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What I Learned

Honoring Judy Rodgers

Courtesy of Judy Rodgers

In the fall of 2012, Food & Wine tasked me with wrangling hundreds of chefs for a large-scale interview project. I was just coming off a hyperlocal food editor gig at a New York weekly, and the work was a chance to broaden my knowledge of national culinary talent. I spoke with chefs doing honest work in their regions, such as Landon Schoenefeld of Haute Dish in Minneapolis, and Kevin Sousa who was using his Pittsburgh restaurants as engines for urban renewal. And, of course, I spoke with the heavyweights—David Kinch, Charlie Palmer, Grant Achatz, who talked my ear off for two hours about sherry vinegar and Sleep No More. The sea-change chefs. The kahunas.

And then there was Judy Rodgers. When she showed up on my assignment list I contained my excitement the way a late-summer peach contains its pulpy fruit—which is to say not much at all. I knew about Judy. She was a culinary laureate; a pioneer who had been seeing to the brick hearth at her San Francisco gem, Zuni Café, since 1987. It was a 26-year stretch that had seen the chef through five James Beard Awards and the publishing of her seminal Zuni Café Cookbook. “Through great fortune and coincidence” she told me, Rodgers spent her senior year of high school abroad, living with the dynastic Troisgras clan at les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, France. The experience left its mark. “I went to school every day, and spent every other waking minute absorbing the food and the culture of that region and that family,” she remembered.

Rodgers returned to the States to attend Stanford University, and later connected with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, where she spent two years as a lunch chef. She brought Waters’s legendary reverence for local, seasonal produce with her when she tackled American food at the Union Hotel in Benicia, California, in the early ’80s, and when she joined the Zuni Café team in ’87. Rodgers overhauled the menu—it had a Southwestern bent when it opened in 1979—and over the years she helped transform the place into a true American culinary icon.

But when we spoke, Judy had other things on her mind. Battling cancer and in the throes of chemotherapy, she told me then that she couldn’t answer any questions about what she liked to eat: “I’m not eating much of anything right now,” she’d said without a whole lot of heartbreak in her voice. I can’t presume to know how Judy greeted her illness, but that day she showed me grace. Her dignity and poise seemed herculean when, just a few months later, I read Gayle Pirie’s piece about the pain and torment the cancer had wrought. How generous of her to give me an hour that day, to talk about mountaintop picnics and, of course, that damned career-making roast chicken. (Scroll down for highlights from that 20 questions–style interview last fall.)

Judy died last night at the age of 57. I think I’ll prepare her chicken tonight, burying stems of thyme under its skin and tucking it in the fridge in a jacket of dry brine just as she would have instructed. I look forward to that sublime perfume a perfect roast chicken can give. The scent will linger in my oven for days after I’ve cooked it, calling to mind the simple, humble pleasure of a roast bird, shared among friends, with good wine and not much more. It’s a fitting tribute, I think.

F&W Chef Superstar Interview: Judy Rodgers

What dish are you most famous for? The Zuni roast chicken with bread salad. When I got to Zuni in 1987, it was the year everybody was building brick ovens. They were commonly being used for pizza at the time. I thought I would use it for vegetables and fish, and then I had this idea about trying to roast a whole chicken to order. It has become one of those things you do when you come to San Francisco: You go up Coit Tower, you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you take a cable car and you eat roast chicken with bread salad at Zuni Café.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from them? My first one was Jean Troisgros. Les Frères Troisgros was the first place I was involved in food. Every day I learned something new: Jean taught me to taste and smell things every time I cook. You have to adjust how you cook and season your dishes based on the ingredients you are using on any given day. He taught me to use a pan that is the right size for a specific preparation: If you use a pan that is too big you are going to end up scorching things, and if the pan is too small you are going to end up steaming things. It doesn’t matter how good the ingredients are, if you screw up the execution.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try? Certainly something that you actually like, and for which you can source good ingredients. Do not cook fish if you cannot get good fish. If you do not know how to choose good fish, do not cook fish. Cook something that you know. If you like strawberries and you know that you can get good strawberries, do a dish using good strawberries.

What’s the most important trait you need to be a great cook? There is no most important trait, but paying really close attention helps. Food is not destined to be good or destined to be bad—it is what you do to it or what you do not do to it that affects the results. If something browned really well, you have to ask, “What did I do? Did I set the flame low? How hot was the pan when I added the food? What sound did it make when I added the food to the pan? What did it smell like when it tasted really good? What did it smell like when it tasted really bad?” It’s important to pay attention to all the data that your ingredients, your techniques and your tools are providing you with. If you do not know what you did, you cannot repeat it.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at? I do not know anything about producing Asian food. I certainly love it but I have very little exposure. I once had to write a blurb for the jacket of an Indonesian cookbook and I ended up cooking a bunch of the recipes. It was such a revelation—I was delighted with the results, but I also realized how little I know about the ingredients, the tools and the techniques that are used in that cuisine.

What is your secret-weapon ingredient? It is hardly a secret, but I would say I am pretty well known for the way I use salt. I pioneered and popularized the idea of dry brining—curing things with salt before you cook them so that they are more tender and succulent. I also started salting desserts 30 years ago and now you can go to the grocery store and get a salted chocolate bar. My go-to is un-messed with, fairly fine-textured sea salt.

What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip? Probably the memory of the best and most convivial meal I had on each trip—a great meal at somebody’s house or at a picnic in the woods. I’ll think, “Oh, that was wonderful sitting on that mountaintop, having that piece of cheese with that local bread. That peach was too hard but it tasted great that day after climbing 10,000 feet.”

What is your favorite cookbook of all time? I constantly go back to the Elizabeth David books, not to cook from but just to get ideas. When I look through her books, I do not ever stop at one recipe and plan to make it—I tend to look at whole chapters to get a sense of the whole culinary culture she’s referencing.

What are your talents besides cooking? I think I am a very good teacher. I look at a cook who is working for me and I figure out what that person is bringing to the table in terms of information and passion. I think about how to calibrate the information, and guidance I want to confer to get the best results from each individual cook. And I like to garden—I do not know if I have a talent for gardening, but I certainly like it.

Related: America's Favorite Roast Chicken by Judy Rodgers

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