Do you remember your first time at Zuni Cafe? Maybe, like me, you walked through the glass doors and up to the always-lively bar in the early 1990s, when the city was still recovering from the seismic upheaval of both the Loma Prieta earthquake and a national economic crash. Maybe you found solace there just after the earthquake, when $4 bowls of polenta kept the lights on.
Perhaps you watched the morning sun slant through the tall glass windows overlooking Market Street during the years when the cafe was serving breakfast, as peaceful, often solo customers started the day with bowls of cafe au lait, buttery scones, and Herb Caen in the pages of the Chronicle. Innumerable birthdays, weddings, engagements, anniversaries, and festivities were celebrated there, over the butcher-papered tables, with mahogany-skinned roast chickens for two, with fresh oysters and cracked Dungeness crab, with Caesar salad, shoestring fries, espresso granita, and huge hunks of Acme levain bread and butter that tasted better there than anywhere else. Zuni Cafe was that rare bird, a confident, welcoming San Francisco restaurant that didn't change, yet still managed to feel as fresh, as relevant, as perfectly just-right-now as it did ten, twenty, even twenty-five years ago.
Zuni Café will live on. But its guiding light, its chef, owner, and perfectionist visionary Judy Rodgers, an icon of California cuisine, is gone. Rodgers, 57, passed away today. In 2004, Rodgers was named Outstanding Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation; Zuni Cafe won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in America in 2003.
Rodgers put the sharp, inquisitive, and knowledge-seeking mind that had earned her a degree in art history at Stanford to great use as a chef and author. As she detailed in her James Beard Award-winning book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, she got her start as a curious 16 year old exchange student in 1973, spending a year with Troisgros family (who were friends of a neighbor of Rodgers' back home in St. Louis) who just happened to run Les Freres Troisgros in Rouen, then one of the most renowned restaurants in France. The lessons she learned there--of unstinting quality of ingredients matched with careful thriftiness, of perfection in simplicity, of pride in craft--would remain with her throughout her working life. She took the lessons she learned in that French kitchen and made them the basis for her particular kind of California cuisine, one rooted in French attitudes towards terroir and quality yet inspired by the ever more finely tuned seasonal abundance of Northern California's farms, ranches, fisheries, vineyards, and more.
In 1977, she started cooking professionally as the lunch chef at Alice Waters' then six-year-old restaurant, Chez Panisse. Two years later, she returned to France to cook at a small restaurant in the southwest, then relearned American food at the Union Hotel in Benicia with Marion Cunningham. In 1983, she traveled to Italy to live, learn, and eat, falling in love with the foods and history of Tuscany. By 1987, after a brief stint cooking in New York City, she became the chef at Zuni, a once-Southwestern restaurant that morphed under her influence into the French-Italian-Californian hybrid it remains today. With its wedge-shaped corner footprint between Franklin and Gough, Zuni was convenient to City Hall, the opera, the ballet, and the symphony, as well as to the scruffier aspects of Market Street. Walking down Rose Alley behind the restaurant, you could catch sight of Rodgers under the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, slim and intense, her bright blue eyes missing nothing.