In Memoriam: Judy Rodgers

In Memoriam: Judy Rodgers

 

We are incredibly sad to hear that chef Judy Rodgers passed away last night at the age of 57. "Judy Rodgers was not only one of America's greatest chefs, having been honored with a JBF Outstanding Chef Award in 2004, but she also epitomized the joy of casual fine cooking as a way to bring people together at her iconic and popular Zuni Café," said JBF president Susan Ungaro. "Her humility and creative genius were legendary. She was an avid note taker, always looking for and jotting down new ways to improve on a dish. I can still picture her with a pencil tucked into her upswept hair. Our foundation has lost a friend and San Francisco has lost a legend."

 

As an Outstanding Chef award winner, Rodgers was profiled in The James Beard Foundation's Best of the Best. Read author Kit Wohl's piece below.

 

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When a beautiful woman is also a famous, celebrated chef, life is rarely fraught with glamor. With no. 2 pencils securing her topknot and a notepad or a menu not far away, Judy Rodgers records an idea almost as quickly as the flash that arouses her imagination, whether it’s a suggestion to make her menu a little more appetizing or just a thought about keeping the customers happy. Rodgers’s lifelong habit of note-taking is a key component to her success as a chef and restaurateur.

 

The influence of traditional French and Italian cooking in her menus at Zuni Café in San Francisco, California, came from recipes she copied and notes she took while eating or observing chefs at work in some of the world’s most famous restaurants, beginning when she was a teenager. Rodgers signed on as chef at Zuni Café in 1987, highlighting the restaurant’s eclectic status with a menu that continues to dominate San Francisco’s casual dining scene more than two decades later.

 

Zuni Café is housed in a pie-shaped wedge of a building in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, where vintage trolleys rattle past, pedestrians amble under the restaurant’s bright yellow awnings, and guests sip cocktails outside on a lazy afternoon. Rodgers is as high-spirited and down-to-earth as the restaurant. Willowy and fast moving, she talks with her hands and punctuates by bringing forefingers and thumbs together in an arcing exclamation.

 

“The quiet and often shy Judy that we see in the dining room at Zuni Café changes into a not-so-shy and by-no-means-quiet dynamo in the kitchen,” says co-owner Gilbert Pilgram. “That is what has allowed the restaurant to become what some customers describe as ‘the town square of San Francisco’ while keeping the food simple, fad free, and satisfying.” Pilgram worked at Chez Panisse for twenty years. He retired and then became bored. Now, he teams up with Rodgers in the kitchen and oversees the front of the house with bonhomie.

 

Creating a friendly atmosphere and keeping a menu of simple food that defies trendiness is a lesson Rodgers took to heart from French and Italian restaurateurs, one that keeps on attracting customers. Inside Zuni Café, a wood-burning oven situated between the open kitchen, dining areas, and bar is used to toast bread, roast Zuni’s famous chicken, bake thin-crust pizzas, and prepare many other specialties.

 

For Rodgers, cooking is about more than just making food that tastes good. “As a chef, each time I shop for, make, and taste a dish, I am reviving and maybe reinventing my own history with the dish and its ingredients, but I am also thinking about how it will be received. Every diner brings different memories and tastes to the table. I feel lucky to share some of my favorite ones. We have our repertoire. It’s very seasonal and product-based. But for me, so much with cooking has to do with the experience at the table—the cultural experience, the notion of conviviality. When I taste a dish and look at a dish, as much as anything I am wondering how it will be received. Will they embrace the dish? Will it feel fun, easy, or challenging? Will it delight? Will the guests take a bite and want another?” She continues, “It’s been very satisfying to have a restaurant in an era and a place where, shockingly, this relatively easy, natural way of cooking is appreciated and esteemed and admired. But there is a huge irony that here I sit, roasting some chickens. It’s just a distillation of paying attention to a lot of traditional cooking and how people made food good. And it’s not my originality or Zuni’s originality. It’s just recognizing how that fits into the lifestyle of San Francisco.”

 

Rodgers says the most difficult years for a restaurateur or young chef are the early ones when he or she must determine what to cook, what he or she is good at, and what he or she wants the restaurant to be. “I knew in a heartbeat what I wanted Zuni to be, but it took years of experimentation, and expanding Zuni’s repertoire.” In the process, she logged and documented everything. The keepers. The losers. “Over the decades, the repertory has grown, and we constantly revise and refine our methods, but there was a moment that I realized that the pressure to constantly add new dishes and combinations wasn’t really necessary. We sort of had our own traditions at Zuni. It was a great relief,” she now says as an original proponent of the California culinary movement.

 

“I don’t think it’s all about having the best food. What’s more, the ‘best’ is infinitely disputable,” Rodgers says. Much of Zuni’s charm has to do with the experience at the table. She’s especially interested in the cultural experience, and a guest’s emotional response. “A dish should be lovely, but I want it to satisfy and promote conviviality as well. Food that kind of creates silence and awe? I don’t know how to do that.”

 

Rodgers’s note-taking began when, as a sixteen-year-old exchange student in France, she traded places with the daughter of the famous Troisgros family of Les Frères Troisgros. Rodgers lived above their restaurant in Roanne as a member of the family. They nurtured her interest in their regional food and the culinary ethics and aesthetics of France’s most revered establishments. 

 

“I was really very attracted to the simpler food, the traditional food, and started paying attention to the two chefs, their sister, and their aunt. They saw how interested I was and they put a lot of energy into teaching me and exposing me to the foods of the region. So, I would go to their aunt’s house and she would make all the traditional dishes. They took me to small restaurants, to markets to wineries, and cellars,” recalls Rodgers.

 

The neighbor who arranged the yearlong exchange with the Troisgros’s daughter asked Rodgers to chronicle the recipes she experienced in France as her thank-you. Rodgers has always felt that she got the best of the swap between the two girls. Rodgers says, “That was all he asked for in return, so I took it to heart.” The result is volumes of lists documenting the food from that area of Burgundy in 1973 and 1974.

 

Rodgers had Jean Troisgros double-check the accuracy of the recipes she was excited about. “I wrote them and re-wrote them—I have them all, still. When I came home, I translated them all into English, made multiple copies.”

 

One set of copies went into a safe deposit box. “It was quite lucky that I was asked to record those recipes. The process forced me to pay ever more attention to the cooks, the ingredients, and the methods. In particular, I learned from seeing the same dishes made every day at Troisgros. Jean would go out of his way to explain why he was using less cream today because it was thicker, or more lemon, because it was less acidic than usual. He always gave me the reason.” At Troisgros, the emphasis was on the importance of ingredients, the foundation that Rodgers builds upon by assuring Zuni Café has the best fresh-farm products.

 

Rodgers had returned to America with a heightened interest in cooking and was motivated to share the traditional foods of France that were so much a part of her own culinary history. It was a stint at Chez Panisse that jump-started Rodgers’ professional food career. Rodgers first heard about Chez Panisse during her senior year at Stanford University, where she received a degree in art history. A friend, who was a server there, told Rodgers about the restaurant. The server had also told Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters she had a friend who had spent a summer at Troisgros and had written down all the recipes. Rodgers had dinner at the restaurant, talked with Waters, and they discovered many common interests. “I had lived a fabulous year at Troisgros and I missed and craved that ambiance and energy. I sensed that same delicious, seductive energy at Chez Panisse.”

 

Waters was planning a sabbatical and needed someone to fill in for her cooking lunch. Although Rodgers had little to no experience actually working in a restaurant, Waters asked her to try out for the job. She auditioned there after spring break. 

 

Rodgers had no thoughts about committing herself to being a chef or restaurateur. “I just sort of happened into it, by being placed in France at the best restaurant in the world, and then coming to Northern California—the perfect spot, at the perfect moment—to capitalize on that experience.”

 

After working for a week at Chez Panisse in the spring of 1977, Rodgers was hired and began her two-year stint as lunch chef. Rodgers says she “kind of winged it” every day during her first few weeks on the job because of her inexperience. “I would write a menu and Alice would come in and troubleshoot, and believe me, there was some trouble to shoot. But gradually, I figured out how to do some basic things to pull it off, not the least of which was to taste, and taste, and taste.”

 

“She has a beautiful artistic sense about food,” says Alice Waters. “It’s very rare to find cooks that are artists, and also artists who are cooks. This is a sensibility that I really appreciate, and inspires me. She just puts it on the plate in a very different way.” After Waters returned, Rodgers took her own sabbatical in Europe to figure out her next career move. Some old friends suggested that on her way to Spain she stop in a tiny village south of Bordeaux to see their friend Pepette Arbulo.

 

She ended up staying the whole summer at Pepette’s rustic restaurant, L’Estanquet, learning the food of southwest France. As she recounts, “It was the pure, minimal, regional restaurant, serving just things from that region in ‘un-falutin’ interpretations that were Pepette’s distillation of her heritage. We would go to the farm and pick up the foie gras. There were no trucks, no deliveries. That drove home what Jean Troisgros had talked about. What you eat every day is just as important as fancy restaurant food. Unadulterated regional fare–the dishes that are ubiquitous and delicious in countless forms in a given region–these culinary repertories are cultural treasures, sustainable and sustaining over generations.”

 

With the real country restaurant experience now part of her background, Rodgers returned to California as chef with Marion Cunningham. She developed a menu of simple and traditional American dishes at the Union Hotel in Benicia, California. 

 

“Endless fried chicken, acres of spoonbread, countless cream biscuits, 6-hour Indian pudding. But the most important thing was not the dishes. I obsessed over Native American ingredients–wild rice, fiddleheads, wild persimmons, miners’ lettuce, ramps, and I was enchanted by the quality of local produce that was becoming available. I was certain there was nowhere better in the world to be cooking.”

 

She worked to find innovative ways to produce dishes and recipes similar to what she had experienced in France. In 1983, Rodgers rented a farmhouse outside Florence, Italy, and once again began to write down everything she ate, cooked, and found for sale at the local markets. After subsequent trips through many other parts of Italy, Rodgers returned to California with a significant goal: to settle down at a restaurant that would allow her to cook and share the traditional foods of France and Italy that were so much a part of her own culinary history.

 

She landed at the Zuni Café in 1987 as chef and ultimately became co-owner. For Rodgers, Zuni is all about running just one restaurant, keeping a small and tight operation, serving good food, and creating a happy environment.

 

Considering the multiple honors and accolades she has received as a chef and as an author, Rodgers keeps a low profile. Her No. 2 pencils came in handy again, when she wrote a cookbook, now a classic. “Since it was published in 2002, I’ve watched The Zuni Café Cookbook take its place in the pantheon of great cookbooks,” says Maria Guarnaschelli, senior editor and vice president, W. W. Norton. “It’s more than a treasure trove of great recipes. It’s also an important series of insights on cooking written in beautiful prose.”

 

Rodgers and her “fabulous partner,” Pilgram, share culinary tastes and backgrounds and have one common goal for Zuni Café: “We both are attracted to restaurants and hotels that are personally run by the owner. We want our restaurant to feel like our home and reflect our taste not just in food, but architecture, paintings, music, all those things that come naturally after living for many years in a house. This includes a few defects and imperfections that we have come to embrace, like the 100-year-old windows that are a project to keep clean but provide a beautiful light. We just want this restaurant to be as good as possible.”

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