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.