Judy Rodgers, the pioneering chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, died last night at age 57. Although the cause of death is currently unconfirmed, Rodgers's protégé, Gayle Pirie of Foreign Cinema, penned a lovely ode to her mentor following Rodgers's cancer diagnosis last year.
I didn't know Rodgers personally, but through her evocative writing in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I felt a connection to her philosophy toward food and cooking. In it, she writes passionately of traveling and cooking through France as a young woman, finding and treating ingredients with respect, and making shared meals as a way to express love. The first time I went to Zuni Cafe was with my father as I began to take a serious interest in food. For a girl from the Midwest dipping her toes into the world of seasonal California cuisine and all that it represented, Zuni, which at that point was already a seminal restaurant, was a soft landing. I fell in and never looked back.
Rodgers was a serious chef, and many of her dishes reached icon status in real time: the roast chicken with bread salad, for example, has never left the otherwise constantly-changing menu. The recipe, which involves a dry brine, is one of those very rare dishes that isn't just good, but completely changes the way you cook. "That recipe was actually the first time that I had seen dry-brining recommended by a chef, and it's what my current turkey and chicken recipes are based on," says Kenji. Rodgers was also part of an early wave of influential female chefs, though her femininity manifested itself less as a talking point and more in the simple sensuality of her food.
Rodgers's gift was getting the absolute best out of simple ingredients. "Always cook with heart," she said—a philosophy this serious eater will carry for life.