On Wednesday an effervescent email dropped into my box from Judy Rodgers, chef at Zuni Café, bubbling over with the news of a new owner of the iconic San Fran restaurant.  Read the facts in Michael Bauer’s blog.  But what did a new owner mean, I wanted to know?

Judy said, “A veritable Zuni renaissance.” 

Zuni will be more like Zuni, she continued, it will be more like Zuni was.  I think what she means is, it will deepen.  If so, that’s a great thing.

This is exactly the excuse I wanted to say a few things that mainstream places like Gourmet or The Times won’t let me say, because I already wrote about Judy in my book Reach of a Chef; later when the editor of my charcuterie book, who also did Judy’s book, sent her the galleys for favorable prepub comment on charcuterie, Judy read the book (she didn’t have an assistant do it, which is the customary blurb process, for better or worse) and was enormously gracious in her comments.  This makes it impossible for me to write about her in mainstream press, for good reasons. But not impossible in this handy little blog.

This is chef Rodgers in her kitchen: she’s a lanky six footer at least, long hair held in a bun with two No. 2 pencils, working on a sauce in a sauté pan, dressed in a heavy sweater, miniskirt, burgundy stockings.  When a young cook calls her “chef” she says, “I hate it when people call me chef.”  And she’s likely to instruct the grill cook to grill the radicchio until it is “baroque” in appearance.

Zuni is one of the country’s great casual restaurant because of its organic development and eccentric style.  This is a restaurant famous for its roast chicken, burgers, ricotta dumplings.  What is more amazing to me is the quality of Rodgers’ prose.

The Zuni Café Cookbook is probably the best cookbook I’ve read in a long time.  It was actually written by the chef herself and is thus a true reflection of her personality: eccentric, passionate, articulate, and most important, deeply observant about the way food behaves.  This is a cookbook that’s truly valuable to read.  Just look her thoughts on salting food (salt protein when you bring it home).  Or stocks (as soon as it hits the right pitch of flavor, get it off the bones).  She notices how long a leg of lamb should take not just to cook, but rather to reach, say 90 degrees internal temp—if it gets there too fast, you’ve already blown it.  It’s that kind of attention to detail, and the thoughtful descriptions of the recipes (sometimes too thoughtful, though; I still can’t figure out how that chicken picks up), not to mention the whole infusion of her personality that will make this an enduring work of food writing and recipe writing.

Later in the week I want to post some of the things she talked about when I spent  time in her kitchen about how we think about food.


11 Wonderful responses to “New Zuni Co-Owner, meaning what?”

  • melissa

    A little bit off topic, but you got me thinking with the reference to the lamb. Curious as to your theories about cooking thanksgiving turkeys at high temps? Would they also be ruined?

  • Julia

    Do you mean you can’t figure out how to pick up the chicken to flip it? I’m totally enamored in that recipe (and the mock porchetta recipe), with the cookbook and Zuni the restaurant. Can’t wait to read more about Judy Rodgers.

  • ruhlman

    I don’t cook a turkey at as high heat as high cook a four pound chicken (500 degrees), but around 400. It’s impossible to cook a turkey so that the breast is perfect and the legs are perferct, but it’s such a beautiful thing to behold, a roasted turkey that i’m willing to put up with slightly dry breast–so it’s critical to make excellent gravy!

  • megnut

    Sorry to be off topic as well, but on that turkey (maybe you could post about this as its own entry?): do you brine? I found when I brined that the breast didn’t dry out as much and the whole bird was moist and flavorful. It was by far the best turkey I’d had, and I’ve had some good ones done on a grill even.

  • ruhlman

    Great idea for a discussion. Quick answer is yes, brine for turkey will help you end up with a juicier breast. Brining actually changes the shape of the protein so that it can hold more moisture when cooked. Given that drying out the breast before the legs are cooked is the main difficulty in cooking a whole turkey, brining is ALWAYS beneficial.

  • Tana

    I am firmly in the Harold McGee camp: no brining, ever. He says (and I agree) that you are merely replacing the bird’s natural moisture and flavor with salt water.

    Every year since 1994, I have made roast turkey with herb rub and shiitake mushroom gravy: I have never, ever had a dry bird. Maybe 20-pound turkeys stay moister, I don’t know. But it’s the best turkey I’ve ever had, and my family demands that I make it.

    I dared Harold McGee to try this recipe, and I’ll dare you, Michael.


  • BobdG

    My experience of brining* is complicated. Yeah, sure a brined turkey will, if properly cooked, almost always be more tender, yield more, and cook more evenly. However, the turkey will always taste less like turkey due to the loss of soluble protein to the brining solution (you know this happens because the brine always turns pink). Brining turkey is a tradeoff, I suppose, but one I’m usually willing to make because the potential water loss (due to all that surface area) is so great that I’m willing to sacrifice a little flavor for something that won’t knock off my crowns.

    Not so with chicken where the loss of flavor to the brine is so great that it just isn’t worth it. That’s why I always kosher or dry-rub chickens and never brine them. Same goes for pork which nowadays already has so little flavor that brine practically erases the last traces of it’s swineliness (sic).

    I’m not sure if I need to stress this here, but dry-rubbing with salt or salt/sugar mixture has almost exactly the same effect as brine. Once the salt or sugar penetrate the meat they raise the temperature to which you have to heat the intra and extracellular water with the result that the final product ends up losing less water due to cooking. The sugar also has the added effect of interfering with coagualtion so the meat is comes out more tender. There are other effects as well.

    I hope that didn’t sound pedantic.

    * I use a brine recipe given to me by Eve Felder who, if I remember this correctly, picked it up when she worked at Chez Panisse: 1lb salt: 1lb sugar: 5 gal water.

  • ruhlman

    great, if pedantic, comments. I hadn’t considered the loss of soluable protein, but really, i can’t imagine there’s substantial flavor loss due to that. but: i’ve never been happy with brined chicken and myabe youre right. brined pork is moister. brined turkey is moister. and i believe that a properly seasoned brine can deliver aromatic flavors to the interior of the muscle.

    tana, i think mcgee is wrong here. but i also believe that you are able to cook an excellent tureky without brining it.

  • BobdG

    Jeeze, I was so off topic earlier that I forgot to write that one of the best meals I’ve had was at Zuni Cafe. That was 1995, I think. Freshly made anchovies and celery followed by an abosolutely first rate braised beef. I don’t recall the dessert or the wine. Although I have never met her, based on what I saw at Zuni Cafe, I agree completely with your assesment of Judy Rodgers. There is no question that she knows what she is doing.

  • Michael Lippe

    Zuni is my favvorite restaurant in the US!!! I love Judy’s cooking and freshness-style!! Thanks for the positive update!

  • Veron

    Zuni Cafe Cookbook and Judi Rodgers is responsible for shaping the way I think about food. Just her salting technique is worth the price of the entire book. I have continuously used her technique for chicken and risotto with great success. I’m glad you think she is one of the greatest cookbook writers ever!