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.