When I told Carolyn that Judy Rodgers had died of cancer, her face showed the same level of shock, sadness and confusion that I felt upon hearing the news. “How old was she”?, Carolyn asked, “just 57”, I relied. “That’s terrible….too young” said Carolyn “too young”.
A few hours later, my good friend Chad texted “RIP Judy Rodgers”. Chad knew Judy, as he was a chef in San Francisco in the 1990’s when Rodgers, and her Zuni Cafe, were at their height. Chad, his wife Monica, Carolyn and I spent a number of magical moments together at Zuni. Chad was deeply saddened. So was I.
I didn’t know Rodgers personally, and only occasionally saw her at Zuni. She was famously private and didn’t crave the limelight, even at the restaurant. There are many more “famous” celebrity chefs out there, but few have the influence or lasting success of Judy Rodgers. She was a hidden treasure, and yet one of our greatest inspirations.
We are most influenced by those we know. I have both my parents to thank for a love of food, and perhaps more importantly, a lack of fear about food. Food was good and to be enjoyed….period. Carolyn gives me an understanding and love of entertaining and hospitality that is at the core of our lives together. My friend Chad Callahan gave me some of my first exposure to what fine dining really meant, the importance of sourcing the right ingredients and using good technique. Hiro Watanabe, our favorite sushi chef, showed me that it’s best to serve just a few great dishes, and not many average ones.
When I think about cooking these are some of my touchstones.
But of the broader influences I have, Judy Rodgers, and the Zuni experience, show up in my cooking almost every day. Her cooking was simple, flavorful and well executed. She used the best ingredients and was unafraid to let them stand on their own.
These days, many chefs like to tell you what plot at the farm the kale came from, how “heirloom” the seeds are and then use every piece of offal from a pig- just to make an impression. And that is fine. Judy Rodgers would do that if it made the dish better. But if a simple bowl of polenta with a bit of parmesan or mascarpone was the best dish, that is what she would serve.
And it wasn’t just the food. Zuni was a restaurant that felt, and still feels, like the heart of San Francisco. A strangely shaped, airy space with hidden corners, big windows, a huge wood-fired oven and walls full of art, Zuni captured the city like few other spaces. And it reflected in the customers. From pre-opera suburban diners in their finery to young couples on dates, you saw every age, gender, color and persuasion. Almost all of them with smiles on their faces. Zuni is still that kind of place. I hope it remains that kind of place.
Many chefs are known by their “signature dishes”, and they are something of a mixed blessing. Most chefs tire of making the same dish, no matter how good or how popular, every day. Judy Rodgers had many signature dishes. The roast chicken, burger, caesar salad, polenta and espresso granita are still standards of San Francisco dining to this day. Rodgers expressed frustration, at times, that she couldn’t take these dishes off the menu. But regardless of her feelings, the dishes were always perfectly executed. When we took the boys to Zuni a few years ago, the burger was just as good as it was when we first went. Rodgers was a pro.
Ironically, when we moved out of the city and eventually came here to the “farm”, Rodgers became an even larger influence on our cooking through the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. To be honest, it is a dense, detailed cookbook. At times it’s a hard read. It is not entertainment or food porn. But the recipes truly work. And, more importantly, if you want to understand how flavors come together and compliment each other in a dish, then this is the cookbook you need. When we want to learn about a fresh, seasonal ingredient, we most often look to Alice Waters. When we actually cook it or pair it with another ingredient, we look to Judy Rodgers.
A number of years ago we stopped cooking just by recipe, but by looking at ingredients, flavors and techniques. We jokingly say that we “graduated” and become cooks who can think, and experiment, on our own. Judy Rodgers was a big part of that, and we owe her our thanks.
We also owe her our thanks for her recipes and techniques that we make here all the time. We pre-salt or “dry brine” our beef, pork and poultry- and it is still one of the most important techniques we use. Her asparagus and rice soup fills our bowls each spring, sage grilled cheese puts smiles on faces at cocktail parties. And Rodgers’ caesar salad is still the best, even if our attempts don’t come close to the original. It is a beautiful dish. A memorable dish.
So thank you Judy Rodgers. Our prayers go to you and your family. Godspeed.