A Traditionalist’s Appreciation of Judy Rodgers

Judy RogersWe had a first staff meeting on Sunday.  It was attended by those so far selected to be on the staff of Bread Furst at opening, some professional bakers and some serious amateurs now considering career changes.

A week or so before the meeting, Jack Ravelle, our pastry chef, had written to me about the Kouign Amann, the great traditional pastry from Brittany saying that it ought become one of our signatures and we ought to put on it our own unique twist.

I thought about how much a traditionalist I am and that pretty much all I want to do at Bread Furst is make as well as possible the classics I love.

So at the Sunday meeting we talked about tradition vs. innovation; I think of this as a great dilemma of the culinary world.

Then just a day later Judy Rodgers died.  Judy was one of the greatest of traditionalists and her restaurant, Zuni Café on Market Street in San Francisco, is a landmark food destination in that city of food destinations.

Joyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, has a photograph of Zuni’s menu in 1989.  It’s not as long as the current one but most of the dishes on the 25 year-old menu are still there.

No doubt some would say Judy didn’t change.  I would say she was rooted.

Her food is French because she was mentored in girlhood by Jean Troisgros in Roanne.  Her food loves fat because she cooked in southwest France.  And her food is heavily influenced by Italy (bread salad with pine nuts and currants, anchovies with celery and Parmesan) because she loved Italian food.

Zuni Roast ChickenThe emblematic dish, chicken roasted in a wood oven served on a salad

Judy Rodgers was in so many ways the antithesis of the celebrity that has seized our food world.  She didn’t compete on television food games.  She didn’t own multiple restaurants.  She didn’t publish flashy books.  And she had no appetite for frivolous invention.

Instead she simply stayed true to this that she wrote in her cookbook:

“Everything…, I am very proud to say, is derivative.  I cannot make a dish without trying to conjure where it came from and where I first had it, or read about it, or who made it, or taught me to make it.  And who grew the vegetables, raised the chickens, or made the cheese and where.  In this way, the simplest dish can recall a community of ideas and people.”

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