Early last week, the food community throughout the Bay Area and beyond awoke to heart-wrenching news. Judy Rodgers, beloved chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe, had died of a rare and painful cancer diagnosed just over a year ago. Our thoughts turned to Judy's warm smile and easy laugh, her meticulous and inspired cooking, leisurely late-night dinners at Zuni and our countless home kitchens where we all tried to duplicate the extraordinary roasted chicken and bread salad for which the restaurant is known around the country and beyond.
As I read the news, I could nearly taste a dish I enjoyed more than two decades ago, mussels with chorizo, tomato and garlic, and thought of a late night nearly as long ago with a dear friend over a platter of oysters on the half shell and what may have been the best hamburger I've ever had.
In 2003, I was enough lucky to be in the audience at the James Beard Awards in New York City when “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002, Chronicle Books) was voted Cookbook of the Year. Zuni Cafe took the Outstanding Restaurant Award that year, too. It was a happy night, when the world seemed right and the awards well-deserved.
Not all cookbooks by chefs are actually written by those chefs. There is often a ghost writer, a team of assistants and a crew of sous-chefs creating and testing recipes in a huge professional kitchen. These books can be disappointing because, at their core, there is no voice, no genuine point of view, no personality. But Judy Rodgers wrote every word of the 500-plus page tome herself, with what many reviewers have called “a nearly obsessive attention to detail.”
The recipe for the roast chicken and bread salad, for example, runs nearly five pages, but not because it is complicated or difficult. The roast chicken has just four ingredients, the salad not quite a dozen, counting water. The length comes from Rodgers' specific instructions and explanations. She guides you intelligently through every action, including how to approach the chicken — from the edge of the cavity — and slide a finger under the skin to make pockets into which you will insert little sprigs of herbs. She leaves nothing out and, before long, you feel her in the kitchen with you.