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Influential California Chef Judy Rodgers Leaves Behind a Legacy of Simple Perfection

California chefs at Zuni Café in the 1980s. Left to right: Kathi Riley, Judy Rodgers and James Beard. Marion Cunningham is at the head of the table.
California chefs at Zuni Café in the 1980s. Left to right: Kathi Riley, Judy Rodgers and James Beard. Marion Cunningham is at the head of the table.
Photo courtesy Kathi Riley

People who knew Judy Rodgers called her a fighter and a force of nature, so much of the California Bay Area food scene was shocked and saddened to learn that the 57-year-old had succumbed to a rare form of cancer on Monday, December 2. Rodgers is often mentioned in the same breath as Alice Waters and Thomas Keller for her work at the now famous Zuni Café, which, along with places like Chez Panisse and La Brea Bread, helped turn the Bay Area into a restaurant destination.

Rodgers, a St. Louis native, fell into the culinary world somewhat by accident when she spent a year studying abroad in France as a teenager. The family with whom she stayed happened to own the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Frères Troisgros (today called Maison Troisgros), so Rodgers spent much of her free time in the kitchen copying down family recipes.

She moved to the Bay Area to study art history at Stanford before once again embarking on studies abroad in France. Upon her return, she discovered Chez Panisse and began working with Alice Waters at the restaurant. Waters introduced her to Marion Cunningham of the Union Hotel near Berkeley, and Rodgers became executive chef there. It was this job that first started to garner her national recognition for her unique explorations of simple food, a style that became indicative of the Bay Area aesthetic.

 

In 1987, Rodgers took over Zuni Café, which had opened seven years earlier in San Francisco but was a stagnant Southwestern-themed restaurant. She transformed it into a spot that would later win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2003. Under Rodgers, Zuni developed a slew of iconic dishes that remain unchanged to this day: whole roast chicken cooked in a wood-fired oven, celery salad with cured anchovies, caesar salad, and ricotta gnocchi, as well as the pizzas that came out of the brick oven Rodgers had requested upon taking over the kitchen.

The Zuni Café cookbook was published in 2002, and shortly thereafter Zuni won the James Beard Award. In 2004, Rodgers won the Beard award for Outstanding Chef, beating out more well-known figures including Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio.

Rodgers was diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer in late 2012, and had been seeking treatment for it since then. She passed away on Monday surrounded by friends and family. Last night, as news of her death broke, crowds swarmed Zuni Café for a meal in celebration of Rodgers's life.

The menu for Zuni Café on Tuesday, December 3.
The menu for Zuni Café on Tuesday, December 3.
Photo by Natale Smith

When Rodgers spoke of her food, she did so with much humility. In an interview with Epicurious, she said of Zuni, "My guideline at this restaurant has always been I want only things here that I would love to have and the way I'd love to have them. If it doesn't make me happy, then it's false."

In an October 2013 interview with Eater about her famous roast chicken, Rodgers summed up her philosophy on food: "The simplest things are often the best."

In this video from Epicurious, Rodgers and Zuni co-owner Gilbert Pilgram discuss the kind of food they like to make.


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