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Chef Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe, RIP

The San Francisco food world lit up social media late Monday night with word of the passing of Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe. The sad news is spreading from Terra Restaurant, Tablehopper, Daniel Patterson, Hoss Zare, State Bird Provisions, and others. I'm sure more complete coverage will be available soon.

Here's a piece from one year ago describing her illness,


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  1. What a terrible thing to read first thing this morning. Her book is one of my favorites, as are so many of her recipes. She was such an elegant writer, and her joie de vivre came through so clearly in her descriptions and instructions. Tremendous loss.

    1. I'm so sad to read this. As much as one can know someone from a wonderful restaurant and great cookbook, she seemed like a terrific person. What a loss.

      1. Her Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of the best I have ever seen.

        1. On this sad day, let's start salting a chicken and make her most famous recipe.

          SF Chronicle confirmed her death and will have a complete obit online later today.

          A tribute from David Lebovitz,

          22 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I've still got leftover turkey a la Judy in the fridge.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              When I first read the news, I was struck that we've just been through Thanksgiving feasts and the time of year when her salting technique is top of mind. Popularized by Russ Parsons of the LA Times, he dubbed the dry-brined turkey achieved via this technique the "Judy-bird".

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                There's not much fresh meat that passes through my hands that doesn't get salted her way.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Agreed! Thanks to Judy my fish, shrimp, chicken, turkey and meat are all better for her salting technique.

                  And her cookbook is great! Like having an older sister who is there to help you learn not only what to do but why you do it that way!

              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                Here's the photo of my Judy Rodgers roast chicken, served for lunch yesterday. My first time attempting this recipe. This was a 2.8 lb Mary's air-chilled bird. I'd like to try it with a Chinese chicken for more flavor.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  I can't bring myself to try that at home since I know it's never going to be as good as from a wood oven.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Talked to a friend yesterday who said he makes this on his Weber charcoal rotisserie. That might be the closest approximation to the results you'd get in a wood oven.

                    As a first-timer to this recipe, I was impressed by how simple and easy it was to turn out such a good result without fancy marinades or ingredients. I had lots of fresh thyme, sage and marjoram still on hand from Thanksgiving. Other than having to plan ahead, the hardest part was finding the right size chicken. I listened for the sizzle Rodgers said I should hear, and I watched for what she said I should see, and adjusted as she advised. It was a very good lesson.

                    The one error I made is that I took the chicken out of the refrigerator 1+ hours before cooking, as I typically do with any meat I'm planning to cook. The bird was done in 40 minutes, a a bit overdone at that point with the meat pulling easily off the bones though still succulent. Since Rodgers didn't say to let the bird warm up to room temperature before cooking, I'm sure that her longer cooking time estimate was based on a refrigerator cold chicken. And I think that leaving the chicken thoroughly chilled would have allowed longer time in the oven and an even browner and more crackly skin without overcooking it. I laughed when I thought about it, as I'm sure she would have specified taking it out of the fridge ahead of time if it was critical to the result.

                    Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      A friend forwarded this piece today, "Pay Attention to the Process, or What Judy Rodgers Taught Me" by Josh Lewin that pulls this quote from the cookbook.
                      "Tasting, looking, smelling , and feeling as you cook is not difficult. Adjusting for what you taste, or don't taste, need not be intimidating."

                      Lewin talks about using the first 20 pages of the cookbook as an orientation for his new staff.

                      And it made me think of this article from 2005 about the people in the prep kitchen who Rodgers called her "secret weapon", crediting them for the quality and consistency at Zuni. This piece, "The Zen masters of Zuni are in for the long run" is about them, but in some ways it says so much about her.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Thanks for linking to the Josh Lewin article. That really touched me.

                        1. re: goodeatsgal

                          Michael Ruhlman wrote an affectionate remembrance,

                          The Oregonian traced Rodgers influence on Portland restaurants.

                        2. re: Melanie Wong

                          oh thank you, just saw this. glad you enjoyed it, judy was a wonderful influence... her reach was far

                          --josh lewin

                    2. re: Melanie Wong

                      What do you mean by Chinese chicken?

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        We roasted a Judy Rodgers Zuni Chicken this evening. The skin was crisp, the meat was moist and the bread salad did yeoman work sopping up the juices. We washed it down with a California Pinot Noir. She'll be missed.

                        Photos should show a bird that had been salted/seasoned for two days and left alone in the coolerator, the roasted bird before carving, pieces parts resting gently on the bread salad and the final plate.

                        It's a simple meal that requires little in the way of technique. Rather, it's an easily followed set of instructions that can lead to an outstanding meal. You don't need a fancy oven to get within 90% of this meal's potential.

                        Give it a shot.

                        1. re: steve h.

                          Looks wonderful, have you made this recipe before?

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            Many times.

                            It should be in every home cook's repertoire.

                            1. re: steve h.

                              I agree, it's outstanding. I've never been to the restaurant but it's darn good right out of my oven.

                              1. re: steve h.

                                For the past couple of years, I have been making Marcella Hazan's lemon roasted chicken and served it along with the Zuni Bread salad. It's a phenomenal combo. I think it needs another appearance in my kitchen before year's end as a fitting tribute to the recent loss of these two culinary greats.

                      2. re: Melanie Wong

                        A trip to San Francisco was never complete until my wife and I had a meal at Zuni Cafe.


                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            Just enjoyed the Roast Chicken and Bread Salad for Sunday dinner, and it was phenomenal. I love the combination of salty, sweet, savory, etc. -- the flavors are so satisfying -- and I was reminded of what a wonderful dish this is all over again.

                          2. Raising a glass of Zuni Cafe's Balsamic Bloody Mary in a salute to a brilliant chef. Such a huge loss.

                            2 Replies
                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                Thank you for that link, Melanie. Actually, I prefer gin in a Bloody Mary so this makes it extra special for me.
                                May Chef Rodgers Rest In Peace.

                            1. So very sad…

                              I met Judy several years ago when she hosted a celebration dinner for Paula Wolfert upon the re-release of "Cooking of Southwest France" and was taken there just two weeks ago by my BFF (Best Foodie Friend) for my bachelorette luncheon.

                              Will toast her this evening and -- like many others -- roast a chicken in her honor.

                              1. Oh, this is such sad news.

                                1. Hope you are reading this thread, Judy!. RIP!

                                  1. I was friends with Judy during high school in St. Louis and reconnected over a decade later in Berkeley. She invited me for dinner at her apartment, it was the day after Thanksgiving and she made a beautiful salad with edible flowers and maybe the first risotto I ever had. After dinner, she commented, "We need something sweet," and I swear 8 minutes later we had hot, crispy almond cookies. Shortly after, I reciprocated (at the time I fancied myself a pretty good Chines food cook) and I overdid some things but Judy was flattering and gracious, commenting that I was one of the few friends other than Alice (Waters) who dared cook for her.

                                    Besides her accomplishments as chef, restaurateur, and author, Judy was an accomplished student, a gifted actor and director, and as her Zuni Cafe Cookbook attests, a great writer.

                                    I will miss her.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: nosh

                                      Perhaps we know each other. Please email me at the address on my profile. Thanks.

                                    2. Jay Barman put together a timeline of her life's work

                                      Andrew Knowlton: "Pushed to pick my last meal, it would probably look a lot like a lunch at Zuni. I can’t really explain the allure of Zuni Café, and I never got to really know chef Rodgers. All I knew was that I loved it and that every chef I respected loved it—and her, too. On my most recent visit to San Francisco, chef Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions told me that she had recently been to his place to eat and that she wasn’t doing all that great. I was expecting this morning’s sad news."

                                      Colman Andrews asked some of her longtime friends and admirers to say a few words about why she was so important to American cuisine. There are some lovely tributes here.

                                      Jordana Rothman: "I can’t presume to know how Judy greeted her illness, but that day she showed me grace. Her dignity and poise seemed herculean when, just a few months later, I read Gayle Pirie’s piece about the pain and torment the cancer had wrought. How generous of her to give me an hour that day, to talk about mountaintop picnics and, of course, that damned career-making roast chicken."

                                      Russ Parsons: "We’d been talking for a couple of years about her use of salt -- she insisted that almost every piece of meat or fish that came into her kitchen be lightly salted immediately, before it went into the refrigerator. It was something she’d learned from Georgette Descat and it was vital to flavor, she said.

                                      So, one time when I was going to be up in the Bay Area, I suggested that we get together and do a story about it. When I checked in on arrival, she had set up a comprehensive taste test -- two fried chickens, salted and not, two roast chickens, two braised beefs, three beef tenderloins.

                                      And just for good measure, pork chops -- some brined, some not. It was pure Judy that when she tasted the pork chops, she noticed that the brine she had been using for more than 10 years had a little too much sugar in it.

                                      She resolved then and there that the next day she’d cut back. The chops were good, but they could be better."

                                      Eric Asimov: "Ms. Rodgers’s cooking was noteworthy for its refined simplicity, hewed and tempered by an ardent perfectionism and a finely tuned palate. Not for her the sauce-painted plates and tweezer-bits of microgreens of the modern, high-end kitchen. Instead, at Zuni, a quirky, airy space on a triangular corner of Market Street, she presented dishes that were simultaneously rustic and urbane."

                                      Stephanie Rosenbaum: "Rodgers’ voice, Rodgers’ knowledge, suffused every page. The recipe for Zuni’s famous Caesar Salad took up two and a half pages. It wasn’t because the recipe was so complex–it was nothing fancier than romaine lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan, dressed in a red wine vinaigrette enriched with eggs and flavored with lemon, garlic and anchovy–but because she wanted her readers to understand her mind-set, to pay attention to the nuances of every ingredient and to bring them together in a mindful way. "

                                      In her hometown newspaper, "Chef and cookbook author Judy Rodgers, who got her start working at a St. Louis Dairy Queen, died Monday (Dec. 2, 2013) at a hospital in Berkeley, Calif."
                                      ... “She taught me how to sew, which probably helped me learn how to cook,” Ms. Rodgers explained. “She’d tell me, ‘That’s what the pattern says, but here’s what you really have to do to make it work.’ It’s like a lot of recipes: If you follow a pattern slavishly, you can make clothes, but they won’t be elegant.”

                                      1. I never met her, but I've long considered Zuni to be the epitome of a San Francisco restaurant, drawing all types of people together in one place to eat and drink convivially. A world-travelling friend considers the Zuni his San Francisco Paris restaurant.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                          The original concept when they expanded into the current footprint was to make an SF version of a Parisian brasserie, even down to being open from breakfast until late night. Too bad that was too hip for the room.

                                        2. Very sad news indeed. Zuni Cafe has always been one of my fave SF dining spots, and her legendary roast chicken with bread salad was a must-have.

                                          RIP, Judy, you'll be missed.

                                          1. Has anyone used the Zuni Cookbook? I'm thinking of giving it as a gift, but some reviews say it's for experienced chef-type cooks only, not "normal" good home cooks. What say you?

                                            17 Replies
                                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                              What's normal? Like Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney, or Patricia Wells, she tells you not just how but why and gives you the context to create your own versions.

                                              So for someone who wants paint-by-the-numbers recipes, it might seem like it was aimed at professionals.

                                              1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                I think it is a great cookbook for everyone. One of my favorites.
                                                Some thoughts from others here: http://eater.com/archives/2013/12/04/...

                                                  1. re: sr44

                                                    I've been on on the cookbook "wagon", for years, but I just bought it...And Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking...Uh oh....

                                                    1. re: Shrinkrap

                                                      You're okay, Shrinkrap... Edna Lewis has already gone to that big kitchen in the sky.

                                                      1. re: ChefJune

                                                        Yes, I know. So I now have given myself permission to buy cookbooks of everyone in that big kitchen.

                                                  2. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                    One of the reasons people say it's for experienced cooks only is that each of the recipes is likely to have many components. For example: one recipe may include the protein placed on a bed of vegetables and garnished with a salsa. Each component is prepared separately and the recipe for it may also be a stand-alone recipe in another section of the book. Not any one part of the recipe is difficult, but you need to have read and understood the recipe thoroughly before beginning to prepare it. They are not the kinds of recipes where you can open your fridge, see what's in there, and find something in the book to make for dinner that night.

                                                    1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                      It's a cookbook that you can learn principles from. She doesn't talk down to you, but rather converses with you. And she doesn't insist that there's only one way to do something; she shows you her way, and tells you why she does it that way. I've given it as a gift to several people, and they all loved it.

                                                      1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                        the zuni cookbook is an excellent cookbook (and very thoughtfully written), but for the category of people you're looking to shop for, i generally find the ad hoc cookbook better.

                                                        1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                          Eater did a nice round up of thoughts on the Zuni Cafe cookbook today.

                                                          ETA: oops, looks like I'm on the same wavelength as "absc" who linked this earlier.

                                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                            Shocking to see Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso's "The Silver Palate Cookbook" on that "very highest tier" list. I believe Rodgers' book will stand the test time; I don't think "Silver Palate" has.

                                                            1. re: JoanN

                                                              I agree with y ou, Joan, but I know a lot of folks who really revere and still use the Silver Palate cookbook.

                                                          2. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                            Thanks for all the replies and opinions. A copy will be in its way to my sister soon and we'll see if it suits her :-)

                                                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                              I'd forgotten that you're from Missouri as well. A nice gift.

                                                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                Ha ha, I had second thoughts so sent her two links to articles about the book. The (mostly expected) reply was to not send it, since she now cooks simply or not at all and has gotten rid of most of her cookbooks.

                                                                1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                                  imho she'll be sorry she said that. in truth, what could be "simpler" than Judy Rodgers' food? That's always been the beauty of it.

                                                            2. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                                                              It's great for the home cook that wants to know "why" not just "how" and if you like to learn to make components from start to finish. It can overwhelming for someone who's more into Sandra Lee or five ingredients/30 minutes type of recipes.

                                                            3. Oh, I'm just reading this now. I hadn't known she'd been ill. What a great loss. RIP, Chef. Thank you for all of the wonderful hospitality.


                                                              1. i always thought it was a shame that their brunch food never got more attention - still perhaps the best french toast i've ever had. i remember the first time i ate at foreign cinema quite a while ago, which was still one of the best brunches i ever had, i went to see what the the chef's background was - not surprisingly, she used to be the brunch chef at zuni.

                                                                7 Replies
                                                                1. re: vulber

                                                                  They served me the best oatmeal I've ever had, years ago when they were still doing breakfast.

                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    Years ago when I worked nearby, we would have breakfasts meetings there. The oatmeal was really wonderful.

                                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                      I had egg and toast. Trivial but so good.

                                                                      1. re: wally

                                                                        Scott Hocker posted a piece about the fried eggs in bread crumbs.

                                                                        "As the bread crumbs heat in olive oil, Rodgers exhorts you to 'swirl the pan as they begin drying out—which will make a quiet, staticky sound.' No mention of timing, only the unassailable facts: the what and the how leading to the when. This is the most powerful kind of recipe writing: the kind that forever changes how you cook. Just like that, you have learned forever how to fry bread crumbs."

                                                                        He also says that these eggs are served on Sundays regularly at Zuni.

                                                                        Found this photo taken at Zuni Cafe two days ago of mourning:
                                                                        "With love from Chez Panisse for everyone at Zuni"


                                                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                          Oh! That absolute opens the floodgates for me. What a sweet tribute.


                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                        Thanks for that link Robert. What a sweet tribute and a beautiful photo. I love this sentence, "And in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, possibly the greatest, most generous cookbook ever written by a working American chef, she shared every technique she had."

                                                                        1. re: Gio

                                                                          My favorite passage of Gold's piece as well.

                                                                          And this earlier tweet from him,
                                                                          "Reeling from the news about Judy Rodgers. She taught us that the most important ingredient in any recipe was time."

                                                                      2. My wife won me over with her version of Judy's roast chicken and bread salad. We were fortunate to go to Quince last Thursday, where they paid tribute to Judy by re-creating her roast chicken and ricotta gnocchi dishes. Sadly, Quince's roast chicken paled in comparison to the original (as well as my wife's) version. Judy will be missed.

                                                                        2 Replies
                                                                        1. re: spinn1

                                                                          Aren't you lucky! I had wondered how the dinner at Quince turned out. Too bad it missed the mark. How was the mood?

                                                                          I have made the ricotta gnocchi.

                                                                          This was for New Year's Eve dinner a couple years ago. We went to Gioia's factory to buy the fresh ricotta. We dutifully watched the video for more pointers on how to form the gnocchi. And there again, by following Rodgers' exacting instructions (e.g., testing the ricotta's moisture), one can turn out a great result the very first time cooking this recipe.

                                                                          Right after this cooking experience, I had my first and only dinner at Angeli Caffe in LA right before it closed. My dining companions had been there many times and ordered the standards, including the ricotta gnocchi. By all accounts, the cooking was as good as its ever been and was mostly enjoyable. But with Rodgers voice fresh on my mind of what not to do, the faults of Angeli's own version stuck out . . . "suede" coating, heavy floury center, etc. I recall feeling that I could readily out do Angeli on this one dish.

                                                                          Rodgers had such a gift for teaching.

                                                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                            Our dinner at Quince was wonderful. Every plate was a winner. The roast chicken was a little on the dry side, but it was still good...just not as I remember it at Zuni's. The mood was wonderful and the service very attentive. Tyler Florence was also dining across the way from us. I'm glad I didn't answer the call from French Laundry that afternoon, who I suspect was calling about a last minute cancellation that had become available for us. I definitely would love to go back on a regular night, but the fact that they had the tribute going for Judy, it being Quince's 10th Anniversary, as well as our own 5 year Anniversary, made the evening all worthwhile and more meaningful.

                                                                        2. Another tribute to Judy Rodgers, this one by Jeff Stoffer who cooked with her for a time at Chez Panisse. I know Jeff professionally and thought I'd post a link to his tribute.


                                                                          1. Thanks for starting this thread. I never had the fortune to meet her, but felt she was my friend through her book.

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: bills

                                                                              I'm sure that many feel the same way. Zuni Cafe belongs us here in San Francisco, but through her cookbook Rodgers touched so many more and enriched their life in food. I was lucky to have the chance to meet her. We were on a judging panel together, but I have to add that I was too shy and starstruck to speak to her.

                                                                              One of her recipes that I've been making since 1997, before the cookbook, is fillet of beef. The person who gave it to me then said that Rodgers made this dish at Terra Madre. It was printed in the NY Times in 2002.

                                                                            2. Another Judy note: She and I were on the board of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association together in the 'oughts'. She resigned from the board and I asked her why she was leaving us. She said she went to markets every morning to shop for Zuni and morning meetings were taking time from that. Before she left she did a fund-raiser dinner for us. It was held at the Sanctuary headquarters in what had once been a Coast Guard boat house, at the end of a long dock surrounded by Bay but with no kitchen and no running water. All cooked food was prepared on grills and dirty utensils had to be carried off the dock to be cleaned. She arranged for that. Judy provided the food, the grills, the dining and prep tables, the flatware, glasses, serving and dining dishes and I think even the candles. It was the first time I had eaten grilled sardines. Gilbert Pilgram, her chef, did a fabulous paella-like seafood dish in a wok on the grill. Judy made a salad with wonderful ingredients, making a vinaigrette with several olive oils and several vinegars, mixing them, tasting, adding another, tasting. A great salad. I will try to add some of my pix but am clutzy at it. She was really a terrific person, as all these postings demonstrate. I am fortunate to have had this bit of contact with her.