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The Accidental Epicure

Pure serendipity led Judy Rodgers to restaurant fame.

Terrence McCarthy

CHEF D’OEUVRE: Rodgers reveals 250 Zuni Café recipes in her new cookbook.

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

It’s hard, very hard, to keep my mouth from watering as I write. For you can’t say anything about world-class chef Judy Rodgers, ’78, without thinking food. Good food. Hearty Mediterranean cooking.

My mind is lingering over her pasta alla carbonara, a rich dish I know from my own travels in Sicily. Last week, I tested her recipe, following its nuances carefully, warming the bacon slowly over low heat while I set salted water to boil, folding into beaten eggs the special ricotta cheese she called for. I waited until the bacon was crisp on the edges but still tender in the middle, as she directed, swirled it a few times to cool it slightly and then slid the spaghetti, eggs and ricotta into the frying pan. Sure enough, I heard the “discreet sizzle” she described, as the ingredients worked their alchemy. I served the creamy, lightly curded mixture in the requisite warm bowls with a sprinkle of pecorino romano (sheep’s, not cow’s cheese, thank you very much). The taste? Let’s just say I was transported back to a little trattoria in Palermo for a blissful 20 minutes.

Now I’m flipping through Rodgers’s sumptuous Zuni Café Cookbook (Norton, 2002), a 504-page compendium of recipes featured at the culinary hotspot she co-owns in San Francisco. Dozens of color photos tempt me with dishes she has created or embellished from her explorations of fine country cooking in southwest France, Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, Catalonia and Greece over the past 30 years. There are baked artichokes with onions, olives and mint; shrimp in romesco with wilted spinach; the Café’s famous roast chicken. I’ve gone from salivating glands to growling stomach.

I’m no kitchen whiz: I have my staple dishes but, frankly, don’t know a shallot from an onion. Yet Judy Rodgers makes me feel excited about food. Her thoughtful essays on the practice of cooking and her friendly instructions make me believe I can puff my pastry with the best of them.

Maybe that’s because the cookbook, for all its sophistication, is as wholesome and unpretentious as Rodgers herself. When we met in March, I was struck by the star chef’s intriguing mix of simplicity, elegance and funk. Her orange tights lent some zing to her simple wool skirt and sweater, and the No. 2 pencil fastening her wispy, long brown hair gave her chignon a decidedly down-to-earth quality. There was no need for makeup—why add sugar to a fresh, white rose nectarine?

I found Zuni Café, at Market Street and Rose Alley in the Mission district, similarly eclectic and interesting, a sprawl of rooms, multiple levels and oblique angles all lit by tall windows and featuring an open kitchen. The space is inviting and exciting, a kind of “place to be” without being overdone.

Working with business partner Vince Calcagno to turn Zuni into one of the top-rated restaurants in America caps a career that began inadvertently for Rodgers, now 47. When she was 16, neighbors in St. Louis arranged for her to go to Roanne, France, as an exchange student. She found herself living for a year with the owners of the three-star restaurant Les Frères Troisgros. “My American neighbor wanted me to record all of the recipes, so as soon as I got home from school each day, I headed for the kitchen to watch, listen and take notes,” she recalls.

At the time, her single cooking foray was a failed carrot cake. But Rodgers stored up the lessons generously conveyed by Troisgros siblings Jean, Pierre and Madeleine about the importance of fresh and simple ingredients, meticulous attention to detail in preparation and the history of traditional dishes. She still had no intention of becoming a chef when she enrolled at Stanford—she majored in art history—although she did whip up the occasional impressive dinner at Terra House.

While Rodgers was away in Paris for her junior year, an American friend who was working at a novel restaurant in Berkeley—the now-legendary Chez Panisse—wrote to suggest Rodgers might enjoy a meal there. Upon returning home, she checked it out and “fell in love at first bite,” she says. Here was the kind of cooking based on fine seasonal produce and meats, artfully arranged, that Rodgers had come to adore in France. Dubbed nouvelle cuisine, it was a recent arrival in the United States in 1977. She met the owner, Alice Waters, who let her hang out at the restaurant and soon invited her to help prepare Saturday lunches. “I guess Alice decided there was enough I was doing that wasn’t terrible, so she hired me as the regular lunch chef after graduation,” says Rodgers.

After working at Chez Panisse for two years, Rodgers returned to Europe, and again stumbled on an apprenticeship opportunity, this time at a Bordeaux country inn where she served as an unpaid cook for four months. She came home when her money ran out and, on Waters’s introduction, took a chef’s job at the Union Hotel in Benicia, Calif., where Marion Cunningham was a consultant. From then on, Rodgers says, she never doubted her career.

In 1983, she booked a farmhouse in Florence to steep herself in Mediterranean cooking. After more travels in the region, Rodgers decided she wanted to devote herself to both French and Italian food. Her chance came in 1987, when owners Vince Calcagno and Billy West invited her to be a chef-owner at Zuni and accepted her proposal to steer their vaguely Mexican fare in the direction of her own gastronomic bent.

As a businesswoman, Rodgers now fills her day less with fussing over a braised oxtail or a duck confit and more with unglamorous jobs like ordering and stocking food, dodging plumbing problems and even breaking down boxes for recycling. “It can be tedious, and there’s a lot of financial risk involved, but this is the price you pay for the privilege of working creatively with food,” she says. “I love it. It’s like breathing to me; I can’t imagine not doing it.”

A typical Rodgers day starts at 8 a.m., when she begins faxing back and forth to the restaurant to settle on the menus, which change daily. After visiting her local market and conferring with the owner on promising new produce, she drives to Zuni from her home in Berkeley mid-morning to “fix whatever isn’t working”—anything from a sauce that’s fallen flat to a malfunctioning air-filtration system. Working into the evening, she guides prep- and sous-chefs in perfecting lunch and dinner meals, instructs the wait staff on the menus, takes inventory and attends to the myriad other details involved in keeping a business running.

Like the luminaries who trained her, Rodgers doesn’t cut corners. “Freezer” is not in her vocabulary. She buys virtually all organic and sustainably farmed or harvested fruits, vegetables, meat and fish daily or weekly. Every Zuni dish is made to order and appropriate to the season. “I want each meal to be an experience,” Rodgers says.

And now, in her first book, Rodgers—who won the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef of California in 2000—shares the bounty, with crystal-clear essays on deciding what to cook, illustrated explanations that walk readers through each step and connoisseur Gerald Asher’s suggestions for wine. It’s also a collection of colorful stories about how the art of cooking can enrich daily life, satisfying many appetites all at once.

Enough said; I can’t hold out any longer. I’ve got to run to the kitchen and put together some citrus risotto.

Marguerite Rigoglioso is a freelance writer in Oakland.

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