A few days ago I came across this headline in the New York Times: Judy Rodgers, Chef of Refined Simplicity, Dies at 57. “Refined Simplicity.” Does that phrase thrill you? I’ve never put the words together that way, but it’s everything I aspire to: getting to the...
A few days ago I came across this headline in the New York Times: Judy Rodgers, Chef of Refined Simplicity, Dies at 57.
“Refined Simplicity.” Does that phrase thrill you? I’ve never put the words together that way, but it’s everything I aspire to: getting to the core of whatever and manifesting it clearly and elegantly. It’s Orwell’s “prose like a windowpane,” Wittgenstein’s “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” So although I had no idea who Judy Rodgers was — I’m not a foodie — I read her Times obituary.
Judy Rodgers, I learned, was major. As a kid, she was an exchange student in France, where she had the great good fortune to live with the Troisgros family, proprietors of the famous three-star restaurant Les Frères Troisgros. At Stanford, she studied art history. And might have done something with that if not for a second Hand of God moment: a meal at Chez Panisse. Soon, although she had no formal training, Alice Waters hired her as a lunch chef. A few restaurants later, she had her own kitchen at San Francisco’s Zuni Café.
Judy Rodgers didn’t do TV. Didn’t build an empire. Didn’t court fame at all, really. She just cooked. In 2003, Zuni Cafe won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in America in 2003. In 2004, she was named Outstanding Chef in America, beating Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Alfred Portale, and Nobu Matsuhisa. And although it took her a decade, she wrote every word of the 500 recipe book.
That star-bound trajectory is the stuff of legend, but this is the line that grabbed me: "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."
And with that, I was in love. For this is my grail: one good thing, perfected.
I learned more. Judy Rodgers was pencil-thin. She cooked in a uniform of her own: a sweater, a long skirt. She wore her hair piled on her head, anchored with #2 pencils. She was graceful, a dancer at the stove: “Good cooks have smooth motions. They have economy of movement, no wasted hand work.” Her ego was smaller than a truffle: “I’ve never thought of myself as having invented a single solitary dish. I’m just sort of the thing through which this food gets made.” And, again, she had total focus: “My guideline at this restaurant has always been I want only things here that I would love to have and the way I’d love to have them. If it doesn’t make me happy, then it’s false.”
Among the things she loved were Caesar salad, Bloody Marys, polenta, chocolate pot de crème and hamburger, freshly ground, served on a focaccia bun. But most of all, she was the queen of Roast Chicken. It was what you ordered the first time you went to Zuni. And then? “I have probably been to Zuni at least 25 or 30 times since Rodgers took over the formerly Southwestern restaurant in 1987,” a critic wrote, “and I have failed to order the chicken only twice.
What’s special about Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken? Rodgers only served small, organic, antibiotic-free chickens. (“It has to be small, so you have a high degree of skin-and-fat ratio to the lean muscle, and you can cook it hot and fast. With really big chickens, you don’t have the experience of the crispy skin in every bite.”) She sprinkled the bird with ¾ of a teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken and ground tellicherry black pepper. Then — plan ahead, home cooks! — she let the chicken cure for up to three days in the refrigerator. Finally, she cooked the chicken in an unusually hot oven, so it would begin to brown quickly. And about twenty minutes into the roasting process, she flipped the chicken. Complicated? Hardly.
The restaurant survives her. Her cookbook is a classic; every word reads true. How I wish she could read this.