Judy Rodgers: Legacy of a Chicken Whisperer

Chef Judy Rodgers (Photo courtesy of Zuni Café)Her roast chicken elevated the boring to the blissful   and her cookbook inspired a simple, rustic style of cooking. Judy Rodgers, chef of San Francisco's fabled Zuni Café, died on Monday of appendix cancer at the age of 57, the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed. But Rodgers's influence on the cooking scene will surely live on.

"She was an important force in shaping America's culinary landscape," Jessica Harlan, author of cookbooks including "Homemade Condiments," tells Yahoo Shine. "Her focus on top-quality, local ingredients, simply prepared, is one of her legacies and is so important and relevant today."

As news of the chef's passing spread, so did tributes on the Web. San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer hailed Rodgers as "one of the most powerful forces in cooking, not only in California but in the United States."

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Bauer recalled seeing her in the kitchen surrounded by staff as she prepared simple greens. "It was as if she were solving the theory of relativity as she tasted a leaf of the romaine that goes into the Caesar salad; the staff gathered around her like she was Maria singing 'Do Re Mi' to the Von Trapp children," he wrote.

Rodgers became chef and co-owner at Zuni Café in 1987, and, according to the eatery's website, requested a brick oven from her partners. As quoted from "The Zuni Café Cookbook," Rodgers then suggested what became her signature dish. "'Why not just roast a chicken? A whole chicken, to order. People could share it. It would be delicious out of that oven and simple. I bet people would go for it.'"

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers (Amazon)

And people did. The chicken dish served with bread salad made an impression, but so did her approach, which included a "devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared," Eric Asimov wrote in the New York Times this week.

The restaurant's website notes that Rodgers's love of food can be traced back to her experience as a 16-year-old abroad who stayed with a family who happened to run a world-famous restaurant. "She was a very lucky exchange student at Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, France, in the early seventies. It was then that she fell in love with cooking and the world of restaurants."

The foodie came to the Bay Area in 1974 to study art history at Stanford University, according to the Chronicle. After becoming a fan of chef Alice Waters's legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Rodgers began to fill in for Waters on the lunch shift, despite a lack of formal training. After moves to Italy, southwest France, and New York, Rodgers eventually landed at the triangular-shaped building of Zuni Café, according to the New York Times.

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Try her iconic roast chicken dish at home  perfect for a dinner party. (Recipe from Judy Rodgers provided by FoodandWine.com).

  One 2 3/4-pound free-range chicken
  4 thyme sprigs
  4 small garlic cloves, lightly crushed and peeled
  2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  Freshly ground pepper

1. Using your fingers, gently loosen the skin from the chicken breasts and thighs. Stuff the thyme and garlic under the skin. Sprinkle the salt all over the chicken and season with pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 500°. Preheat a large cast-iron skillet in the oven for 5 minutes. Put the chicken in the skillet, breast side up, and roast for 30 minutes. Turn the chicken breast side down and roast for about 15 minutes longer, or until the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced. Transfer the chicken to a board and let rest for 10 minutes; carve.
3. Skim the fat from the juices in the skillet. Arrange over the Bread Salad with Currants and Pine Nuts on a platter and top with the chicken. Pour the juices over all and serve.

ACTIVE: 20 MIN
TOTAL TIME: 1 hour plus 24 hour seasoning
SERVINGS: 4

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