California Cuisine Loses One of Its Founders

Judy Rodgers, chef-owner of Zuni Café, died yesterday at 57.

Zuni Cafe Judy Rodgers

(Photo: sixteenmilesofstring/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Caesar salad, hamburgers, Bloody Marys, and oysters. Roast chicken. These simple, familiar dishes aren’t the sort that the menu of a destination restaurant is built around. But in the hands of Judy Rodgers, the longtime chef of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, such a manner of straightforward cooking built a legacy. Chefs ranging from Roy Choi to Thomas Keller are honoring that legacy today following the news that Rodgers, who had been battling cancer, died yesterday at 57.

Many in the food world will be aping her most famous dish, roast chicken with bread salad, for dinner tonight. Even if you’ve never heard of Rodgers, Zuni, or this recipe, chances are good that the excellent roast chicken you had at a dinner party was inspired by her signature approach: seasoning the bird well ahead of time—a day or more before cooking—and roasting it in a very hot oven. (Here's the complete recipe.) Like the grass-fed beef she served long before such a thing became trendy, Zuni birds are always small, organic chickens that have never been treated with antibiotics.

Rodgers, who grew up in St. Louis, started her professional cooking career with an apprenticeship at the three-Michelin-starred Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France, in 1973—around the time when that famed restaurant was busy codifying nouvelle cuisine. She later spent time at Chez Panisse before taking over Zuni Café in 1987. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse may be more widely known, but the impact that Rodgers' Mediterranean-influenced style has had on American cooking is just as deeply felt.

So get a chicken now, pat it dry, season it heavily, and set it aside until dinner. You’ll be remembering a great American chef with one of the most iconic dishes of California cooking.  

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