Zuni Café chef Judy Rodgers says she "couldn't have foreseen how successful" her roast chicken for two would become when she added it to the San Francisco restaurant's menu in 1987. The "circumstances and the inspiration collided" in the creation of this dish: Zuni had just put in a wood-fired brick oven and Rodgers wanted to ensure that the restaurant did not become a pizzeria.
She had the idea that instead of doing a "fancy roast squab" she could serve a simple, perfectly roasted chicken. Because of the size of a whole chicken, she knew it would be a shared dish. At the time roast chicken wasn't a restaurant menu staple. Rather, Rodgers thought back to her time living in France, where a spit-roasted chicken was a "reliably delicious," affordable way to have dinner for two days. "The simplest things," Rodgers says, "are often the best."
Before creating the now iconic bread salad accompaniment, Rodgers had served a bright, acidic green salad along with the chicken. Rodgers felt the salad needed "more to it," and a cook one evening created a bread salad. Loosely inspired by Italian panzanella, Rodgers decided to marry the two ideas and the dish was complete. She explains: "Post facto, everyone pointed out that it was like stuffing." Though the similarities are of course there, Rodgers says that stuffing wasn't on her mind at the time she was creating the recipe.
The chicken for two has posed certain seating and serving challenges for the restaurant. There's only so much room in the oven. Still, the legendary dish is part of the Zuni's DNA and helped land the restaurant a spot on the Eater SF 38 and on Eater SF's 20 Most Iconic Dishes list.
Eater SF editor Allie Pape explains the mystique of the roast chicken:
Zuni Café is known for excelling in many departments: Caesar salad, Bloody Marys, oysters, burgers. But its much-imitated roast chicken with bread salad is not only the restaurant's defining dish, it is a key building block in the evolution of California cuisine. Chicken is often the ugly stepsister of restaurant menus, but Zuni's is incredibly succulent, with perfectly crisp skin. The real treat, though, is the bread salad, with the dose of glorious chicken jus that melts into the crisp bread and brings it together with the tang of the currants, pine nuts, and greens. It's a heartwarming dish.
Below, the elements of the Zuni Café roast chicken for two:
1. The Chicken
When it comes to preparing the chicken, Rodgers has three "non-negotiables." The first, Rodgers uses small organic, antibiotic-free chickens. She prefers chickens that are no larger than three pounds, and explains that finding suppliers who can provide hundreds of small, extremely high quality chickens to the restaurant each week is a challenge. The smaller chickens allows for a "better ratio of skin to flesh and fat," and the size is critical to the dish. The goal is to be able to have crunchy seasoned skin in every bite.
Rodgers begins by patting the chickens dry, which encourages faster browning in the oven. The chicken is seasoned extremely simply. At the restaurant, Rodgers uses only sea salt and pepper (she used to add herbs like a sprig of rosemary or thyme). Rodgers explains she doesn't use an "exotico" sea salt, just a basic sea salt on the finer side, "somewhere between Morton's and Maldon." She uses approximately ¾ of a teaspoon per pound of chicken. She uses tellicherry black pepper that is ground in-house the day it's used. For her second non-negotiable step, she leaves the chicken to cure for up to three days in the refrigerator, a decision inspired by the French technique of salt-preserving poultry. Her "pre-salting technique" gives the salt the chance to "migrate" through the chicken flesh, creating even seasoning and a more succulent roast.
2. The Roasting
Rodgers' third non-negotiable is cooking the chicken in high heat so that the chicken begins browning within 17 to 20 minutes. The chicken is placed on a stainless steel sizzle platter that is about the size of the chicken itself. At the café, Rodgers' wood-burning oven is two stories, which means that "the smoke sits lower." The oven burns mostly oak (sometimes almond), which adds its smokey flavors to the chicken. About twenty minutes into the roasting process, Rodgers flips the chicken. Because of how hot the pan is and how dry the chicken is when they go into the oven together, she explains that the chicken should not stick.
Not a standard step in many roasting recipes, Rodgers says flipping the chicken is "a reliable way to ensure even browning." After the underside is sufficiently browned, the chicken is flipped back breast-side up to allow additional browning of the breast skin. Cooking time varies with how hot the wood is, how dry it is, and how crowded the oven is, so the restaurant "needs to say 'approximately one hour'" when explaining how long it will take to prepare. After roughly 37 minutes (give or take based on the conditions mentioned above), the chicken is taken out of the oven to finish and rest. Rodgers explains that as it rests, the juices begin "running to the center" of the bird; resting lets it become both "juicy and uniform." The chicken is drained and broken down before being served atop the bread salad.
3. The Bread
For the bread salad accompaniment, Rodgers begins with bread from San Francisco's Acme Bakery. The bread is made from ciabatta dough with organic flour, salt, yeast, and high water content. The loaf is larger, however, which allows for more efficient use at the restaurant. Rodgers removes the crust from the stale bread and then brushes it with a "mild" California olive oil before toasting it in the oven. After it toasts, she tears the bread into smaller pieces. She tosses these smaller pieces in a vinaigrette of olive oil, champagne vinegar, salt, and pepper. Next she adds pine nuts which have been briefly "pre-toasted" in the oven.
Rodgers next sautées scallions and garlic, and folds that into the bread along with currants that have been plumped by a soak in house-made red wine vinegar. She says the combination of currants and pine nuts is a nod to the Tuscan inspiration of the bread salad. Before placing the mixture into the oven to warm, Rodgers "dribbles" in a bit of chicken stock. The stock is made from the same sort of chickens as are roasted. She likes her stock to be "bright and chicken-y" and to that end when making stock Rodgers only skims fat off the stock twice during prep; once after first bringing her mixture of chicken bones, salt, water, and vegetables to a simmer and then again right before she is ready to use the stock.
4. The Greens
At the café, Rodgers generally uses very small baby red mustard greens for the salad. She notes that freshness is critical. The greens are meant to be "crunchy and bright" and she calls the greens themselves an important component of the dish as a whole. After the bread pieces are done warming in the oven, Rodgers folds in the greens along with a bit of chicken drippings. She also adds a little more of the vinaigrette and finishes the salad with Italian extra virgin olive oil. She spreads the salad onto a platter and then places the carved chicken pieces on top. The chicken juices continue to mingle with the salad after it is served.