What Judy Rodgers Meant to American Cuisine

The culinary community weighs in on the passing of Zuni Cafe's renowned chef-owner

Forbes, Flickr/ Spotreporting
As chef of Zuni Cafe, Judy Rodgers shunned the spotlight while cooking spectacular food.

The respected and well-loved chef-restaurateur, of San Francisco's Zuni Café, succumbed to cancer on Dec. 2

She wasn't a superstar TV chef and she didn't have a line of cookware or spice rubs; she didn't own a dozen restaurants or hang out with movie stars. She was a chef and a cook and a restaurant owner, and she quietly won the hearts and excited the palates of just about everyone who ever ate her food.

A native of St. Louis, Judy Rodgers had an early taste of great cuisine when, as a teenage exchange student, she ended up lodging with a Burgundian family named Troisgros. She moved to Northern California to study art history at Stanford, and one night dined at Chez Panisse. There, she fell into conversation with Alice Waters about her experiences with the Troisgros clan, and Waters suggested that she sign on as a chef at the legendary Berkeley restaurant. Marion Cunningham later hired her to cook at the historic Union Hotel in Benicia, a bayside community slightly to the north.

In 1979, a food lover named Billy West opened a casual restaurant on Market Street in San Francisco, which he dubbed Zuni Café. In 1987, he brought Rodgers on as chef. After West's death in 1994, Rodgers took over operation of the place. Her old Chez Panisse colleague Gilbert Pilgram joined Zuni as her partner in 2006.

Rodgers' menu was religiously seasonal, but the basics never changed very much: impeccable oysters, house-cured anchovies with celery and Parmigiano, a definitive Caesar salad, and above all a brick-oven-roasted chicken for two, with bread salad and greens, and at lunchtime a pizza with Wagon Wheel Cheddar and an irresistible grass-fed burger on grilled rosemary focaccia were always on offer, and never failed to delight. Zuni was one of those restaurants that everybody who knew and appreciated real food — as opposed to trendy fodder — always went whenever they came to San Francisco.

We asked some of her longtime friends and admirers to say a few words about why she was so important to American cuisine.

"Judy was a dedicated chef, a true lover of food and life, and a pioneer who never thought of herself as one. She championed California in all its goodness, and the fact that she stayed true to one restaurant, her vision, for more than 25 years speaks volumes about her commitment."
— Barbara Fairchild, former editor of Bon Appétit

"She was the soul of urban rustic cooking; the chef who figured out how to transplant village flavors into a big city kitchen without compromise. I'm not sure I've been to the Bay Area in 25 years without stopping by Zuni at least once. And of course, the Zuni Café Cookbook is probably the best cookbook ever written by a working chef. I am on my third copy."
— Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic

"In this time of mega-chefs with multiple restaurants in Las Vegas and beyond, when aspiring and established chefs alike vie for places on competitive TV shows with names like Cook You’re A** Off, when chefs think of themselves as brands rather than cooks, Judy Rodgers stood out as true north. She and [Zuni] co-owner Gilbert Pilgram ran one of the best restaurants in the country. It is the first restaurant I head for when I find myself in San Francisco. Everything tastes exactly as it should, the real thing or even better, just like her. My copy of her great cookbook is dog-eared. Through her great generosity, I've learned so much and eaten so well. Thank you, Judy."
— Christopher Hirsheimer, author, photographer, editor

"Judy Rodgers accomplished what few American chefs/restaurateurs did: She had one restaurant, one definitive cookbook, and one culinary philosophy, all well-thought out and honed over time. She ran deep. Authentic. Singular."
— Dorothy Kalins, author and editor, founding editor-in-chief of Saveur

"Of course Judy's roast chicken is immortal. But the reasons it’s the single best recipe for something so simple show why Judy’s genius: she was meticulous in every detail, and knew that the difference between good and great wasn’t just finding the best artisanal ingredient or adding another stick of butter (in her case, first-press Umbrian olive oil). It was trying every technique and timing the pre-salting to come up with the very best flavor. That passion for and nervous perfectionism paradoxically made Zuni Café rock-solid reliable time after time while seemingly the most casual place in the world."
— Corby Kummer, restaurant critic, writer, editor

"Judy Rodgers and her Zuni Café redefined casual California dining. Zuni continues to embody the seamless joining of social ease and culinary precision — an accomplishment that's much harder to pull off than it looks (because Zuni does it with such grace)."
— Tom McNamee, author

"Judy was a leader in the wine and food business for all of her adult life. She quietly made history for over 40 years in her roles at Chez Panisse, the Union Hotel, and, for the past three decades, Zuni Café. I've enjoyed her food in all three of these lives, but more importantly I've enjoyed Judy's humor, her self-deprecating wisdom, and her noble approach to her profession. She was an extraordinary talent."
— Bruce Neyers, wine salesman and winemaker

"One if my strongest memories of Judy is of her time at the Union Hotel. I kept hearing about this brilliant woman chef, so I ate there and had to agree. Of course, many, many Zuni meals later just confirmed my impression. She kept it simple delicious and beautiful."
— Cindy Pawlcyn, chef-restaurateur

"I first met Judy when she was the lunch chef at Chez Panisse. Her job was to go in every morning and figure out what to make with the ingredients she found in the kitchen. She loved the adventure — never quite knowing what she would find — and I think that's why Marion Cunningham hired her to work at the Union Hotel in Benicia, one of the pioneering institutions in what was to become the American food movement. In the '70s and '80s, Judy was among the handful of few women chefs breaking into the male-dominated restaurant world. But she always had her own vision; from the beginning her food was unadorned and deeply flavorful. She was intent on coaxing every drop of flavor from her food; she was brining her meat and poultry long before that was a trend, and curing her own anchovies.  And despite her initial training, living with the Troisgros family as an exchange student, she had a very American outlook; 'We'll always have a burger and a Caesar salad on the menu at Zuni,' she once told me. But it might have been Judy's attitude, even more than her food, that set her apart. Remarkably modest and extraordinarily generous, she mentored so many people. She never became a superstar — it just wasn't in her nature — but she leaves behind a super legacy. With her casually careful food, she very literally changed the notion of what American food can be."
— Ruth Reichl, author, former editor-in-chief, Gourmet

"Judy Rodgers arrived at Chez Panisse when she was 22. Although I was many years her senior, Judy had at a tender age worked in a three-star French restaurant and thought about food in a completely creative and personal way. I admired that about her. Then when she went on to open Zuni Café she took that knowledge of classic French and Italian cooking and created something completely new and exciting: the contemporary American bistro. That was the brilliance of Zuni and still is. Judy set a tone of simplicity and taste that has lasted the test of time. Her Zuni Café Cookbook is a constant source of inspiration for me because it expresses so perfectly her generous and artistic sense about food."
— Alice Waters, chef-restaurateur, activist

"Judy Rogers was the quiet giant of American cooking. She was smart, passionate, and totally unafraid to pursue her own path. She was truly an amazing cook and chef. We will miss her."
— Jonathan Waxman, chef-restaurateur


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