Judy Rodgers, a chef whose San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Café, helped transform the way Americans think of food through its devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared, died Monday in Berkeley, Calif. She was 57.
The cause was appendix cancer, said Gilbert Pilgram, her friend and partner at Zuni.
Ms. Rodgers’ cooking was noteworthy for its refined simplicity, hewed and tempered by an ardent perfectionism and a finely tuned palate.
Not for her the sauce-painted plates and tweezer-bits of microgreens of the modern, high-end kitchen. Instead, at Zuni, a quirky, airy space on a triangular corner of Market Street, she presented dishes that were simultaneously rustic and urbane.
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Ms. Rodgers tasted sauces, dressings and combinations until she found exactly what she had in mind. Then she stuck with it. Many preparations stayed on her menu for years.
“She didn’t have a huge menu, she didn’t need to be fashionable, she didn’t feel she had to invent new things; she just worked on every dish until it was perfect,” said Joyce Goldstein, a chef and author who interviewed Ms. Rodgers for her recent book, “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness.”
In 2002, Ms. Rodgers herself published “The Zuni Café Cookbook,” which the book critic Dwight Garner described in The New York Times as “a friend you’re going to keep for the rest of your life.”
Zuni, which opened in 1979, was already a successful restaurant when Ms. Rodgers became the chef in 1987. But as she refocused its eclectic menu toward rustic French and Italian dishes, it became a San Francisco institution, a social hub for artists, political activists and food pilgrims.
More than any other dish, it was Zuni’s homey roast chicken (see recipe at end) that made an impression. After the bird was carved into pieces, its skin crisp and crackling, it was presented to the table on a large oval platter, resting on a bread salad that would absorb the melting juices.
Ms. Rodgers was born Oct. 28, 1956, and grew up in St. Louis. As a 16-year-old exchange student in France, she landed, by chance or fate, with the family of Jean Troisgros, who happened to run one of the greatest restaurants in the world, Les Frères Troisgros, in Roanne. There she absorbed a culture in which ingredients, cooking and eating were venerated.
She moved to the Bay Area in 1974 to study art history at Stanford. Around the time she graduated in 1978, she chanced on Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ groundbreaking restaurant in Berkeley, and recognized a kindred spirit. Eventually, with no formal training, she began cooking lunches there.
From there she led a well-traveled career: stints in Italy and southwest France, where she gained a mentor, Pepette Arbulo, who taught her how to shape a cuisine around what was available locally and seasonally; a return to the Bay Area, where she worked at Union Hotel in Benicia; a sojourn in New York, at Yellow Fingers; and another return to California, this time to work at Zuni Café.
Ms. Rodgers, who lived in North Berkeley, is survived by her husband, Kirk Russell; two stepdaughters, Kate and Olivia; her mother, Cathy Rodgers; a sister, Carolyn Rodgers; and a brother, Doug.
In her interview for Goldstein’s book, Ms. Rodgers recalled living in France with the family of an elite chef. For all his sophistication, she said, what had struck her most was how much pleasure Troisgros took in a plate of steak frites at the local cafe.
“He honestly loved that better than going to a three-star restaurant,” she said. “It was pretty clear, the food you eat every day is the most important food. This is what we do at Zuni.”
Zuni Café Chicken
2 or more servings
1 small chicken, 2¾ to 3½ pounds
4 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Season the chicken one to three days before serving (for 3¼ to 3½-pound chickens, at least two days): Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry (a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown).
2. Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making two little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig into each of the four pockets.
3. Using about ¾ teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken and pepper to taste, season the chicken liberally all over with salt and the pepper. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity and on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate one to three days to brine.
4. Heat the oven to 475 degrees. Depending on your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during roasting to brown the chicken properly.
5. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
6. Place into the center of the oven and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for a further 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, a further five to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to one hour.
7. Remove the chicken from the roasting pan and set onto a plate. Pour the clear fat from the pan, leaving the drippings. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. As the chicken rests, tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape.
8. Cut the chicken into pieces and pour the pan drippings over the chicken.
Adapted by The New York Times from Judy Rodgers