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"She Taught Me Flavor": In Memory of Judy Rodgers

By Tamara Palmer
December 4, 2013

The international reaction to the untimely passing of Zuni Café chef-owner and author Judy Rodgers attests to the breadth of her influence. Most tributes have called to attention her iconic roast chicken with bread salad for two, the dish that she could never dare take off her menu. But it should be known that her greatest gift was in how she has helped countless chefs and eaters to learn how to cook intuitively real food with real ingredients. To know flavor.

"20 years ago, Judy pretty much told me to be the pastry chef," says Tim Nugent, who arrived at Zuni after years spent working in the savory side of kitchens. "She knew what she was doing."

He reveals that during his tenure there, Rodgers gave him a report card every morning from the dinner lineup. He has saved one such communiqué: "Dear Tim, the blackberry sorbet and plum/almond ice creams are so good that it almost makes me cry. Thank you!"

Nugent went on to a lengthy career as executive pastry chef at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and a stint on television as a contestant on Bravo's Top Chef Just Desserts. Now, as he begins construction on Shakewell Bar & Kitchen, the Oakland restaurant he'll open next year with former Drake colleague and fellow Top Chef alum Jen Biesty, he can look to Rodgers' early encouragement as a foundation for his switching to the sweet side.

"Judy taught me flavor," he says. "Start with the best ingredients, to use salt with sweet, to use vinegar instead of lemon juice."

"I was lucky enough to have witnessed the arrival of Judy to the Zuni kitchen [in 1987], followed by the immediate and long-enduring impact she gave to all who endeavored under the Zuni banner as well as the guests who became regulars," recalls Gayle Pirie, now owner of Foreign Cinema with husband John Clark. Both were line cooks at Zuni when Rodgers was hired.

"She arrived with a copper pot in a Williams-Sonoma bag, took a visual assessment of the kitchen, inquired about a few recipes and quickly left that day," Pirie writes in an email. "Absolutely clueless to what I was about to embark in, Judy's arrival was an artistic 'happening' of time, place and mission. With the dramatic installation of the new wood oven, and methodical, precise evolution of an iconic menu which[sic] would rotate around a repertoire of standards: anchovies, Caesar, burger, roast chicken, ricotta gnocchi, and pizzas for lunch; only a few daily changes would occur to lunch and dinner menus involving soup, fish and proteins. That template remains the reductive, rich, delicious menu core that pierces our City today. It is with absolute reverence and pride to relay that Judy taught me to embrace flavor, purity and integrity of presentation. We had a minor debate about invention for invention's sake. Consistency was in and of itself a 'disciplined invention' that took restraint, a release of false ego, and the ability to taste, taste, taste.

"Food and restaurant strategies everyone takes for granted to today - artisanal pizzas, proper sausage making, providing the finest charcuterie, whole animal butchery, roasting whole suckling pigs, braising goats - were re-conceived by a woman who knew her stuff. She realized her vision, and knew what she wanted to eat. It turns out what JUDY wanted to eat, we all wanted to eat, and still do today, 26 years later."


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