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