I know many cooks who, like myself, enjoy reading cookbooks as one would a novel; curling up with them and reading several recipes straight through. Not many cookbooks out there can qualify, in my opinion, to be worthy of this activity. The writing must make you eagerly anticipate the work involved in creating a dish, to be sure. But more than this, the author must give a sense of themselves and their culinary worldview that is compelling enough to make the reader feel a connection, as one would when reading a memoir.
Judi Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is such a book. I purchased it a few years back after it had gotten some good press in the New York Times and elsewhere, and quickly became enamored with Rodgers’ down-to-earth tone and earnest passion for tradition and ingredients. Rodgers is a “graduate” of the Chez Panisse kitchen, but something about her feels more genuine than some of the other chefs whose careers were spawned there. She went to France as a teenager and just happened to have the extreme good fortune of lodging with the Troisgros family, famous among food lovers for their 3-star Michelin restaurant in Roanne, France. From this experience, her mind and tastebuds were expanded, and after traveling and cooking her way through Southern Europe, she headed back to California. After doing time at Chez Panisse and elsewhere in the ’80s, she landed at Zuni Café in San Francisco, where she came into her own as a chef and restauranteur. (I sadly haven’t had the opportunity to eat at Zuni, but here’s a lovely review from Pim of the blog Chez Pim that gives a good idea of the food and ambience.)
So, is this a cookbook full of expensive ingredients, complex preparations, and lofty ambition? Well, yes and no. Because of a focus on regional ingredients, some of the recipes would be purely academic to anyone living outside of California, such as a recipe containing glasswort. Other recipes would require getting online to mail-order certain more exotic items, such as bottarga, a favorite ingredient of hers. But there are almost an equal number of recipes that are inexpensive, incorporate leftovers, and/or can easily be made with things you would have on hand on a daily basis. Case in point: one of my favorite recipes, Panade, which consists of stale bread, chicken stock, chard, onions, and cheese. It gets baked in the oven, becoming a casserole of puffed, browned gooey goodness. Another example is a recipe for Boiled Kale, Four Ways. Whether the recipe is simple or complex, however, Rodgers takes pains to give elaborate, detailed instruction. This does not come off as culinary bossiness, but as proof of her devotion to quality and traditional foodways.
Despite Rodgers’ predeliction for the food of France and Italy, the cookbook does include some typical American bistro-type food, such as hamburgers and Caesar salad. Again, these recipes are all about the implementation of technique and quality of ingredients to get the best possible result (grinding your own beef for the burgers, for example). I haven’t made the burgers, but I have made the Caesar Salad and can tell you it was one of the best I’ve had. Other recipes I’ve made from this book: the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad (the restaurant’s signature dish and highly recommended), Chard & Onion Panade, Asparagus & Rice Soup with Pancetta & Black Pepper, Pickled Red Onions, House-Cured Salt Cod, Shrimp cooked in Romesco with Wilted Spinach, Sea Bass with Leeks, Potatoes & Thyme, and Orange-Currant Scones. (Like me, Rodgers doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and the number of dessert recipes reflect this. In my opinion, however, this was not a shortcoming so much as an example of playing to your strengths.)
What ties together all the ideas in this book is an overriding desire to create “honest, generous” food using the best possible ingredients. Rodgers presents us not just with a book of recipes, but a philosophy of cooking and eating. A good percentage of the book is comprised of Rodgers’ careful, thoughtful instructions: the salting of meat, choosing the best produce, suggestions for putting together a cheese course; advice on weights, measures, cooking vessels and the like. It is telling that the cover photo, rather than showing a finished recipe, shows an image of carefully selected fruit, nuts and meat. The book’s tone can best be summed up by a quote that Rodgers took from her mentor, Jean Troisgros: “Méfie-toi du cinéma dans la cuisine”, or “Beware of theater in the kitchen”. Elevated but without affectation, Rodgers’ book will inspire anyone wishing to take their cooking to the next level, without having to use culinary trickery or pretention to do so.