One in a collection of essays celebrating things we love.
As memorably as I’ve eaten away from home over the years, there’s no restaurant, anywhere, that calls to me like Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, where for four glorious years in the 1990s I covered the food scene for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Back then, if there was an occasion to celebrate, the beloved Civic Center fixture, drenched in sunlight by day and a honeyed glow by night, was where I always wanted to raise a glass. If I needed a pick-me-up, the restaurant, whose wood fire could be smelled at least a block away, was where I tended to gravitate (always downstairs, near the copper-topped bar or close to the oven). There’s great pleasure, and solace, to be had in a platter of perfectly shucked local oysters, or a crackling roast chicken splayed on a tangy-crunchy bread salad, or a margarita that has no peer.
Judy Rodgers, Zuni’s longtime minder and chef, is mostly to thank for the many fond memories. Before she died in 2013, too young at 57, she wrote “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002, W.W. Norton). Of the hundreds of cookbooks on my shelves at home, hers would be the first one I’d reach for in a fire. Not only is it a scrapbook of sorts of a time and place I cherish, it’s also a master class in how and why good cooks do what they do.
Check out Rodgers’s recipe for Caesar salad. She devotes three pages to it.
If that strikes you as too much, keep in mind that the introduction goes into exquisite detail about what makes it the menu’s best seller. Cooks at Zuni Cafe refer to the salad station as “Caesar’s Palace,” and it’s there that they learn the trick to perfecting a classic: “top-notch ingredients, freshly prepared,” notes Rodgers, a true Californian, in the headnotes. “If you use a lesser cheese, or grate it too soon, you will get a different salad. If you squeeze the lemon juice ahead of time, it will have little or no fragrance. If the eggs are not particularly fresh, or you beat them into the dressing too far in advance, the dressing will not have body.”
And so on. Reading her meticulous instructions for any of the recipes in the book is like having the chef beside you, gently coaching you through every step and explaining why, for instance, only a rich espresso will do for the espresso granita with whipped cream. Surprisingly refreshing, the dessert draws applause with just four ingredients.
Making any dish following Rodgers’s precise (but never preachy) directions rewards the cook with a perfect plate. The roast chicken, by the way, is my default dish for company at home. When I follow the recipe to a T, it’s wondrous. When I deviate, the result is still good, but a reminder that Rodgers knew best. Alone, her bits in the book on salting, knives and what to do with rabbit are worth the price of admission.
And to think a Midwesterner helped shape California cuisine! As a teenager, it was Rodgers’s great luck to be received as a foreign exchange student in the home of Jean Troisgros, whose restaurant, Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, France, happened to be among the world’s greatest. Later, after graduating from Stanford University, the St. Louis native met Alice Waters at the revered Chez Panisse in Berkeley and soon found herself cooking lunch there — without formal culinary training.
After traveling around Italy and southwest France, and cooking in New York, Rodgers returned to the Bay Area in 1987 to take over the kitchen at Zuni Cafe. Beginning in 2000, she, her restaurant and her cookbook went on to win top regional and national awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
I may never make Zuni’s roasted guinea hen with bay leaves, Madeira and dates, or its rabbit rillettes. But it’s nice to know that if I ever want to, I have a friend to turn to for the best possible advice.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said Judy Rodgers died in 2003. She died in 2013.
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