Judy Rodgers

I was deeply saddened when I heard that someone who happens to have been a culinary icon (and hero) of mine, and who I was fortunate enough to work with in the kitchen, is no longer standing behind her stove. This morning I learned that Judy Rodgers the chef-owner of Zuni Café, had passed. I was fortunate the work with Judy for a few years on and off at Chez Panisse. Judy was incredibly dynamic as a person; so much so that I think even she had trouble dealing with all her energy! She was also a dynamic cook. And like the best cooks, her food wasn’t ever about her: It was about the food.

The roast chicken with bread salad at Zuni was the most iconic dish she made and was always worth waiting for. (Although once we drank too many martinis from the bar while we waited for it, and when I got home, I realized that I’d skipped out on the bill! – which I did go back and pay the next day.) The Caesar Salad at the restaurant was the best you could get, as were the pillow-light ricotta gnocchi and the excellent hamburger, which was perfect in every way. Whatever Judy made, was the best. In fact, one of the best things I ever ate in my entire life was a simple salad she’d handed to me one night at Chez Panisse, composed of escarole, rabbit loin, potatoes, and garlic confit smeared on toasts, all tumbled together with a warm, mustardy-dressing. I never dreamed a simple salad could taste so good, and I still remember the exact moment when I put the first forkful in my mouth – it was so, so good, and I still think about it nearly twenty-five years later.

Judy wrote an incredible cookbook, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which was a big hit. Not because she was a fancy celebrity chef (which she definitely wasn’t) nor because she was one of the most important people in the evolution of California cuisine. And not because the recipes for her earthy, deeply flavored food were so spot-on. But because her unique voice is heard in every instruction, every headnote, and every word in every recipe in that book. Each word remarkably conveys exactly what she was trying to say. I don’t know how she did it. But like that salad, she could be so evocative without making it seem like an effort.

She had a knack for unearthing condiments and combinations that worked perfectly. We used to joke in San Francisco that there was always at least one thing on the menu at Zuni that you had to ask a server what the heck it was. Honestly, I don’t know where she came up with all those obscure things. (And who knew that anchovies could make plain shaved celery taste so good?) On more familiar ground, her red onion pickles are the best possible use for the most common of vegetables and if you haven’t made them, put them on your list for the weekend. This is one of the few books that if you are a cook, whether you’re a regular home cook or a highly skilled chef, reading it will make you a better cook.

When I woke up today there were some random messages in my social media streams about Judy’s passing. She’d been ill for a while and although I hadn’t seen her in years, the idea of her being frail or not standing in front of the stove with her long, cottony skirt billowing behind her while she clumped around in her clogs, means that the food world has lost someone vital and important. She was someone I deeply admired and I was fortunate to work in the same kitchen with her, and admired her free spirit and skill so much that I often told her over the years. Of course, she totally deflected any compliments, waving them away. But to commemorate her life and talent, I can’t resist giving her one last nod.



Related Links

Judy Rodgers / Chef at San Francisco Zuni Café (Russ Parsons, LA Times)

An Appreciation of Judy Rodgers (Michael Bauer, SF Chronicle)

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and the Legacy of Judy Rodgers (Eater)

Remembering Judy Rodgers (Michael Ruhlman)

Judy Rodgers, Chef and Cookbook Author (Eater)

What was Judy Rodgers doing at Zuni? Cooking for your friends (Jonathan Gold, LA Times)

59 comments

  • Oh, David, this is such a loving and beautiful post; thank you. I love The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, as you said, it is really well-written, and what she says about the food is always about the food, and how it looks, feels, and tastes. I come to this website and blog for the same reasons (and, of course, own several of your books), as you share about food and life in much the same fashion. You are a lucky guy, to have known and worked with so many wonderful chefs and cooks. And we are lucky, too, to be able to read your memories, comments, and anecdotes (not to mention your awesome recipes!).

  • this is sad to here, but you have written a lovely remembrance to her. may she rest in peace and her restaurant carry on her legend.

  • So sad to learn of her passing. I will be roasting a chicken tonight in her memory. The Zuni Cafe cookbook is my most-stained. I remember her from her days in Benicia, where she made a reputation frying chicken.

  • Such sad news. My heart goes out to Kurt and her family and the culinary community. A great loss.

  • That’s a really touching tribute. Nicely done David!

  • This is a huge loss. I spent years eating here, even before they expanded. One of my favorite seats anywhere in the world is at the far eastern end of the café with the small tables at the “glassy end”, almost like sitting outside. Best martinis, best oysters, and the roast chicken with Tuscan bread salad… sublime, every time. I have made it probably a hundred times and have never approached the perfection they achieved. The Zuni Café is one of the things I miss most now that I live in London. Judy’s death is a sad blow to the culinary world and I am sorry for all those who knew her, worked with her, and loved her. And thank you, David, for such a touching and evocative portrait.

  • Sad news. Her wonderful cookbook is written with the voice of someone who, through years of experience, has acquired a deep and precise understanding of her ingredients and techniques (for example, her instructions of pre-salting all meats). The one time I met her, I called her an American Madame St. Ange, and she seemed to like that.

  • I was deeply saddened to learn of Judy Rodger’s passing earlier today. Judy was the most modest, inspirational, intelligent chef. A lovely person and a true pioneer of grace and simplicity in cooking.

  • this was a lovely, touching, and heartfelt tribute to a great chef. i so enjoy your voice, and now i must buy the cookbook to hear Judy’s. oddly, my thanksgiving day turkey was a riff on the roasted chicken recipe — herbed salt, 3 days in advance. roast at a high temp before reducing to continue the cooking process. it was the most beautiful bird i’ve ever cooked. thank you for your blog. i look forward to reading your postings.

  • Beautifully written David. She can count herself lucky to call you a friend.

  • Wonderfully written, David. A true homage to an amazing woman. I refer to the Zuni cookbook regularly to help me through times of strife in the kitchen, and Zuni has to be one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in.

  • She would have liked this beautiful, modest piece.

  • Such sad news this is. Never got a chance to eat at her restaurant, but I do cherish her Zuni Café Cookbook, and also really love her chocolate cake recipe that Saveur published a long time ago. It was inspired from a Julia Child recipe. She called it Zuni Gateau Victoire and is made with cream rather than butter. Did you ever eat this cake at Zuni? Apparently it was a mainstay on the menu. It is wonderful.

  • Oh. What a sad surprise.

    Let’s all “Judy” a chicken in her honor and have it with her incredible roasted applesauce.

    Those are 2 things I have done in tribute to her since the first time I read her methods. To make simple things sublime is a gift. She had it and she shared it. What more can any of us hope to achieve?

    Condolences for all for whom this is a personal loss.

  • What a beautiful tribute, David.

    My condolences to all who are close and loved Judy Rodgers.

  • Such a nice tribute. She inspired many.

    I made a point of going to Zuni Cafe many years ago while on business in SF. It was a crazy work week and I lost track of what day it was. I showed up there on a Friday night. Alone. And I forgot reading material. They were really gracious about making me feel comfortable in a situation that could’ve been very awkward. Also, of course, provided a delicious meal.

  • Such a fondly written tribute, David. What a fine woman she was; fine friend, fine cook, fine restaurateur…

  • This is a sad day indeed. My thoughts go out to her friends and family.
    Her book ‘The Zuni Cafe’ is my bible. I love reading it and creating dishes that actually came from the restaurant.

  • Lovely tribute, David. You said it for all who love Zuni and Judy’s cooking magic and perfect words. I will always “add vinegar to dominate but not enough to make me squint”! Ricotta gnocchi tonight in her honour.

  • Seems like we are losing so many great chefs. So sad

  • The first time I dined at Zuni was in the mid-90′s. It was like going to someone’s eclectic home with the hearth in the middle of the room. Everything we ate was spectacular.

  • It seems to be a year for saying goodbye to great people. I suppose that’s always the case, but this year stands out for me personally and I have read of others having similar experiences. Thank you for sharing your words of remembrance. I have only eaten at Zuni a couple times, but I was always glad that I did. And I will now add Judy’s cookbook to my wish list. Here’s to good friends resting in peace and to honoring them in the best way that we are able.

  • A beautiful, fondly written tribute, David.

    My condolences to all who were close to Judy Rodgers.

  • I didn’t know Judy Rogers, but I know Zuni. It remained the must-eat-at restaurant for any visit to San Francisco as other restaurants faded or were replaced. I loved everything about it – the food of course, but the vibe, the look, the light flooding in the windows. Deciding what to order was the problem because I wanted everything. I particularly remember sitting there alone in the morning, during the period when they served breakfast and learning about the perfection of great bread and fresh eggs. Thank you Judy!

  • David,
    This is such a fine remembrance – thank you for sharing it with us. I feel like I KNEW Judy after reading this.

  • David….a great nod indeed to Judy………

  • Danny Meyer once asked me what my favorite San Francisco was. Without hesitation I replied: “Zuni”. Zuni was Judy Rogers. Judy was the best at taking simple ingredients and serving the best thing you ever ate. A rare culinary gift.

    Thank you for your post today and others who have shared their thoughts.

  • David-
    Thank you for such a lovely write up.
    During the all-too-short 6 years that I lived in Berkeley, I’d occasionally make the pilgrimage to Zuni and treat myself to a meal. Zuni Cafe had – hands down – the BEST salmon I’ve ever had in my life.
    The meals were consistently perfect – Never pretentious. Never left me wanting.
    But always warm, comforting and delicious.
    Tonight I will get out my Zuni Cookbook and make a meal in honor of Judy Rodgers, making sure to toast to her lasting memory in my heart and belly.
    Cheers, Judy.

  • Thank you for this fine tribute.

  • May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

  • Thank you for that lovely and love-filled post about a true American Culinary icon. Sad to hear of her passing. Great to think of all the people she mentored and inspired carrying on a bit of her elgacy to share with the rest of us.

  • So sorry to hear this. Love her restaurant and use her chicken method for my Thanksgiving turkey every year.

  • This is such a lovely remembrance of her. Beautiful. Thank you for writing it. And my condolences, because losing a friend and a mentor is a true heartbreak.

  • I think it’s a huge testament to her skill, style, and now to her legacy, that Zuni has lasted so long, and yet changed so little over the years. Already had my birthday dinner planned there for later this month. My friends and I will toast and thank the chef who started it all, and hope Zuni continues on.

  • Well done, David. You are lucky to to have known and worked with her.

    The one dish that I will always remember? A salad of yellow watermelon with feta, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with a few cracked, toasted coriander seeds.

  • When I read these sad news, I thought of you and the post you wrote several years ago “Things to eat before you die”. If I remember well, the salad that Judy made for you was one of these things. You wrote a beautiful tribute to your friend.

  • The best chicken I have ever had was at Zuni Cafe. Great place, great food. R.I.P Judy.

  • David,
    What a lovely tribute. I must take the Zuni Café cookbook down today and listen once again to her voice.

  • David,
    OMG, what a SHOCK to see this WONDERFUL tribute to Judy Rodgers. I have the Zuni Cafe book next to my bed still as for THANKSGIVING I sent her recipe for brining to a ga zillion Spaish and No. American friends here in Spain.

    She was a fabulous, inventive and talented chef. I can’t imagine SF without her.
    RIP dear, dear Judy. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.

  • I came to see if you’d heard…can’t imagine Zuni without Judy. Wonderful tribute.

  • David, that you memorialize a fellow Chef in this way is most compassionate!! Your tribute was succinct and touching. Judy made a name for herself some time ago and I too have fond memories of dining at Zuni Cafe some seventeen years ago! I have had her book for about as long.

    Chefs often don’t praise other chefs until they are gone and it’s too late. Good for you for singing to Judy your praises! As others have pointed out here, your voice is funny, informative and real. Thank you for sharing your talents for food and for life with such humor and curiosity David!! I admire you.

  • Thank you David for sharing this news. I am deeply saddened. Judy Rogers is one of the chefs that i admire tremendously. Zuni cafe has been my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, i always have excellent meals there. Her passing is a great loss to the culinary community. She will be dearly missed.

  • I just read watched Judy’s gnocchi video. Being from a Southern Italian family, we make Govadil (a flour gnocchi), but this has encouraged me to venture forward and make ricotta gnocchi. A lovely recipe and a sweet story. Thanks.

  • I just watched Judy’s gnocchi video. Being from a Southern Italian family, we make Govadil (a flour gnocchi), but this has encouraged me to venture forward and make ricotta gnocchi. A lovely recipe and a sweet story. Thanks.

  • I thought of you when I read her her obit in the Times this morning. I had the good fortune to eat at the Union Hotel in Benicia while she was there. A lovely memory and a lovely remembrance from you.

  • A nice tribute. I ate a few times at Zuni Cafe and the first thing I had was the chicken. It changed the way I roast my own, entirely changing our chicken life. I searched high and low to get the chocolate cake recipe. I’ve made the porchetta with fennel for parties from her book. I felt sad when I heard that another one of my kitchen heroes had passed away. A lot of folks leave legacies behind, but the legacy of good food is special.

  • My heart goes out to you in the loss of your dear friend, David. Such people always live on in our memories, but that still does not stop our missing them. This community you have created, those of us who read your blog and your newsletter, are touched by your words honoring your friend.

  • What a lovely eulogy, from the heart, direct, funny and sincere. I have her book and love to cook from it.

  • Lovely and lovingly written. Thank you.

  • Everyone talks about the roast chicken at Zuni, but what I remember most were perfect roast peppers in delicious olive oil, linguine with ricotta salata & fresh herbs, the guacamole, that fantastic burger (“after 10 pm only!”) – everything was always simple and perfect. If you were alone you could sit tucked away in that little cubby upstairs, eating lovely food and watching everyone else; if you were in a group all of you got squiffy & shared everything. Zuni will go on, but the light which illuminated it is gone. So, so sad.

  • How fortunate we are that she came into this world and improved it to such an extent that many recognize her worth. You were especially blessed to have her for a friend, as she was with you. I think it is a Suni saying but it doesn’t matter where it originated; it is as follows: Lord break my heart that more room may be made. You already have a large heart, sharing much with us. Thank you for sharing your memories. May you and your friends find comfort in each other now.

  • What a beautifully written tribute to a great cook! And so nice that you also told her in person – too often we wait till it’s too late to tell people what they mean to us.

  • I nod with you David and have just purchased her Zuni Cafe book. À la vôtre!

  • There will never be another dish that will remain in my food memory as the Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit salad. There was both genius and audacity in converting such diverse and unrelated elements into what I call perfection, and although some believe that perfection must be reserved for Allah – I believe that the archetype of perfection when it comes to food was found where she cooked, in the simple complexity of bringing over a bowl of polenta that warmed your hands, and your heart because it tasted just like you always hoped your bowl of polenta would, and never did..

    When I was teaching I used to tell the students that cooking was Alchemy and baking was Chemistry, and her food embodied the very essence of Alchemy, the ability to transform very few, simple and common ingredients into a most extraordinary experience. There were no tweezers in her kitchen, no lukewarm food that looked like a perfectly designed mosaic of color and form and that while good, never achieves status of food memory, the one that to me the anchovies. little arches of cold, crispy celery and shards of cheese with some stray Nicoises, and the rabbit salad spring forth every time someone asked me for a recommendation to eat in San Francisco

    I met her a few times, every time I went to San Francisco always the first night dinner was at Zuni’s, with the killer Martinis and those eyes of her, that I could never tell if they were gray or blue or green. Could have been the light or the Martinis. As David said, she would be gracious but reluctant to accept a compliment. She was filled with the knowledge of what food should taste, and she was blessed with the grace of translating that in a clear and honest way, no frills yet plenty of thrills as it was evident from the first bite to the last. She will be missed by those who were fortunate enough to meet her, to taste her food and to enjoy her place.

    And she was way too young to die.

  • I make her artichoke with onions and olives at least once a year, in the springtime.
    It’s a tasty treat. Each time I make it, henceforth, I will remember Judy Rodgers.
    May her spirit guide those who are open.
    Peace,
    Laurie

  • Lovely comments about a lovely women. She has been an inspiration to me in my career on many levels – she was such a wonderful chef and human being.

  • I ate at Zuni a couple of times. I remember the Caesar salad and the windows. I have checked Judy’s cookbook out of the library and read through it. There is a lot to digest.

  • I’m sure Judy improved many a home cook and professional chef’s kitchen endeavors. Her roasted chicken and bread salad was one of my clients’ favorite dinners when I cooked for guests in the Colorado mountains. I and both of my adult children have her Zuni Cafe cookbook in our homes, so she continues to inspire and educate our cooking. Her influence is indeed far reaching. Thank you, Judy. rip

  • Hey Little Buddy! I did a tribute to her on my blog too. She was indeed awesome!