Judy Rodgers.  Photo via Culinate.com

Judy Rodgers, 1956–2013. Photo via Culinate.com

 

What I loved about Judy Rodgers during the brief time I spent with her:

  • She wore long skirts in the kitchen. And sweaters. I never saw her in a chef coat, and didn’t like to be called “Chef.”
  • In evaluating food with her staff before the night’s service, she would use words such as “baroque” to describe a flavor.
  • She held her abundant hair in a bun with No. 2 pencils.
  • She let me work in her kitchen.
  • She faxed me the notes she took as a 17-year-old of how the Troisgros brothers made their white veal stock.
  • When I was making her famous ricotta gnocchi, she tasted them, told me to up the seasoning, and walked to the other side of the Zuni kitchen. I gave the batch another four-finger dose of salt. I thought. I reached into the salt dish, figuring one more, and Judy shouted out, “Enough!” And she was right. From all the way across the kitchen.
  • She loved a fried egg on sandwiches.
  • She served roasted duck carcasses on Halloween because they looked spooky and tasted delicious.
  • When I was having one of her renowned burgers at the Zuni bar my last night there, and Neil Young walked by having just eaten, I said, “Wow, one of my heroes,” and Judy said, “Why didn’t you tell me? I’d have introduced you.”
  • She roasted more than a thousand legs of lamb and remembered every one.
  • She was a fabulous writer, period. Her Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of the best cookbooks ever, and she wrote every word.

But this was not what made her a great chef. Even her great food and great restaurant was not why she was great. She was a great chef because she truly cared about food down to her core and thought about it and spoke about it with uncommon grace.

This from a 2004 conversation, before she became ill with cancer, says it all:

That’s what we’re up against, that it’s perceived as a triumph that you can get strawberries in January as opposed to a catastrophe. Not all choice is good. Even if the January strawberry tastes OK, even if you have a really good strawberry that’s organic, I still know you turned down other things for that to happen.

A lot of our culinary habits in this country developed after refrigeration and freezing and certain technologies were inexpensive, whereas most other old world countries’ culinary traditions evolved before you had all those things. And so you had dried apples—not to put in your Cheerios, you had dried apples so you had something to eat.

That’s something I can do is try to make the menu, as much as I can, reflect a lot of the natural rhythms of this part of the world and reflect that this used to be the way you would eat before you could cheat.

There are a lot of reason not to buy Chilean blueberries. Let’s do nuts or chocolate or dried fruit for dessert. Part of not getting tired of food and cooking is not having every option every day, it’s responding to your constraints.  You don’t have that much to work with, so you have to be more resourceful.  If I were in St. Louis, I’d have a different palate of flavors to play with. I’d probably be more aggressive about putting stuff up myself during the season.

And guess what?  That’s what culinary tradition is, making the harvest season last all year long. My God, the most unique holiday we have is Thanksgiving, it should be something that if you really ponder what Thanksgiving is all about, you would really understand food. But people think it’s about gluttony, as opposed to truly revering your great harvest celebration, and now put stuff up so you don’t starve over the winter. But people don’t think about it that way—here, it’s the beginning of the eating season.

Judy Rodgers, 1956–2013

NYTimes.com obituary by Eric Asimov

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15 Wonderful responses to “Remembering Judy Rodgers”

  • Frank Ball

    Michael, thank you for this lovely tribute. Judy was in my 19889 video, Trucs of the Trade which featured 50 top chefs. She stands out in so many ways — out of 50! — in my memory. Her generosity was manifest, without being sucky. She was the first to teach me about the wonderful world of salt. All the time we were videotaping her, she minded the kitchen with eyes in the back of her head (just like in your gnocchi story)… and, like you, I’ll never forget her bun with the #2 pencils. RIP, Judy.

  • Victoria

    Dear Michael,

    I never met Judy Rodgers, but through the pages of the generous Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I have come to know, respect, and admire her.

    Thank you for writing this beautiful and reverential tribute, so sadly and so well deserved.

    Best regards,

    Victoria

  • witloof

    I had dinner at the Zuni Cafe in the mid 80′s and I still remember my shock at how delicious the Caesar salad tasted. Beautiful words about a beautiful person.

  • Tags

    If they paved Paradise, I’ll bet she rips up the parking lot and puts in a garden.

  • Bob Y

    I had a friend who insisted that the true measure of any restaurant was its roast chicken. I would never usually order it because I make a pretty good one at home. My friend ordered me to order the chicken when we were at Zuni and I finally gave up and ordered the roast chicken with the tuscan bread salad. It was a revelation. Perfect and delicious. I never met Ms. Rogers but I had that chicken every time I was in San Francisco. I will miss her, just thinking of that chicken.

  • Kate

    Beautiful words Michael and wonderful tribute. I live on the other side of the world, but was lucky enough to visit Zuni several years ago and loved it and I must agree, her book is terrific.

  • Deb Torres

    i have a friend who spoke with such praise about Judy Rodgers and thrice I have thought to visit Zuni Cafe because i adore roast chicken. i just always thought she would be there… i will definitely go next time and pay my respects. she sounds like all the reasons why people like california: for its natural beauty.

  • matthew hamilton

    I knew Judy and I worked for her for almost three years and have know her for much longer. bravo Michael Ruhlman, well done. Matt Hamilton. Chef/Owner Lulu & Po, Brooklyn

  • Bryan

    Really nice, Michael. She was such an original. I’ve been a Zuni fan since 1995 dining there on a regular basis. Just the best.

  • メンズ財布ブランド

    がそこ ロット 異なるオプション を持っている 考慮あなた を要求する必要は そしてあなたの予算、いくつか 財布 は非常に 大。の一緒に関わって 時セット、多く 条件 荷物袋 を選択する必要が 。

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