The detailed Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

Background to Zuni Cafe

Judy Rodgers launched the incredibly detailed The Zuni Cafe Cookbook in 2002 and it became an instant success. Foodies everywhere immediately realised that this was a very significant and important publication.

Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers

Zuni Cafe is a special place for us. It was established in 1979 by Billy West as a small restaurant with a Mexican influence. He gradually took over more and more of the building and expanded the seating. In 1987 he offered the head chef to Judy Rodgers who had served a stint as the lunch chef at Chez Panisse as well as sessions at restaurants in France.

She asked for a wood-fired oven and the roast chicken gradually became an iconic dish in San Francisco.

But it was not this dish that made us sit up and take notice in the 1990s. Having already eaten at Chez Panisse in 1985, we were aware of the movement to focus on produce.

We dropped in one night to have a snack at the bar. We tried a plate of house cured anchovies with Parmesan cheese, tiny pieces of diced celery and Ligurian olives. The flavours simply leaped off the plate. It was simplicity and perfection at the same time.

A New York Times article reflecting on her career following her tragic death at the age of 57 referred to her cooking as “refined simplicity” and we can but agree.

We gradually became aware of what took place behind the scenes to ensure that this apparently simple dish delivered the flavour profile that was so amazing yet looked simple on the plate. This book helps to explain why!

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

We love the fact that the Zuni Cafe Cookbook represents a complete departure from the worrying trend among so-called fashionable cookbooks of reducing all recipes to a few lines of description and only two or three ingredients.

Instead, the recipes are accompanied by thoughtful, erudite and often witty dissertations that tell you why she does things and why the combinations of ingredients are necessary. All the while you can almost feel yourself sitting in Zuni Cafe listening to her describing the ambience and the dishes. (Note that during the Covid crisis, Zuni Cafe is offering takeout food only.)

She dives off into discussions about early salting (compulsive reading), the aquatic terroir of oysters, the meaning and importance of tempering, how to master braising and how cook a successful roast dish among many more.

Even dishes that look simple on the plate such as the much-heralded salt-cured anchovies require almost two pages of description as the technique requires the curing of the anchovies in salt and a description of how to prepare them for serving.

And the beautifully simple, yet vibrantly flavoured roast chicken with bread salad that we have enjoyed so much takes almost five pages to explain the process.

When you read the technique for slow-scrambled eggs with bottarga you can almost taste the result forming in the pan.

The food descriptions are laced with adjectives. We have glistening anchovies and cold, crisp celery, we also find bubbling, amber syrup and we are urged to shave fennel into thin sickles- these descriptions tell you much, much more about how the ingredients should be treated and what you should look for.

We normally point to one or two recipes that you should try in a book we are reviewing, however this is not a recipe book – it is a lifestyle. This is a book that should be a constant reference in your kitchen or study.

Whenever you are going to roast, braise, steam, pan fry or sauté a piece of meat or fish or cook some vegetables, then you should refresh your memory by diving into this goldmine of technique and inspiration.

You can purchase this great book from Amazon by clicking on the link below. This will also help us in maintaining this Web site.