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.