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Remembering Judy Rodgers

(article, Deborah Madison)

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p(blue).Culinate editor's note: Judy Rodgers, the Bay Area-based author and chef, died early this month. Here, Deborah Madison remembers Rodgers, whom she'd known for 35 years.  

I first met Judy Rodgers in the kitchen of Alice Waters' Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. I hadn't been working there long, helping Lindsey Shere with desserts, when Judy walked in on a Tuesday morning. She had graduated from Stanford two days earlier, and it was her first day making lunch.

Judy had been an exchange student in France her junior year, where she lived with the Troisgros family in Roanne. There she was exposed to French food — most notably, the food of that family's home and their famous restaurant. Quite an education.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Judy Rodgers"]

I don’t know that she had ever worked in restaurants. I know that I certainly hadn’t, and I was nervous about making mistakes. But Judy impressed me with her straight-backed calm, even on that first day. 

Alice gave her some menu ideas — a lobster bisque and an elaborate eggplant dish — and then left. Judy got to work and not only prepared lunch, but did so while becoming acquainted with the kitchen, the stoves, the walk-in, where things were, what she could use, what was for the evening’s dinner, what our names were — pretty much everything. 

I watched her as she worked, how she went about everything looking focused, confident, and unruffled. She later confided that she had been nervous. But nervousness was not what she showed.

When she opened a restaurant in Benicia at the Union Hotel, I was cooking in San Francisco at Greens. On Saturdays, my sous chef and I would drive past Benicia to a farm where we picked vegetables for the evening menu. The reward for our early-morning labor was to stop at the Union Hotel for one of Judy’s breakfasts. Her menu had an interesting American historical bent, and we often ordered dishes like scrapple, which we had only read about, before heading back to Greens to cook. 

Even though Judy will be forever associated with the Zuni Café, her restaurant in San Francisco, her food at the Union Hotel was memorable: real nourishment, delicious flavors, dishes that were beautifully cooked, and simple yet surprising. It was always just what we wanted after picking vegetables for a few hours. 

At the Zuni Café, she extended her sure instinct for straightforward foods and flavors, her uncanny mix of comfort and brilliance, and her seemingly relaxed approach — which was, indeed, the mood of the café as well. Perfection, yes, but not overwrought. And you could linger for hours, if you had the time.

The Zuni Café Cookbook is the legacy that this wise, exacting, and kind person has given us. It is a masterful book, full of wisdom and prose that is graceful, sensible, elegant, and full of heart. This is a book that can inspire readers to learn to cook, to taste, to be particular — to see.  

Along with the wealth and breadth expressed in The Zuni Café Cookbook,_ Judy allowed a little personal tic to be seen: her fondness for bread, especially old bread made into breadcrumbs, croutons, chapons, and dishes like panades or her famous roast chicken with bread salad or her breadcrumb salsa. I always appreciated that she had her eyes open for the modest bit of leftover bread as well as the rest of it all. It all mattered, and it all counted.

Judy was tall, her reddish hair was long and wild, and she wore skirts and clogs in the kitchen. “A skirt is cooler,” she once told me, and she was right. She had the slightly goofy, relaxed look of Berkeley in the 1970s, but her food was exacting. And when she went on stage to receive an award at the IACP conference for her book, she wore a simple gray dress, and her hair was long and loose as always. 

She had a kind of earthy elegance, underscored by her gracious remarks and poise — not unlike her food. She was a special one. And she will be deeply missed.

reference-image, l