Before mainstream America knew to apply the word “artisanal” to food, the California chef Judy Rodgers was applying traditional French culinary techniques to American comfort food, making her own jam and sausage and elevating roast chicken to a work of art.
Rodgers learned from the best. Having grown up in St. Louis “in the age of manufactured food,” she went to France as a 16-year-old exchange student, where she was assigned to live with a family that happened to run a famous three-star restaurant called Les Frères Troisgros (today renamed La Maison Troisgros).
Rodgers worked in the restaurant, writing down the family recipes and studying their approach to food. However, she never so much as lifted a spoon professionally until she returned to America in 1977 and began cooking at a funky Berkeley bistro called Chez Panisse.
Four years later, Rodgers, then 24, attracted national attention as the chef at the brand-new Union Hotel in Benecia. In 1987, she took over as the chef at San Francisco’s edgy Zuni Café — and never left.
More than two decades later, the way Rodgers marries refined technique with comforting cuisine remains constant, and her roast chicken with bread salad is the stuff of legend. In 2003, the James Beard Foundation named Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook Cookbook of the Year; the following year, the foundation named Rodgers herself Outstanding Chef.
France transformed Julia Child, Alice Waters, and you. Is it still such a culinary mecca? What about Spain? Or Morocco?
The moment I went, in 1973, was really a turning point. A lot of stuff was starting to form with the cultural direction of food. Nouvelle cuisine caught fire that year. Troisgros was a seminal house for that sort of evolution. The template for cooking was still Escoffier, but they were coming with fun, bright, alternative ways. Troisgros wasn’t doing flour-based sauces; they were doing reduction-based sauces, stocks reduced to syrupy status.
The world is obviously more connected now; it’s smaller. The culture of food is explored and talked about more than it was 30 years ago. Even if absolutely nothing had changed about the foods of France or Spain or Morocco, the evolution and explosion of interest has had the impact of accelerating and changing the course of the food itself.
Maybe up in the High Atlas Mountains, there are dishes still being prepared in fashions very similar to generations before; maybe that cuisine would be pure and untouched and true to the notion of what a regional cuisine is. But now there’s so much intermixing and traveling the world, it’s more a distillation of the best thing to do with what you’ve got in your unspoiled region.
Are we at risk of losing traditional cooking? Does that matter?
l think we’ve always been at risk. Our species has always been at risk of going extinct. We’ve always been losing traditional cooking — as it’s evolving, you’re losing something. Communication and travel is so easy now, more people have the chance of tasting and experiencing and knowing about relatively undisturbed traditional food — then they’re not undisturbed anymore. But the lessons they teach, the positives in traditional food, are more understood and embraced.
How did you come to work at Chez Panisse?
Oh, gosh. I wasn’t going to get involved in cooking and restaurants. I was graduating from Stanford University, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had a friend who worked as this restaurant. Chez Panisse was the only place I’d seen in America so far that had a germ of a notion of approaching the meal in any of the way that reminded me of France.
I had been at Troisgros and dutifully recorded the recipes; Jean Troisgros proofread them. I had a foundation in terms of words how things worked. I had a wicked technique for a great reduction; I knew the method, but I hadn’t made it. I was shocked when Alice [Waters] asked if I would come work for her. I was already 20, probably — way too late to start cooking. I hadn’t cooked professionally, but I took the job. I was the lunch chef; I was alone. Really, it was a voyage of discovery.
What’s the best thing you learned on your voyage?
Elaboration. Adjustment. I would watch Jeremiah Tower, the senior cooks, the leader cooks. They would be making a stew and making adjustments and substitutions that were not part of the game plan when they walked in the door that morning. They would taste constantly, add salt and more butter, more reduction; they would do these minor adjustments to things. How did they know to do that? How did they know to simmer that longer or less? It’s only possible if you know a lot and have done a lot. That virtuosity was one of the ways you could pull off that daily changing menu.
Changing course as the food changes direction is a really important skill if you’re in a restaurant or even at home. You have your ingredients and you have an idea about your dish, but don’t just be blind and follow that map no matter what. You may fall in a pothole.
Sirio Maccioni’s crème brûlée, Wolfgang Puck’s duck pizza, Ferran Adrià’s foams . . . your roasted chicken. What makes it so iconic?
[Laughter] Iconic is a media assessment. But it’s definitely a big deal. Who knew? Crazy.
It has to be small, so you have a high degree of skin-and-fat ratio to the lean muscle, and you can cook it hot and fast. With really big chickens, you don’t have the experience of the crispy skin in every bite. Then it’s salting. Take this perfect little chicken — it’s juicier and tastier by far when it’s done in advance.
The bread salad is the icing on the cake — the experience of receiving it and eating it, it’s evocative of stuffing, so it’s a really happy thing, just addictively delicious.
Because the chickens have to be salted at least a day in advance, just from a planning perspective, it’s very tricky for us. It’s gotten to the point of how many could we possibly sell in a day. We’ve increased from 30 to 112 in a day — in 12 square feet. On an out-of-control weekend, I am at risk of running out of chickens on a Sunday night. I can’t get any delivered on Saturday. It’s becoming a problem.
Do you ever want to say, “Enough with the damn chicken!” Have there been recipes you’ve wanted for Zuni that diners didn’t appreciate?
Some. Within days of arriving in the restaurant, I put anchovies on the menu. It was considered strange, alarming, bizarre, something a weird Left Coaster would do.
Very early on, I did squid stew cooked in its own ink, and it was black. And fried blood. You fry the blood in a pan, like an omelet. This was back in the 1980s. It didn’t sell well, but the people who ordered it loved it.
We got a reputation of being a place that’s sort of edgy, that if you go to Zuni and see something weird on the menu, order it. People are willing to give us a shot.
For many people, Zuni’s roast chicken is the ultimate classic comfort dish. What dish means comfort for you?
For a lot of us who’ve spent our lives in the kitchen cooking and tasting, you don’t crave a particular dish; you crave a particular taste. Ripe figs — I’m totally addicted. Or an incredibly perfect mango. Bread. Things on bread.
The things I go back to are not very exciting, such as toasted bread with tomato and a lot of olive oil (the Catalan pa amb tomàquet.) It’s ridiculously satisfying.
How has Zuni’s menu — and your palate — changed over the years?
I don’t tend to like it as rich as I did. I use almost no cream, almost no butter, maybe a little on bread. I don’t know when I last put butter in the pan. I’m an olive-oil gal, and I use plenty of that.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I used to do braisy things — oxtails or beef shanks or lamb shanks, some braised pig things — based on reductions. They were pretty killer. It used to be you could get that at Zuni and nowhere else. But more and more restaurants do that now, and we sell so many chickens, there’s no room in the oven to do oven braises.
Now I’m trending to more digestible, more economical and responsible — you don’t have to kill the second pig for the sauce. I do simpler braises without reduction, less rich and saturated, almost like the traditional braising meat with vegetables. Instead of reduction, I’ll just purée vegetables with a mouli — that’s how they’re doing it in farm houses. It’s less wasteful, and I like it better. That’s how traditional cuisine happens — they do things over and over and distill what’s best.
What keeps it new for you after all this time?
Even if I thought we got the chicken figured out — and we don’t — we’re always learning the process of keeping the restaurant going. An execution of a dish changes. A vendor goes away — that can be a very big deal. You can’t just use somebody else’s bread or chicken. It’s relentless and, some days, it’s not always that gratifying. It’s extremely challenging.
It’s great to be able to see people excel, to succeed. It’s great working with line cooks, teaching them the process. Does this taste good to you? Take something you think you like and tweak it, by adding salt or vinegar or fat until you feel oh, it’s good, oh, it’s even better, oh, it’s even better, now, yikes, I just wrecked it. Train your palate. Like a musician, you can hear a note and know exactly what note it is.
And it’s definitely nice to have easy access to great food.
Zuni opened in 1979, and you’ve been there since 1987. That’s a long time for a restaurant. What keeps people coming back?
There’s a thing about Zuni — you can have a wonderful, satisfying meal, or you can have a simple bowl of polenta for six dollars, and it’s “one of my best meals in a long time.”
I think of Zuni as somewhat different from other restaurants. It’s more than just the food, more than just the service; it’s the whole thing, how it looks when you walk in. The building is so much a part of your meal — when you see that impossibly long brilliant copper bar, and with that big glass window, the feel of the restaurant is so mutable in terms of weather.
And mutable in terms of the crowd. Some days are crowded, some days not; sometimes the mood is buttoned up, sometimes it’s all crazy, young, wild. It has an intrinsically sexy ambience. It’s one of our real leg-ups on the marketplace. You come here and you feel good and you have a good time. You’re sitting in this beautiful place, a place where people enjoy being. It’s restorative — it’s what a restaurant is, a place where you restore yourself. You’re nourished by being here.
All these things make the restaurant so dynamic. The special ingredients can be something the kitchen has nothing to do with.
Related recipe: Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Eight Indian flatbreads to bake or fry at home.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better