Do you remember your first time at Zuni Cafe? Maybe, like me, you walked through the glass doors and up to the always-lively bar in the early 1990s, when the city was still recovering from the seismic upheaval of both the Loma Prieta earthquake and a national economic crash. Maybe you found solace there just after the earthquake, when $4 bowls of polenta kept the lights on.
Perhaps you watched the morning sun slant through the tall glass windows overlooking Market Street during the years when the cafe was serving breakfast, as peaceful, often solo customers started the day with bowls of cafe au lait, buttery scones, and Herb Caen in the pages of the Chronicle. Innumerable birthdays, weddings, engagements, anniversaries, and festivities were celebrated there, over the butcher-papered tables, with mahogany-skinned roast chickens for two, with fresh oysters and cracked Dungeness crab, with Caesar salad, shoestring fries, espresso granita, and huge hunks of Acme levain bread and butter that tasted better there than anywhere else. Zuni Cafe was that rare bird, a confident, welcoming San Francisco restaurant that didn’t change, yet still managed to feel as fresh, as relevant, as perfectly just-right-now as it did ten, twenty, even twenty-five years ago.
Zuni Café will live on. But its guiding light, its chef, owner, and perfectionist visionary Judy Rodgers, an icon of California cuisine, is gone. Rodgers, 57, passed away today. In 2004, Rodgers was named Outstanding Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation; Zuni Cafe won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in America in 2003.
Rodgers put the sharp, inquisitive, and knowledge-seeking mind that had earned her a degree in art history at Stanford to great use as a chef and author. As she detailed in her James Beard Award-winning book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, she got her start as a curious 16 year old exchange student in 1973, spending a year with Troisgros family (who were friends of a neighbor of Rodgers’ back home in St. Louis) who just happened to run Les Freres Troisgros in Rouen, then one of the most renowned restaurants in France. The lessons she learned there–of unstinting quality of ingredients matched with careful thriftiness, of perfection in simplicity, of pride in craft–would remain with her throughout her working life. She took the lessons she learned in that French kitchen and made them the basis for her particular kind of California cuisine, one rooted in French attitudes towards terroir and quality yet inspired by the ever more finely tuned seasonal abundance of Northern California’s farms, ranches, fisheries, vineyards, and more.
In 1977, she started cooking professionally as the lunch chef at Alice Waters’ then six-year-old restaurant, Chez Panisse. Two years later, she returned to France to cook at a small restaurant in the southwest, then relearned American food at the Union Hotel in Benicia with Marion Cunningham. In 1983, she traveled to Italy to live, learn, and eat, falling in love with the foods and history of Tuscany. By 1987, after a brief stint cooking in New York City, she became the chef at Zuni, a once-Southwestern restaurant that morphed under her influence into the French-Italian-Californian hybrid it remains today. With its wedge-shaped corner footprint between Franklin and Gough, Zuni was convenient to City Hall, the opera, the ballet, and the symphony, as well as to the scruffier aspects of Market Street. Walking down Rose Alley behind the restaurant, you could catch sight of Rodgers under the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, slim and intense, her bright blue eyes missing nothing.
In the late 1990s, when I worked as an assistant cookbook editor at Chronicle Books, Rodgers came to us for a meeting about a possible Zuni cookbook. With her lengthy proposal in hand, the first question we had to ask was, had she written the text herself? Her proposal was meticulously crafted, with a well-shaped, well-written storyline that was equal parts personal memoir, California culinary history, and useful kitchen know-how, plus finely detailed but followable recipes for all of Zuni’s best dishes. I’m not exaggerating to say that it was better than most finished books, and much better even than most professionally-ghostwritten or co-authored chef’s books. It was hard to believe that Rodgers, known for her focused attention to all the night-after-night details at her restaurant, could have found the time to write so much of such a good book. Yet she had. Chronicle passed on the proposal, but I stealthily photocopied my copy and brought it home to use.
When the book came out, published by W. W. Norton in 2002, I was unsurprised to see that much of it was word-for-word from the original proposal. Rodgers’ voice, Rodgers’ knowledge, suffused every page. The recipe for Zuni’s famous Caesar Salad took up two and a half pages. It wasn’t because the recipe was so complex–it was nothing fancier than romaine lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan, dressed in a red wine vinaigrette enriched with eggs and flavored with lemon, garlic and anchovy–but because she wanted her readers to understand her mind-set, to pay attention to the nuances of every ingredient and to bring them together in a mindful way.
Nothing was set in stone; every day in the kitchen started fresh, with ingredients that were inevitably a little different from the day before. As readers and diners, she let us taste her joy in the arrival of winter’s first Dungeness crabs and Meyer lemons, in spring’s first shoots of green garlic and pink rhubarb, in summer’s abundance of tomatoes and wild salmon, in autumn’s tumble of grapes, persimmons, and squash. Under her tutelage, her staff pickled neon-pink onions and chartreuse-bright zucchini, shaved raw white asparagus and porcini mushrooms into salads, and paired milky green almonds with sweet white nectarines and tissue-thin slices of proscuitto. She made a plate of tiny, silvery cured anchovies over a bed of celery seem like the most natural happy-hour snack in the world, taught us to love bone marrow, squid, gizzards, lamb’s tongues, and more.
As she wrote in her cookbook’s introduction,
“And so, the Zuni repertory is an evolving hybrid of the cuisines I love, made possible by the generosity of many teachers and colleagues. If our food is delicious, it is due to that passion, and to the extraordinary quality of the products we obtain, and to the talent and devotion of every cook who has embraced it with heart.”
Rodgers was a chef, an artist, a staunch and influential mentor and friend to so many in the food world, and an icon who shaped the California food revolution with tremendous grace, tenaciousness, and skill. She will be missed.
Zuni Cafe chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers and co-owner Gilbert Pilgram talk about making food they love, exploring a dish’s ethnic roots, rejecting trends, and their passion for ingredients.