Judy Rodgers, Chef of Refined Simplicity, Dies at 57
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: December 3, 2013
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 on Monday in Berkeley, Calif. She was 57.
The cause was appendix cancer, said Gilbert Pilgram, her friend and partner at Zuni.
Ms. Rodgers’s 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.
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 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.
Judith Rodgers was born on 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’s 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 Ms. 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 Mr. 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.”