Turning 21 With Judy Rodgers
When one thinks of how they might spend their 21st birthday, most times it is envisioned as a night filled with binge-drinking, bar hoping and if your a young lady; boys. For me, on my 21st birthday, I only wanted one thing; roast chicken.
I didn’t want just an ordinary meal, or any plain chicken dish - I was in seek of the best for my big day. I wasn’t fully versed in the food and beverage industry and I wasn’t exactly into eating everything, so I needed a place that wasn’t too adventurous but interesting.
I decided that no restaurant in New York would do, and that a trip to San Francisco was the only way that my 21st birthday wish could be fulfilled. Flights booked and only one reservation made; Zuni Cafe.
I didn’t know much about the restaurant other than it was run by a female chef, Judy Rodgers, and that she cooked a mean chicken. Salt rubbed and served along side a tangy bread baked with nuts and sweet raisins, it was a bird unlike any my mother ever cooked at home or really that I’d ever had before.
The experience at Zuni for me was peaceful and grounding, exactly what I had hoped for as I stepped into womanhood. I skimmed through the wine list like an old pro (even though I barely knew old world from new at that point), nonetheless bashfully handed over my ID after ordering a local white. I don’t remember much of the meal, other than feeling more mature than ever before; tucked in the back of Zuni Cafe, cozied up with a chicken dish fit for a queen. I was beginning to realize what good food should taste like, and for that I have Judy Rodgers to thank.
When I learned of her passing, my heart sank. I knew I’d have to write about her, but what to say I wasn’t sure. I never met the chef and I don’t have her book, what would I say about a woman who’s food I’ve only ate once?
After sleeping on that thought, I’ve come up with only this. One simple meal can change a persons perspective on life and the way they eat. After my meal at Zuni Cafe, I started to look at simple food and ingredients much differently, asking how it was seasoned, inquiring about how dishes were cooked.
After researching Rodgers’ past, I can confidently say I am truly inspired by her many humble philosophies that she embraced in not only cooking and but in her everyday life. Solid and stable, not showy. Tasty not tampered with. Classics versus the latest invention. Simple and elegant.
Looking back, all life lessons that any twenty-one year old might over look with an eye-roll and a lip-smack. But for me, it was a blessing in disguise.
Judy Rodgers died at 57 after a long-term battle with cancer. She will be remembered as a devoted chef. She received accolades from the James Beard Foundation as Outstanding Chef in 2004 and Best Restaurant in America in 2003. Her book “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” also won Cookbook of the Year in 2003.