Astoria, Queens to Hayes Valley, San Francisco: In Remembrance of a Goddess of Food

Of course Goddess of Food Chef Judy Rodgers is to be remembered for more than one iconic dish. But oh, her roast chicken was the best chicken dish I have ever eaten in my entire life, and San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, one of my all time favorite dining experiences.

A few years ago, I was planning a trip to San Francisco for my girlfriend’s birthday. She’s a West Coaster (unlike this Jersey girl) and the heat was on to identify an iconic San Francisco birthday dinner that incorporated the ingredients and preparations she favors. That would be either (a) Japanese food or (b) a fresh, healthy, California style poultry, fish, or vegetable-centric menu (for my birthday, please feel free to deep fat fry the pork belly).

The good folks I talk about food with on Twitter, whose insights and recommendations continuously blow me away, were very clear on what my choice should be. Not only did they recommend Zuni Cafe and Chef Judy Rogers by name, they all but insisted that I call ahead for a reservation and let them know we’d be ordering the roast chicken. Of course I took them all up on this highly specific, impassioned suggestion, and we are both eternally grateful for it.

The chicken takes about an hour to prepare, which is why it’s best to specify that you will be ordering it when you make a reservation at Zuni Cafe. The transcendent dish itself is best described in Grub Street’s must read ode to the life and influence of Chef Rodgers:

“At first she serves it with a simply dressed green salad, but then decides it needs something heartier. She devises a spin on the panzanella, with baby mustard greens, a light vinaigrette, pine nuts, raisins, and hunks of bread that she heats in the oven drizzled with chicken stock. The chicken is then served cut up over the bread salad, and becomes the restaurant’s iconic dish, unchanged to this day and widely imitated.”

And Zuni Cafe itself is as warm and welcoming as its best dish. Cozy without being cloying, high quality without a hint of pretension, uncommonly friendly, a destination for travelers and a beloved local haunt.

Reading about Chef Rodgers this week, I kept flashing back to Time Magazine’s “Gods of Food” article (not available online or I’d link to it) which entirely excludes female chefs from its invented pantheon. That food writers (regardless of gender) uniformly denounced the article was heartening. As is the outpouring of respect and admiration for the late, great Rodgers by fellow chefs, food writers and restaurant-goers.

Tonight in my mind we’ll veer off Market Street into the warm glow of Zuni Cafe. As we wait a glorious, anticipatory hour for the roast chicken to be prepared,  I’ll be thinking about a young Chef Rodgers. I’ll try to imagine the first time she hung out in the kitchen with Alice Waters, helping her prepare lunch at Chez Panisse, and all the truly divine things that have flowed from that moment.

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