Judy Rodgers, the chef-owner of Zuni Café (1658 Market St.), has died at age 57. Rodgers had been sick for over a year and a half with a devastating form of cancer and her acolyte and friend chef Gayle Pirie (Foreign Cinema, Show Dogs) wrote poignantly for the San Francisco Chronicle late last year about how tough the treatment and disease had been—but yes, Pirie is able to provide a break via a pop tart delivery from Foreign Cinema.
Rodgers arrived in Palo Alto in 1974 to study art history at Stanford. She made the pilgrimage to the East Bay to try Chez Panisse, and ended up cooking there for Alice Waters even though she lacked any official culinary training. She later cooked in New York City and France and came back in 1987 to help her friend Billy West at Zuni, which started as a restaurant with Southwestern leanings. Rodgers was the one who pushed for installing the brick oven, which led to many successful add-ons to the Zuni menu as Rodgers describes in the Zuni Café Cookbook:
"Why not just roast a chicken? A whole chicken, to order. People could share it. It would be delicious out of that oven and simple. I bet people would go for it." People did go for it. We never stop apologizing for the wait, but we just can't roast enough chickens, fast enough. Juggling up to 19 birds, and their bread salads, on about twelve not-very-accessible square feet of oven deck is a feat.”
Rodgers was definitely known for her food and was an integral part of the scene locally. The roast chicken for two with warm bread salad over wilted arugula at Zuni Café is one popular menu mainstay that continues to be heralded as a “best ever” must-have. Dining at Zuni late into the evening (with a nice glass of celebratory bubbly) is a Bay Area rite of passage to many from literary lions to rock stars to celeb chefs and everyday eaters. Try getting a table there on Pride weekend—you may be outta luck but able to make friends with the party pack. There is a sense of place at Zuni, derived as much from the food and wine as the care that Rodgers and crew put into every touch. Zuni Café won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in America in 2003; in 2004 Rodgers received the award for Outstanding Chef in America, as pictured above.
Joyce Goldstein profiled Rodgers in Inside the California Food Revolution, and told 7x7, “We knew this was coming but it’s still so sad. She was really in a lot of pain towards the end.
Judy was one of the best cooks we ever had. What a great palate and she was a perfectionist. She knew to not clutter a plate with too many ingredients and was masterful with her vinaigrettes for salads. She was not a media hog and wrote one of the best books ever. Zuni was an exemplary restaurant where she didn't have to reinvent the wheel every day… she was just the best.”
Zuni Café will be open today.