Judy Rodgers, Beloved Chef of San Francisco's Zuni Cafe

by Diane Leach

8 January 2014

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, December 3rd, chef Judy Rodgers died of cancer. She was 57 years old.
Press photo (photographer unknown) 
cover art

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant

Judy Rodgers

(W. W. Norton & Company)
US: Sep 2002

Rodgers was famed both for her restaurant, San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Cafe, and the award-winning cookbook she wrote in 2002, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
I never ate at Zuni Cafe.  As a Bay Area resident, I took it for granted. It would always be there, the way the Transamerica Pyramid and Muir Woods are.  Eventually. Someday. Of course, the restaurant is still there, in the very capable hands of Chez Panisse alumni Gilbert Pilgram. 

As I never ate in the restaurant, I will leave the paeans to those who did. Instead, I’d like to talk about the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

When my spouse and I took up housekeeping together, in June 1993, we were impoverished 20somethings. My mother-in-law gave us a few pieces of furniture, including a small bookshelf, about three feet high and perhaps two feet wide.I kept my cookbooks there. When the collection outgrew the bookshelf, I used it for cookbooks deemed “special”: those imbued with emotional attachment, heavily used. 

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook has lived there ever since I received it as a gift from my husband; doubly special, because it is from him,  because it is such a wonderful cookbook. Because even now, a decade later, I still pull it regularly from its spot to prepare Mock Porchetta, Brasato, Pot Au Feu, Rosemary Pickled Peppers, and, of course, the iconic Roasted Chicken with Bread Salad. Reproduced in countless cookbooks, that recipe made Rodgers famous. If you don’t have the cookbook, I suggest immediate purchase. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is filled with gifts, not least of which is the spirit of Rodgers herself. 

Rodgers wrote The Zuni Cafe Cookbook before cooking went viral, before we were awash in a sea of glossy cookbooks full of food never intended for home preparation or consumption. The chef as cult of personality had yet not happened. Readers get a warm, unpretentious woman who spent time with some of the finest cooks in France, then returned home and worked at Chez Panisse.  During her sojourns, Rodgers wrote everything down, emerging from her informal apprenticeship with a deep appreciation of French and Italian country cooking. 

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is full of great recipes. Almost more importantly, it’s a primer on becoming a better cook. There’s advice on how to shop, tasting as you cook, the benefits of pre-salting meats. Rodgers’ instructions on sausage-making and confiting duck demystify what to many are terrifying cooking procedures. There are sections on salads for all seasons, on surprising yet simply prepared condiments, on the cheese course. All of this in a voice transmitting a love of cooking and a generous spirit. 

Rodgers wrote one perfect book and ran one perfect restaurant. She never appeared on The Food Network or opened outposts in Las Vegas or Singapore. She did not merchandise her name. She just kept cooking, until the cruelty of rogue cell division took her from us too soon.

Judy Rodgers

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