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The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and the Legacy of Judy Rodgers

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Earlier this week, the food world lost San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers to cancer. In addition to Rodgers' acclaim as the Beard-winning chef of Zuni Cafe, she is also responsible for one of the most loved cookbooks of recent memory, 2002's Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Below, a look at what made the cookbook great and thoughts from chefs, cookbook writers, and others on its influence.

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[Photos: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

"Stop, think, there must be a harder way." Chef Judy Rodgers invoked this mantra throughout her 2002 book, The Zuni Café Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant. While she may have interpreted these words as a dedication to from-scratch cooking — they notably appear next to the recipe for homemade salt cod — the thought applies to the careful creation of the book itself. Rodgers could have had the book ghost-written, she could have dumbed-down the recipes from the labor-intensive versions made at her San Francisco restaurant Zuni Café. But she didn't.

The Zuni Café Cookbook was edited by legendary cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, of whom Rodgers writes in the book's introduction, "[She] imagined, and championed, an ambitious book I'd never have had the vision to compose on my own." The cookbook is over 500 pages of meticulously written, tested, and edited recipes. Some recipes span pages, including the restaurant's famous roast chicken, which is nearly five text-dense pages long. The Zuni Café Cookbook is what other chefs only dream their cookbooks could become. It's a fitting legacy for Rodgers, who died this week at the age of 57.

Rodgers' book is different than most chefs' cookbooks in several ways: first, she actually wrote it herself. It is rumored to have taken her years. This was before the days when every chef had a cookbook the second their restaurant had a couple good reviews; this was before Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook supposedly launched the trend for lavish restaurant cookbooks.

Second, Rodgers could actually write, as the oft-quoted chapter on "What to Think About Before You Start, & While You Are Cooking" can attest. "Cookbooks will give you ideas," she famously advised, "But the market will give you dinner — study your market at least as avidly as your library." According to a review by James MacGuire in The Art of Eating from 2003, "Certainly, it is not a book for people who don't want to think."

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Third, the book heavily focuses on technique. While Rodgers is true to her Northern Californian roots as a major advocate of using local, seasonal ingredients, she gives at least equal attention to what one might do with them. San Francisco's infamous "figs on a plate" — in Rodgers' case, peaches and almonds on a plate — are not always enough. She wrote of her "responsibility" towards the harvest of the Bay Area:

Receiving these treasures has been a constant delight, and the task of showing them at their best is one of my favorite responsibilities. Seeking just the right preparation to magnify the charms of a knobby potato, skinny stalk of asparagus, or the first freshly shelled walnuts of the year is always a happy challenge.

Rodgers' true legacy, in fact, may not be the roast chicken she served at Zuni, but rather teaching home cooks the technique behind it. She was a huge advocate of dry-brining meat, which requires salting it when it comes home from the market. To quote a review from Los Angeles critic Jonathan Gold back in 2003:

The most important lesson of the book, and probably at this point as much the sign of a Rodgers cultist as a bowlful of soaking zucchini is the mark of a Marcella Hazan addict or a refrigerator full of bubbling bread starter an acolyte of Nancy Silverton, is Rodgers' imperative to rub salt into the surface of fish, meat or poultry the second you get them home.

Other techniques have garnered the cookbook acclaim over the years: chef Blaine Robinson of Vancouver's West Restaurant tells Eater he recommends Rodgers' stock technique to young cooks. And chef Bryant Ng of the Spice Table in Los Angeles applauds her scientific approach to cooking, an approach Rodgers refers to as "simple observation and an interest in food chemistry." Ng tells Eater: "It's the understanding of the 'whys' that allowed me to become mindful of my own technique and challenge my own (and others') long-held assumptions."

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The Zuni Café Cookbook is also one of the rare cookbooks that boasts famous recipes. The chicken, of course, but also the ricotta gnocchi. The stocks and broths. A spicy squid stew laden with ink. The braised bacon. That these recipes are known almost outside of the book itself puts this cookbook on the very highest tier. It has earned a space on the shelf next to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking, Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso's The Silver Palate Cookbook.

One of the rare cookbooks that boasts recipes almost as famous as the book itself.

Gold wrote in his review of the cookbook, "In a way, the theme of her book is the luxury of pure time, and the value it adds to something as basic as the food we eat for dinner." Beyond all else, Zuni Café Cookbook is about taking the time, making the effort. It's about "what to cook, and when." It's about dishes that are hard work, but worth it. It's a sense that it's worth it to let a stew bubble for an extra hour on the stove, or to pickle vegetables yourself, or salt the meat an extra few days. Again from the introduction, Rodgers writes of Zuni Café itself:

I was smitten on sight when I walked into Zuni in 1987. I'd been offered the chef's job, and suspected it could be a good place to serve the mostly regional French and Italian food I adored. The crowd was eclectic — young, old, middle-aged, dressed up, dressed down, in noisy groups or quiet deuces, some there for the place, some for the drinks, some for the food, some for each other. I took in the space and imagined you could eat as simply or as grandly as you wanted in this setting, and that the food would only be a part of the seduction. Zuni was a wonderful gathering place, it had a sense of romance and felt as if it had been there forever.

The culinary world lost Rodgers this week at the all-too-young age of 57. Thankfully, through her book, these dishes can live on forever.

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On The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

Eater reached out to chefs, cookbook authors, and other food world folk to ask them about how the Zuni Cafe Cookbook influenced their careers. Their responses, below.

Ted Lee, Cookbook Author

When Maria Guarnaschelli at W.W. Norton picked up our first cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, in 2003, we'd been writing recipes for magazines and newspapers for almost four years, at the New York Times and elsewhere. But the first thing Maria did was to hand us a copy of Judy Rodgers' Zuni Café Cookbook, which had recently won the James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award.

"You guys need to learn to write recipes," Maria said. "Here's Judy." —Ted Lee

"You guys need to learn to write recipes," Maria said. "Here's Judy." So we began cooking from Zuni — the Chimay-braised short ribs, the fabled roast chicken and bread salad — and the depth of connection we felt to her through the words on the page and the sheer spot-on-ness of the results was unlike any other cookbook we'd experienced. Zuni fans tend to focus on her kitchen intelligence — the "What to Think About Before You Start" essays in the book — but for us Judy's genius was translating her vast technical proficiency into the language of the senses, a language that any reader can understand regardless of their skill level or the quality of their kitchen tools. By writing so honestly about the experience of cooking, she was not only one of the most sensuous of writers, but the most generous, democratic, and humane. Although we never met Judy, we are so fortunate to have her book to inspire us.

Bryant Ng, Chef/Owner, The Spice Table, Los Angeles

She was brave to question cooking techniques generally held as gospel. Through her book she showed me how important technique is, but to not follow blindly and to truly understand "why" you are doing something. It's the understanding of the "whys" that allowed me to become mindful of my own technique and challenge my own (and others') long-held assumptions. Once I did this I believe I became a more thoughtful cook and teacher. She inspires me everyday.

Bill Fuller, Chef, Big Burrito Restaurant Group, Pittsburgh

We have a restaurant here in Pittsburgh called Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar. While we tagged it as Mediterranean when we opened it almost 20 years ago (1995), it has always been about my feelings on eating and living in the SF Bay Area (I lived there in 1985 and from 1991 to 1995 while at Berkeley). Zuni Café is a perfect representation of that food philosophy, it illustrates how SF (and the Bay Area) is a "food town" as opposed to NYC, a "restaurant town." When the cookbook came out I grabbed it up, especially for the roast chicken (a stalwart of every dining trip to the city) but mostly just to read through it. Opening it smells like wild fennel and eucalyptus, sun and mist. It is a great place to get back to the West Coast without a plane ticket.

Celia Sack, Owner, Omnivore Books, San Francisco

Judy's Zuni Cafe Cookbook was the first cookbook to teach me why I was doing what I was doing in the kitchen. It's such an important book because it gives you tools not only for using her cookbook, but for using all the others. To finally understand why I need to salt my short ribs so far in advance of my cooking them, or how acidity plays off sweetness, was a revelation, and changed the way I intuit cooking. I will be forever grateful to Judy for that.

Matthew Gaudet, Chef/Owner, West Bridge, Cambridge, Mass.

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is still one of my favorite American cookbooks in my library. Judy's thoughtfulness and honesty in her cooking makes you taste the recipes. You get a real sense of her food through the pages. The dedication to simplicity and quality of the ingredients also is what made Zuni not only a great book but a great place to eat. I can remember first reading about the whole chicken and seasoning meats way in advance. We were taught to never salt meat before you cook it, but here she was doing it a day in advance. I serve a whole roasted chicken to this day, with giant croutons cooked in the chicken fat, because as it did at Zuni, it makes sense to let people share the delicious abundance.

As a young chef, Zuni taught me a whole new way to cook. Like a second secret job. —Matthew Gaudet

Her dialogue with the reader was like having another mentor in the kitchen with you. I revisited the pages today and can remember as a much younger cook with a much smaller exposure to techniques outside of where I was at the time, I was learning a whole new way to cook. Like a second secret job. With the advent of "modern/technical" gastronomy, it's easy to forget how much of an impression it made on me. The use of pickled and shaved raw vegetables is quite a part of my present repertoire, yet it's also considered "hip" in the "new" style. (Know what I mean?) Really, a great book that all cooks should go through.

Jonny Hunter, Forequarter, Madison, Wisconsin

Very saddened to hear that Judy Rodgers has passed away. I spent hours reading the essays in the Zuni Café Cookbook. It so influenced how I think about food. How when you work with simple ingredients, it takes incredible effort and thoughtfulness to fully realize the ingredients and processes. Her roast chicken recipe is something I think about every time I work with poultry, and the ricotta gnocchi is a process that I get right once every 15 times I make it. I aspire to cook as thoughtfully and with as much inspiration as she did.

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· The Zuni Cafe Cookbook [Amazon]
· Judy Rodgers, Chef and Cookbook Author, Dead at 57 [-E-]
· Judy Rodgers and The Zuni Cafe Cookbook [Art of Eating]
· Salty Prose: Judy Rodgers and the Art of the Cookbook [LA Weekly]
· All Judy Rodgers Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Zuni Cafe

1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102

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