Judy Rodgers (1956-2013)

Jeannette Ferrary - December 20th, 2013

With the death on December 2 of Judy Rodgers, chef/owner of San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, there has been much talk about her most beloved dishes, particularly her roasted chicken. But whenever I think of Judy, I think of anchovies. She was very upset about anchovies in the sense that there were people in the world who did not appreciate them. In her view, the place of anchovies in Caesar salad was so endemic that to omit them was almost akin to a crime against nature. And yet there were people in her very own restaurant who shamelessly requested that she hold the anchovies. I discovered her solution to this dilemma while we were working together on a book about the "new" California cooking in the early 1980s. At the time, she was the chef at the Union Hotel in Benicia, transforming the very concept of American cookery. I was trying to put together a book proposal based on the dishes she was creating for the restaurant. This was no easy task, especially since, whatever her carefully-crafted menu plans were for the day, she would scrap them willingly in response to the arrival of a wicker basketful of just-picked chanterelles.

Judy was in love with food and its possibilities, amazingly inventive and yet respectful of tradition. If something was right, it was just plain right. So if a customer ordered anchovy-free Caesar salad, she would simply…put them in anyway. I think she had a way of disguising their presence until her always-appreciative customer would confess that this was the best damn Caesar salad they'd ever tasted. In fact, she employed a similar tactic with orders for well-done beef, which she viewed with palpable cringing. Her response was to serve it appropriately medium-rare and see what happened. Not only were there few complaints, there were many eureka! moments from grateful converts who thanked her for showing them the way. I'm not sure she always revealed her little well-intentioned subterfuges, but I do know that her motives had nothing to do with deception. What she wanted was to provide pleasure in full measure, to enthrall you in spite of yourself, to make you happy in your soul. And, as several decades of diners can testify today, she did that, no matter what.

As for our book proposal, I was finally able to present a completed one to our delighted literary agent, who culled interest among a number of New York publishers. However, at the last minute, Judy decided the book might typecast her with the innovative American style she was forging at the Union Hotel and threaten her identity as the classical French chef she envisioned as her destiny. There is irony in this, of course, in light of her brilliant term at the helm of Zuni Cafe, where she attracted a steady and loyal following with her iconic roasted chicken, her luscious Zuni burger, and her magnificent house-cured anchovies.

Jeannette Ferrary is the author of M.F.K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship and Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Food Writer.