The Judy Rodgers legacy

rediscovering zuni cafe cookbook

Photo by Flickr userTimothy Vollmer [tvol], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

I’m not in the habit of linking to obituaries (though I just did so in a post last week), nor am I generally one to focus on white-tablecloth restaurants. But, I think the recently deceased Judy Rodgers and her San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Cafe, are worth some attention. As Eric Asimov writes in The New York Times, Rodgers

helped transform the way Americans think of food through its devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared…. Ms. Rodgers’s cooking was noteworthy for its refined simplicity, hewed and tempered by an ardent perfectionism and a finely tuned palate. Not for her the sauce-painted plates and tweezer-bits of microgreens of the modern, high-end kitchen. Instead, at Zuni, a quirky, airy space on a triangular corner of Market Street, she presented dishes that were simultaneously rustic and urbane.

As Russ Parsons describes for The Los Angeles Times,

In an era when most chefs pride themselves on re-inventing their menus on a whim, Rodgers hewed to a strong central core of well-loved dishes. Perhaps the best loved of these is a simple roast chicken, cooked in a wood-fired oven. On the menu for decades, more than 350 a week are sold at Zuni.

This approach struck a chord in tradition-worshiping San Francisco. Though the Bay Area is full of restaurants to explore, Zuni Cafe was the place people called home, a place people went not to be amused, but to be comforted….

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Serve dishes that weren’t just playful and amusing but were keepers. I like keepers.”

The NYT has a similarly emblematic quote from Rodgers: “the food you eat every day is the most important food. This is what we do at Zuni.”

Rodgers published an award-winning cookbook that featured her thoughtful, meticulous approach. (I’ve given it as a gift before; its best audience is folks who are really passionate about cooking and/or food.) For a consideration of the cookbook, check out this post from Eater National, which includes reflections of chefs from around the country, among them Madison’s own Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective:

I spent hours reading the essays in the Zuni Café Cookbook. It so influenced how I think about food. How when you work with simple ingredients, it takes incredible effort and thoughtfulness to fully realize the ingredients and processes. Her roast chicken recipe is something I think about every time I work with poultry….

For more, check out the links above.


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