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Judy Rodgers Was the Best Chef of 1988—and Many Other Years

The legendary chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe passed away last night at 57. 

Zuni Cafe's Judy Rodgers

Judy Rodgers, seen here in 1988. 

We were incredibly sad to hear that, after a battle with cancer, Judy Rodgers has died at 57. Today, her beloved cookbook The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is a staple on the shelves of serious cooks all over the U.S.. Rodgers took over Zuni Café in 1987, and soon after, we named her the "Best Chef of 1988." Here is what San Francisco magazine had to say about her back then:

Toque of the Town: The Best Chefs of 1988
Winner: Judy Rodgers, Zuni Café

Because she has a nose for great Mediterranean cuisine and because she’s so unpretentious in a field rife with pretension.

Beginnings: Spent her senior year of high school in France and was, quite by accident, assigned to the home of the great chefs Jean and Pierre Troisgros. “A knowledgeable friend told me to write down everything I saw and tasted.”

Local Debut: Went on to study liberal arts at Stanford. Spent her summers in France. Also got to know Alice Waters and hung around the kitchen of Chez Panisse, which then served French cuisine. “Alice offered me a job as a lunch cook. I made some awful mistakes. But I learned.”

Cuisine: Later, Rodgers became chef at Benicia’s Union Hotel. “They wanted American food. I had no idea what that was, but I attacked it with a vengeance. I found a lot of regional American dishes but no regional cuisine in a fully integrated sense, as in France. It was frustrating.

“What did emerge at the Union was a sense of general aesthetic, a way of eating. People came to the Union for chicken and greens—and I didn’t have to put star anise in the chicken. I like simple food, very gutsy, very frank. I like to know what I am eating, and I don’t want to impress people. This is born of Troisgros. They had little presentation, even in the dining room.”

At Zuni, she alternates between Italian and southern French menus. Much of the cooking is extemporaneous. When line cooks arrive in the afternoon, they may find many menu items marked “TBD” (to be decided). “If the carrots don’t have much flavor,” she explains, “I’ll use a sweeter wine in a stew.”


Originally published in the August, 1988 issue of San Francisco

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