For every delicious mouthful. I made your roast chicken for my Thanksgiving-for-One feast this year, just before you passed on to the great dinner party in the sky. Of course I would. It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life. Bright, simple, balanced: the chicken was roasted ’til golden fat in the big brick oven, then pieced out and laid atop peppery greens and crispy whisps of bread crouton, which mingled with the juices.
I took these photos at Judy Rodgers‘ restaurant, Zuni Café in San Francisco, a few years ago. The roasted chicken bread salad had been served there for many years, and it was such an iconic dish it even made it into her NYT obituary twice, once in text and once as the image of Ms. Rodgers at work. I don’t often say this, but the dish was more than just poetry or symphonic taste, it was a reflection of who we are and what we mean to do in creating food to share. I learned to cook in the late 80s as a high school student in the Midwest who would soon find her way out to Northern California for college. The new landscape, the wonders of Berkeley Bowl, and a boyfriend who shared the adventure with me were instrumental to my own education. And all of this was fed by the revolution going on around me, one Judy Rodgers was helping to foment. So for me, California cuisine was cooking.
Sitting in front of that platter of chicken bread salad many years later, and taking it in for just a moment — understanding the room California cuisine gives us to ponder the elements, thinking about the life that was sacrificed, the hands that formed the bread and picked the greens, and the unerring creative mind that knew one classic dish could resist dining fads and fancies — was almost better than the first spear of juicy chicken dressed with a little balsamic and olive oil, a stray leaf, a shattered bit of bread.
Let anyone who dares argue that food is not art take on a dish like this, emblematic of a life and a movement and a time and a place.
Chef Judy Rodgers, with the greatest respect, RIP.