Judy Rodgers, the influential Bay Area chef, author, and owner of Zuni Cafe, died yesterday. She was 57, and had been battling a rare form of cancer.
Rodgers came up through Chez Panisse and opened Zuni Cafe on Market in 1987. Back then it had a vaguely Southwestern theme; she installed a brick oven and used her considerable talent and vision to turn it into the ingredient-driven California restaurant that it has become.
She leaves behind quite a legacy. Her Zuni Cafe Cookbook is a well-worn and beloved kitchen necessity for many amateur and professional chefs. The restaurant itself has so many splendid dishes, from the burger on rosemary focaccia bun to the impeccable selection of oysters to Caesar salad, and a wonderful, casual-yet-special atmosphere that can hardly be found anywhere else. It's a favorite of many people in and out of the food world, and it is one of the reasons I fell in love with San Francisco.
But what Rodgers will likely be remembered for most is her roast chicken for two, a dish that redefined what chicken could be for many of us. And its accompanying bread salad, soaked in chicken drippings, with currants, pine nuts, bitter greens and all sorts of deliciousness. If you scroll through the Twitter statements from chefs and eaters mourning the loss of Rodgers, it seems like that chicken comes up in half of the mentions. It's a testament to her prodigious gifts, and her knack for knowing ingredients so well that she only needed a few of them, that she turned something so simple into something memorable and incredible.
"There are few surer recipes for happiness in this world than a long afternoon with a good friend, a Zuni chicken, and a bottle of old Cornas," L.A. food writer Jonathan Gold wrote in 2003. It's still true a decade later.
Zuni Cafe will be open today, according to Inside Scoop, if you want to pay your respects in a way that the chef no doubt would have approved of. Or, it would be a very good day to make a roast chicken at home. The three-page recipe starts on page 342; there are also several approximations of it on the Internet.