Judy Rodgers has firm opinions on salt. Well, to be honest (and that’s the only way she would have it), Rodgers has firm opinions on many, many things, including such disparate topics as the unthinking use of lemon as an all-purpose acidifier, why Kennebec and Winnemucca are the perfect potatoes for frying, and the tip-driven inequities between waiters’ and cooks’ take-home pay.
These aren’t knee-jerk opinions. The chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Cafe has thought through these issues quite thoroughly, breaking each down in her methodical way.
In fact, a thoughtful, painstaking approach to cooking is the very spirit that informs her restaurant. While other chefs may range far and wide, tracking down the latest new dish, ingredient or technique, Rodgers would rather just dig a little deeper.
Though roughly 60% to 70% of the dinner menu at Zuni changes every night, it is based on a relatively small number of dishes. And some, such as roast chicken, Caesar salad and house-cured anchovies, have been on the menu almost every night since she took over in 1987.
Don’t mistake that as a sign of a kitchen on autopilot. Rodgers still views every one of those dishes as a work in progress, and she is constantly measuring, timing and evaluating whether there is a way each could be improved. As she puts it in her critically acclaimed “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook”: “Making even a simple dish three times in two weeks can teach you more about cooking than trying three different dishes in the same period. Pay attention to the process of making it, and to the small and large differences in the results.”
That could be Rodgers’ mantra: Pay attention to the details of cooking and think about what is going on. “Build your database,” is how she likes to put it.
Rodgers’ most-discussed culinary theory regards the salting of meat. Almost every piece of beef, lamb, fish or poultry that comes into the Zuni kitchen immediately gets a light dusting of salt, and then is set aside for as long as several days to “cure.”
“It is a part of the restaurant’s personality,” she says. “The flavor of Zuni Cafe is pre-salting, and if I can’t pre-salt, I can’t get the right flavor.”
Rodgers says pre-salting does two things: It seasons the meat all the way through rather than just on the surface, and it changes the texture of the meat, making it moister and more tender -- in much the same way brining does.
Ask for details and you’d better be careful what you wish for. Rodgers might just invite you to San Francisco for a day of on-the-spot experiments.
The basement cook
There are two kitchens at Zuni Cafe: one upstairs where dishes are finished, and one in the basement where all the initial preparations take place. The first, the one the customers see, is light-filled and airy with warm wood and tile surfaces. The second is emphatically not, but it seems to be where Rodgers spends most of her time.
The two are joined by a long, steep staircase, and in the course of a day Rodgers must sprint up and down it at least a dozen times. At 49, she still has an air about her of Berkeley in the ‘70s. Tall and willowy, she wears her hair waist-length and straight and is given to dressing in brightly colored tights and short skirts, even when she’s cooking.
But there is nothing airy-fairy about Rodgers. She believes in getting right down to business.
For this day’s experiments, she has lined up four chickens (two cut up for frying: one cured, one not; two whole for roasting, the same arrangement); three beef sirloins (one uncured, one cured in salt only, one cured with salt and coarse pepper); two chuck roasts for braising (one cured, one not); and five thick pork chops (variously cured, brined and marinated). You might expect that each type of meat would take a different dose of salt, but Rodgers has calculated that about 1 tablespoon of medium-grain sea salt per 4 1/2 pounds of meat is the perfect ratio for everything. Instead, she says, it’s the time spent curing that varies, from a couple of hours to several days. This depends on the type of meat -- chicken and pork are denser than beef or lamb so they take longer -- and the size of the cut.
Rodgers’ salting is different from traditional koshering in that kosher chickens are salted and cured for only an hour, then rinsed with water, whereas Zuni chickens cure for anywhere from one to three days. As for the salt, Rodgers prefers a sea salt that she finds in bulk bins in the Bay Area that is somewhat coarser than fine salt, but much finer than that which is usually sold as coarse. It has the consistency of cornmeal. If you’re using very finely ground salt, just use slightly less.
You might think early salting would result in drier meat because the salt would draw out moisture. But the way it seems to work is that over time, the meat reabsorbs the moisture, carrying the salt with it. Furthermore, because that moisture is loaded with amino acids and sugars, the meat browns better and forms a better crust.
Rodgers knew none of that when she started pre-salting. She was just following the instructions of Georgette Descat, a Parisian chef and one of her culinary godparents.
By her own admission, Rodgers comes from a very nongastronomic family in St. Louis. As a junior in high school in 1973, she was anxious to spend a year abroad, preferably in France, as she had studied the language. A neighbor who was a fabrics chemist at Monsanto mentioned he knew someone in Rouen, a textile city, who might be willing to host her.
That someone turned out to be Jean Troisgros, who with his brother Pierre was among the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, at their three-star restaurant Maison Troisgros. For someone with even the most nascent interest in food, this was like landing in heaven.
Indeed, Rodgers dates the beginning of her culinary life to the very first meal she enjoyed chez Troisgros -- not a Michelin-starred extravaganza with its famous salmon and sorrel, but a very carefully made ham sandwich that Jean Troisgros fixed upon her arrival at 4 a.m.
“That was when I started paying attention to food,” she says. “Before then I was someone who fueled efficiently. But there was no turning back after that ham sandwich.”
Life at the Troisgros’ wasn’t all wine-poached truffles (though there were those too). Much more formative for Rodgers were the family’s dinners prepared by their sister, Madeleine Troisgros Serraille, who served perfectly executed versions of classic French home cooking.
“Salmon and sorrel is wonderful, but nothing beats a great blanquette,” Rodgers says.
After the Troisgros experience, Rodgers’ great teacher was Pepette Arbulo, who had a small cafe in the Landes region, a great area for ducks, but not much else.
“That was a real awakening for me,” she says. “I never noticed that I was eating duck two or three times a day, because people there had explored for a hundred years every possible elaboration of what was possible to do with all of those damned ducks they had, and had eventually winnowed all of those possibilities down to a few of the best. It was a kind of communal distillation.
“It wasn’t an attitude of ‘Here is what we have to do because we’re so isolated’; rather it was a daily exploration of what they could do with what they had.”
Between the two French stays was a stint in Berkeley at Chez Panisse, working with an all-star crew including Alice Waters, Lindsey Remolif Shere, Mark Miller, Jean-Pierre Moulle, Deborah Madison and Jeremiah Tower. Rodgers learned from all of them, but the most important lesson may have come from her mother, who hardly cooked at all. She was an instructor in fashion design at Washington University, and when Rodgers was 8, she gave her her first sewing lessons.
“She taught me that there was a right way and a wrong way to lay out a pattern on a piece of fabric, and that if I laid out the pattern the wrong way, it would mess everything up. It didn’t matter if it was a great pattern and great material,” Rodgers says.
“It’s the same thing with cooking. You can have great ingredients and a fabulous imagination, but if you screw up at any of the steps, it doesn’t matter what you were working with or what you imagined.”
Fried to perfection
Which brings us back to that kitchen full of meat. The first finished dish we taste, the fried chicken, is fabulous. It’s the dish that brought her to national attention in the 1980s, when she was cooking at the little Union Hotel in Benicia, northeast of San Francisco. (Ruth Reichl, then critic for New West magazine, called it “the most perfect example of that dish I have ever encountered.”)
At first it’s hard to say whether that deliciousness is because of the quality of the meat -- it’s cured for only two to three hours -- or the glorious crackling crust. But pull some of the meat from the center of each sample, and there is a definite difference -- the texture is fine-grained, not stringy.
Things come into clearer focus with the braised beef. Cooked in a red wine reduction until it is nearly falling apart, the regular chuck tastes like boiled beef. The pre-salted sample has a fuller flavor. The pork chops, which the grill cook has let go a little too long, are slightly dried out, except for the one that was brined. It is still tender and moist, but the sugar in the brine makes the meat noticeably sweet when compared with the others.
Rodgers doesn’t like that, and though the flavor of the brine was not on the day’s agenda, she vows to change the recipe.
The three beef fillets, roasted quite rare, are dramatically different. The unsalted is fine -- it’s a nice piece of grass-fed beef -- but the pre-salted has much better flavor and is firmer in texture, so it slices cleanly, rather than in rags. And a hint of black pepper seems to have been carried to the center of the one that was peppered as well as pre-salted.
It is the roast chicken that is the coup de grace, though, and that is fitting. Zuni’s roast chicken is so popular that the restaurant goes through 350 birds a week -- each one roasted to order in the wood-fired oven.
You can tell the difference between the birds just by looking. The pre-salted chicken is a uniform golden color, whereas the other is more mottled, with some gold, some pale and even some black charred spots.
The difference in flavor is even more pronounced. The bird that was salted just before roasting tastes like, well, chicken -- nothing special, and the texture is a little stringy.
The pre-salted chicken is a revelation: The flavor is full and deep. It’s not salty at all, but has a profound chicken taste. The meat is moist and tender; the texture is downright buttery.
Sure, it’s a roast chicken. But it’s not just any roast chicken. “That is the taste of a Zuni chicken,” Rodgers exclaims. “That is the taste of Zuni restaurant. This is what I’ve always wanted to do: Serve dishes that weren’t just playful and amusing, but were keepers. I like keepers.”