Influential California Chef Judy Rodgers Leaves Behind a Legacy of Simple Perfection
People who knew Judy Rodgers called her a fighter and a force of nature, so much of the California Bay Area food scene was shocked and saddened to learn that the 57-year-old had succumbed to a rare form of cancer on Monday, December 2. Rodgers is often mentioned in the same breath as Alice Waters and Thomas Keller for her work at the now famous Zuni Café, which, along with places like Chez Panisse and La Brea Bread, helped turn the Bay Area into a restaurant destination.
Photo courtesy Kathi Riley California chefs at Zuni Café in the 1980s. Left to right: Kathi Riley, Judy Rodgers and James Beard. Marion Cunningham is at the head of the table.
Rodgers, a St. Louis native, fell into the culinary world somewhat by accident when she spent a year studying abroad in France as a teenager. The family with whom she stayed happened to own the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Frères Troisgros (today called Maison Troisgros), so Rodgers spent much of her free time in the kitchen copying down family recipes.
She moved to the Bay Area to study art history at Stanford before once again embarking on studies abroad in France. Upon her return, she discovered Chez Panisse and began working with Alice Waters at the restaurant. Waters introduced her to Marion Cunningham of the Union Hotel near Berkeley, and Rodgers became executive chef there. It was this job that first started to garner her national recognition for her unique explorations of simple food, a style that became indicative of the Bay Area aesthetic.