If you have never stopped by San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe on a Sunday afternoon, waited for a table in the odd-shaped room and ordered a half-dozen oysters before you even wedged into a seat, this week’s outpouring of love for the late chef Judy Rodgers may seem a little out of proportion. Rodgers ran a nice restaurant, but she was neither first with urban rustic cuisine -- that would be her mentor Alice Waters -- nor the first to populate her wine list with obscure labels from Italy and the Rhone.
Her insistence on dry-brining was novel, but less sexy than liquid nitrogen or sous vide. She was early on wood-burning brick ovens, but everybody has one of those now. She was process-oriented, but had nowhere near Thomas Keller’s OCD-like obsession with detail. If you asked regulars what they liked to eat at Zuni, you heard a lot about Caesar salad; burgers; anchovies served with shaved celery and a bit of cheese; bowls of polenta; sliced salami; and bean soup. Mostly you heard about the roast chicken, an actual farm bird rubbed with salt, blasted in that wood oven, and served with a sweet-sour bread salad flavored with raisins, pinenuts and bitter greens.
You can have a remarkable dinner at Zuni -- you can always have a remarkable dinner at Zuni -- of nothing but grilled salmon, roast shoulder of lamb or local sea bass, accompanied by the same herbs and vegetables you may have seen in the Ferry Market that morning. The food is delicious, but no big deal. Rodgers wasn’t constructing an alternate culinary universe like Corey Lee at Benu or Daniel Patterson at Coi, she was cooking dinner for you and your friends. I have probably been to Zuni at least 25 or 30 times since Rodgers took over the formerly Southwestern restaurant in 1987, and I have failed to order the chicken only twice.
But Rodgers’ cooking was a big deal. That composition of anchovies, celery and Parmesan, something you could probably put together right now from the contents of your refrigerator, was perfect in every detail, from the fruitiness of the olive oil to the fragile crispness of the celery, and you had never tasted an anchovy, even a house-cured Farallon Islands anchovy, in precisely that way. Each fleck of pepper spoke volumes. The aftertaste of the tart olive or two on the plate contributed its own complexity to the dish. Presumably Rodgers was using the same Parmigiano-Reggiano that you could buy at the Cheese Board across the bay in Berkeley, but the shards you chipped off your block were rarely quite like that.
She was like one of those stage directors who knows that the best way to coax greatness out of her actors is to stand out of their way. And in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, possibly the greatest, most generous cookbook ever written by a working American chef, she shared every technique she had.
The standard way of sniffing at the kind of California food that she helped to create is to call it Figs on a Plate. I can’t help thinking that if Rodgers had bothered to serve figs on a plate, possibly the cracked and shrunken Mission figs she loved so much with a drop of bitter honey and a dab of pungent cheese, they would have been the most delicious figs you had ever put into your mouth.