Rodgers, the chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s iconic Zuni Café, has been one of the pillars of California Cuisine, bringing to it a grounded, unfussy simplicity and focus on deep flavors. The roots of her vision lay in three extended trips to Europe. On her first trip at 16, by pure happenstance she lived in the home of the Troisgros brothers (chef owners at Les Frères Troisgrois, now known as Maison Troisgros). After graduating from Stanford in Art History she went to work for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse—a natural fit if there ever was one.
The signature dish for Rodgers and Zuni Café—since Rodgers’ took over the kitchen in 1987—is the legendary roasted chicken for two with warm Tuscan-style bread salad. Salty, fatty, crunchy and profoundly addictive, this dish is a classic that will live far beyond the days of its creator at a time when dishes rarely ever get the opportunity to reach “classic” status.
While it's vaguely disturbing to summarize the work of a chef in a single dish, so much of Rodgers’ genius is evident in this one. It's a classic example of her ability to apply the essence of French cooking to American comfort classics. At its core is Rodgers’ brilliant use of salt. Just about every piece of beef, lamb, fish or poultry that comes into the kitchen at Zuni Café immediately receives a light dusting of salt before being set aside for as long as several days to "cure." As Rodgers said more than once, “If I can't pre-salt, I can't get the right flavor." The chicken was no exception.
Where Charlie Trotter dazzled, Judy Rodgers was a different breed altogether. The food at Zuni Café was all about wonderful ingredients treated in such a way as to coax out of them more flavor than anyone might have thought possible. Her cooking changed the way you looked at the potential of food—you might have thought you knew what a chicken tasted like, but Rodgers taught you otherwise.
And, like Trotter, much of this teaching happened through her best-selling cookbook The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant. The book won the James Beard Award for Cooking from a Professional Point of View as well as Cookbook of the Year in 2003.
In the introduction to book, Rodgers wrote:
I cannot make a dish without trying to conjure where it came from, and where I first had it, or read about it, or who made it, or taught me to make it. And who grew the vegetables, raised the chickens, or made the cheese, and where. In this way, the simplest dish can recall a community of ideas and people...I have written this book for those who wish to linger at time over details in that continuum of ideas, and who consider cooking a labor of love. Indeed, food itself is only part of the seduction of cooking.
Among the many honors Rodgers earned was the 2004 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. Chefs she beat out for the award included Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Alfred Portale and Nobu Matsuhisa.
But Rodgers’ real legacy lies in the fact that she merged a distinctly European artisanal sensibility with the farm-to-table ethos of Alice Waters’ vision of California Cuisine. It's a legacy that was transmitted in every introduction and every recipe in her cookbook and one delivered in every dish at Zuni Café.