The best roast chickens I’ve ever eaten were at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, juicy, crisp-skinned birds, snipped into random-seeming fragments by some madman with a scissors and arranged in a jumble over a bread salad enriched with warm pan juices, pine nuts and currants. The chickens are majestic animals, with a flavor almost 19th century in their level of detail: tinged with smoke from the wood-burning oven in which they are roasted, flavored with the tiny sprigs of thyme and rosemary that have been tucked underneath their skins, and slightly, subtly funky — one imagines these chickens have actually scratched at worms. There are few surer recipes for happiness in this world than a long afternoon with a good friend, a Zuni chicken, and a bottle of old Cornas.
Zuni, along with Chez Panisse and the Oakland restaurant Oliveto, is at the forefront of what might be called urban rustic cuisine: Mediterranean peasant cooking reinterpreted for affluent American urbanites who believe in living simply, prepared with a level of attention to ingredients and method and an authenticity that is often hard to find in the countries that inspired most of the dishes in question. Even in the poorest corners of Tuscany or the Landes, it would be hard to find a grandmother who made as intensive use as Zuni does of bitter greens, or simmered lentils, or stale bread.
Judy Rodgers, the chef at Zuni Café and the author of The Zuni Café Cookbook (Norton), a lavishly produced volume that earlier this month won the James Beard Foundation Award as the best cookbook of the year, is master of a scholarly, allusive cuisine, grounded in classical French cooking but drawing inspiration from all over the Mediterranean and beyond, eccentrically rustic in a way designed to feed city dwellers’ most atavistic longings: hard-crusted bread, wrigglingly fresh oysters and house-cured anchovies; fistfuls of rowdy herbs and the sweet, smoky lick of fire. If you’ve lately begun to yearn for the sophisticated combination of Gorgonzola with chestnut honey, a snifter of old calvados, or the pleasures of a really chunky sauce gribiche, chances are that Rodgers anticipated the craving more than a decade ago. She was way out in front on herbed polenta, espresso granita, baked eggs, and the almost feral affinity of Californians for Italian-style breakfast bars.
Where the aesthetic of her friend Alice Waters often comes down to the notion of what an egg salad or a corn-and-lobster soufflé theoretically might taste like if you had access to the best ingredients in the world and a kitchen staff with the dedication of monks, Rodgers’ is more process-oriented. Where a regular at Chez Panisse, which changes its set menu nightly, will theoretically never experience the same meal twice, there are undoubtedly longtime customers of Zuni who have never ordered anything but the roast chicken and the caesar salad.
If you are a fan of Zuni Café, you will find almost everything you might be looking for in Rodgers’ cookbook. Of the 250 or so recipes, many are for dishes like caesar salad, hamburger and grilled cheese sandwiches, which is to say, things for which you ordinarily wouldn’t be consulting a $35 volume — unless you had swooned over them at the restaurant. Rodgers’ re-imagined versions are extraordinarily detailed, time-consuming, writerly, and usually worth the extra trouble. One admonition, frequently repeated, is: “Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.” (I doubt that many readers will be putting up their own duck confit or making their own salt cod, although it’s nice to know that they could.) But in a way, the theme of her book is the luxury of pure time, and the value it adds to something as basic as the food we eat for dinner. No cookbook author has emphasized method, the slow, unhurried manipulation of ingredients, quite as much since the late Richard Olney’s deceptively titled Simple French Food.
Restaurant chefs don’t write their own cookbooks — they hash them out with collaborators. They are busy people, chefs, with staffs to run, people to feed, and charity dinners to fly off to — the book tends to be a fairly minor part of the package, more marketing tool than literature. Partially because of this, although there are many exceptions, chefs’ cookbooks are often little more than glossy souvenirs of the restaurants in question. But Rodgers, alone of the major chefs that I can think of at the moment, wrote her book without assistance, and each quirk of her graceful prose, each four-page recipe, each extended meditation on oysters or omelets or lively crabs are hers alone. ä
And Rodgers’ book is wildly, ecstatically improvisatory, less a compendium of recipes sometimes than a collection of prisms through which to view the edible world. The headnotes, which is what food people call the blocks of text that appear before the recipes, almost overwhelm the recipes themselves, spinning off alternate recipes and proto-recipes and dishes that might be more appropriate in a different time or place, headnotes that take on a sort of gravitational force of their own. So that a recipe for monkfish, white beans and fennel, for example, may lead to a dish that contains neither monkfish, beans nor fennel, but expresses the same juxtaposition of crispness with lush, mellow-flavored starch. The six-page recipe for assembling a fritto misto plate, lacy-crusted assemblages of deep-fried vegetables, sliced lemons and seafood, is probably expandable to its own book.
Where chefs in France are generally the products of trade schools and long apprenticeship, the best Bay Area chefs tend to come to food late, as almost a religious vocation, and Rodgers is no exception. She was introduced to the possibilities of the professional kitchen as a high school exchange student in the ’70s, when the host family for her junior year abroad turned out to be that of Jean Troisgros, a three-star chef who ran one of the best restaurants in France with his brother Pierre. (Characteristically, she preferred the family suppers prepared by their sister, Madeleine.) After graduating from Stanford with a degree in literature, she wound up in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, then bumped back and forth between Europe and California for a few years, apprenticing in modest rural kitchens in southwest France and Tuscany, and opening the restaurant at the Union Hotel in Benecia with Fanny Farmer author Marion Cunningham, who is probably James Beard’s successor as the beloved guru of American cooking.
Rodgers may express her ideas on how to make a hamburger, but she has ingredient fetishes like everyone else. Take the dish shown on the cover, for example, a quiet still life of sliced prosciutto, green almonds and white rose nectarines. The shiny green almonds in the photograph, slipped out of their fuzzy, green pods, are marvelous things, a San Francisco cult ingredient at the moment, but are only available at a very few farmers’ markets, and even then, for just a few weeks in early to mid-spring. The nectarines, a delicious white-fleshed variety, are also an organic farmers’ market specialty (you won’t find them at Ralphs) and don’t become really ripe until summer. The Parma prosciutto isn’t rare, but is pretty hard to find outside of certain urban areas. The recipe is simple — slice nectarines, shell almonds, serve — but in its platonic form, it might be possible maybe one or two weeks each year, and then only in the Bay Area. The dish made with blanched regular almonds, Rodgers’ alternate suggestion, was almost mockingly inadequate.
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Still, since I brought the cookbook home, I have learned how to appreciate cracked and shrunken figs, which are invariably sweeter than the plump, unblemished specimens, look for persimmons that give like a slightly underripe peach, and check honeydew melons for \raised netting texture, which indicates a sweeter melon. Rodgers has more uses for yesterday’s stale loaf than a dozen flocks of pigeons — bread salad, bread-crumb coatings, and a sort of soufflé bread pudding called panade. Of the couple dozen things I’ve cooked from The Zuni Café Cookbook, I have regretted only a duff version of spaghetti carbonara with ricotta and fresh peas.
But the most important lesson of the book, and probably at this point as much the sign of a Rodgers cultist as a bowlful of soaking zucchini is the mark of a Marcella Hazan addict or a refrigerator full of bubbling bread starter an acolyte of Nancy Silverton, is Rodgers’ imperative to rub salt into the surface of fish, meat or poultry the second you get them home. Early salting seasons the meat, of course, but, more important, cures it: relaxing the fibers, plumping the cells, locking in a certain succulence. A steak salted a few days in advance is tender and just unbelievably full of flavor; a salted fish is slower to overcook. Lately, I’ve been salting meat and poultry even before I remember to put the ice cream in the freezer, even when I don’t intend to make a recipe from the Zuni book, and my food is better for it.
And then there’s Rodgers’ famous chicken, which turns out to be a snap. I love Marcella Hazan’s pan-roasted chicken with white wine and rosemary and Barbara Kafka’s high-heat bird stuffed with lemon and garlic, but for the first time in my life I am almost as likely to have a salted bird sitting in my refrigerator as I am to have a carton of eggs or a half-gallon of milk. I’ve even, more or less, stopped going to Zankou. Because even without a wood-burning brick oven, without spectacularly organic ingredients, without a prep staff as skilled as neurosurgeons, the Zuni chicken is mine.
Jonathan Gold is the author of Counter Intelligence: Where To Eat in the Real Los Angeles.