Judy Rodgers’ famous Zuni Cafe roasted chicken

Judy Rodgers, the influential chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, died this week. She was 57 years old and had been battling cancer.

We were regulars at Zuni for years. Judy was one of the young chefs who were instrumental in creating “California Cuisine.” She inspired other chefs, including Traci Des Jardins, who founded Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Lake Tahoe.

Judy’s simple roasted chicken recipe — dry brined and cooked in a wood-fired oven — became famous. It was served with a bread salad and greens.

We relied on the recipe regularly. In fact, we roasted a chicken this way before Thanksgiving. The chicken came from Dinner Bell Farm in Chicago Park, and we bought it at the Foothills Farmers Market in Auburn.

Here’s some background for the Zuni Cafe roasted chicken in Judy’s own words:

“We really needed a brick oven, and within a few months there was a 12- by 8-foot hole in the middle of the main dining room, decorated with plenty of bright yellow caution tape,” Rodgers writes in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

“That brick oven ushered in a litany of dishes—and, one fateful afternoon when I was feeling overworked, under the weather, and debating what to cook in the brick oven that night, I floated an idea.

‘”Why not just roast a chicken? A whole chicken, to order. People could share it. It would be delicious out of that oven and simple. I bet people would go for it.’

“People did go for it. We never stop apologizing for the wait, but we just can’t roast enough chickens, fast enough. Juggling up to 19 birds, and their bread salads, on about twelve not-very-accessible square feet of oven deck is a feat.”

The recipe for Zuni’s roast chicken is here:

1. Chicken
“When it comes to preparing the chicken, Rodgers has three ‘non-negotiables,'” as Eater.com writes. “The first, Rodgers uses small organic, antibiotic-free chickens.”

“Rodgers begins by patting the chickens dry, which encourages faster browning in the oven. The chicken is seasoned extremely simply: at the restaurant, Rodgers uses only sea salt and pepper. She uses approximately ¾ of a teaspoon per pound of chicken.

“For her second non-negotiable step, she leaves the chicken to cure for up to three days in the refrigerator. Rodgers was inspired by the French technique of salt-preserving poultry.

2. Roasting
“Rodgers’ third non-negotiable is cooking the chicken in high heat (about 450-475 degrees) so that the chicken begins browning within 17 – 20 minutes. Cooking time varies, so the restaurant “needs to say ‘approximately one hour’ when explaining how long it will take to prepare.

(More details on the roasting technique are HERE,) from Judy’s own cookbook.

“Not a standard step in many roasting recipes, Rodgers says flipping is ‘a reliable way to ensure even browning.’

“After roughly 37 minutes (give or take based on the conditions mentioned above), the chicken is taken out of the oven to finish and rest.

The chicken is served with a bread salad and greens (baby red mustard greens). The complete recipe is HERE.

(photo: Eater.com and Zuni Cookbook)

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