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Culinary laureate Judy Rodgers has been seeing to the brick hearth at Zuni Café, her San Francisco gem, since 1987—a 26-year stretch that’s seen the chef through five James Beard Awards and the publishing of her seminal Zuni Café Cookbook.
“Through great fortune and coincidence,” 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 remembers. After returning to the States to attend Stanford University, Rodgers 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. Later in the decade Rodgers joined Zuni Café, starting its transformation into an American culinary landmark.
Rodgers took a moment with Food & Wine to tell us about indelible meals, quiet wines and her standard-bearing roast chicken.
What dish are you most famous for?
The Zuni roast chicken with bread salad. When I got to Zuni, everybody was building brick ovens. They were commonly being used for pizza but I did not want to become a pizzeria. 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 at Zuni Café.
Who is your food mentor?
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?
Cook something that you know. If you like strawberries and you know that you can get good strawberries, do a dish using good strawberries. Do not cook fish if you cannot get good fish, if you do not know how to choose good fish.
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 certainly love it, but I do not know anything about producing Asian food. 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 unmessed with, fairly fine-textured sea salt.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
The world ought to be talking about water, because we are going to run out of it. That is a geopolitical answer, and I am not proposing that there wouldn’t be enough water for cooking—but water is an ingredient, and we’re going to be facing a huge problem with it soon.
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 after climbing 10,000 feet.
If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
We have been approached so many times over the years to do another Zuni, but I have never been driven to do it. In so many ways, Zuni corresponds to what I always wanted out of a restaurant and it fulfills me so much.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you bring him?
When I lived in France I spent a lot of time not just eating in the formal Troisgros restaurant, but also with the family members. The Troisgros brothers have a sister named Madeleine who is a great cook—if she were to cook her blanquette de veau or her pot-au-feu for Tom Keller, that would be fun.
What do you look for in a great wine?
I like simple regional wines, I am not after the big enormous Bordeaux or Zinfandel. My taste runs to quieter, softer grapes like Pinot Noir more than Syrahs or Cabernets. And I like my whites really high-acid.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
I constantly go back to the Elizabeth David books, not to cook from but to get ideas. When I look through her books, 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 like to garden—I do not know if I have a talent for gardening, but I certainly like it. I love to hike and climb mountains, and 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.