Judy Rodgers

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Judy Rodgers has been at Zuni Café since 1987 as chef and co-owner. 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.

Billy West opened Zuni Café in 1979, with a huge heart and exactly ten thousand dollars. In the early years, the restaurant consisted of a narrow storefront with a creaky mezzanine, roughly one quarter of its current size. To capitalize on the neighboring and highly visible corner cactus shop, (where Billy had been a partner, until it became clear cactus sales wouldn’t support three partners), he hand-plastered the walls and banquettes of his new space to give it a southwestern adobe-look. He chose the name Zuni, after the native American tribe, and decided to offer mostly simple and authentic Mexican food, drawing inspiration from Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks. A Weber grill was an important early investment, and was rolled on to the back sidewalk for each day’s service. Next came an espresso machine, which doubled as a stove since you could scramble eggs with the milk steamer. The waiters made this dish, to order. Barely two years later, Billy hired Vince Calcagno to help run his struggling café, when helping to run the café meant managing the books and entire front of house operations. Vince occasionally called friends to help cook when Billy was understaffed in the kitchen. (I received one of those calls and recall a frantic, but happy evening of making countless Caesar Salads, harvesting sizzling croutons from an undersized and overworked toaster oven, which was tethered to the single kitchen outlet with a daisy chain of extension cords.) But, ever resourceful and passionate, Billy and Vince made a success of the improbable restaurant. By 1986, Zuni had absorbed the adjacent storefront, and spilled into the former cactus shop.

When Billy and Vince, now partners in the business, asked me to be chef in 1987, the restaurant was very busy and well-respected. The food was delicious; milk-steamer eggs had gone away and there was an indoor grill and exhaust system. The menu still had a vaguely Mexican bent and the most popular dish was the made-to-order Caesar Salad. I accepted the job. I was confident that the owners’ affection for France and Italy, and for traditional food, would sanction lots of experimentation, and change. I told Billy and Vince that we really needed a brick oven, and within a few months there was a 12- by 8-foot hole in the middle of the main dining room, decorated with plenty of bright yellow caution tape.

That brick oven ushered in a litany of dishes—and, one fateful afternoon when I was feeling overworked, under the weather, and debating what to cook in the brick oven that night, I floated an idea with Billy and Vince.

"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." People did go for it. We never stop apologizing for the wait, but we just can’t roast enough chickens, fast enough. Juggling up to 19 birds, and their bread salads, on about twelve not-very-accessible square feet of oven deck is a feat. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002

Website: http://www.zunicafe.com/

Cookbooks by Judy Rodgers

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