I only saw Judy Rodgers in person once. In September 2008, I was on a tour of the Monterey Market in Berkeley, Calif. Bill Fujimoto, who owned the market at the time, had taken us to look in the back loading and storage area, where fruits and vegetables were stacked in boxes on pallets, and there was Judy, touching and tasting and sorting, her list in hand, picking out the very best ingredients to be served that night at Zuni Café.
I tried to get a photo without being obvious, and failed miserably. What I came up with was more smudged than focused, a photo of a woman turned sideways as she shimmied between pallets, a woman focused on getting the ingredients she needed while trying to get Bill’s attention as he told us stories about his store. She was on a mission, and I was too shy to stop her, ask if I could take a decent portrait, and tell her how much I admired her work.I grew up eating a lot of roast chicken, and roast Cornish hens, and lots and lots of salad. But I remember when two friends took me to my first dinner at Zuni Café while I was visiting San Francisco in 2002 on business. “That chicken and bread saladsounds good,” I said. “But it says there’s a long wait for it.”
“You have to get it,” said my friend Susan, who was a vegetarian and wouldn’t have touched it anyway. “It’s the dish to order here.”
“I’ll split it with you,” said Robin, Susan’s friend, who I was just meeting for the first time that night. “I don’t mind waiting.” She agreed it was incredibly good and not-to-be missed.
But incredibly good doesn’t even begin to describe how that dish tasted. I’m not exaggerating when I say it made all the roast chicken before and since pale in comparison. It was unbelievably simple—chicken, salt, pepper, mustard greens, currants, pine nuts, bread, vinaigrette—and, in that, unbelievably sublime. The skin crackled between my teeth.
I didn’t return until 2011, when took my parents there for their anniversary. Over that dinner, I introduced them to The Unicorn. I know we had other food to eat that night, but I demanded that we have the roast chicken and bread salad. “It’s the dish to order here,” I said, and it’s the only thing I really remember eating that night.
It was as good as the first time, and it is one dish I can always conjure up, almost able to taste it in my imagination. It is simple and brilliant and stunning, like the chef made famous by it.
I wish, before she’d left too soon, that I’d found a way to say thank you.
Read more tributes to Judy Rodgers, who died yesterday of cancer at 57, here: