviews and keep up on the trends affecting local restaurants.

Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.

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