Chef and cookbook author Judy Rodgers, who got her start working at a St. Louis Dairy Queen, died Monday (Dec. 2, 2013) at a hospital in Berkeley, Calif.
She was 57 and had been diagnosed more than a year ago with cancer, her family said Tuesday.
She was a James Beard Award-winning chef, author of a best-selling cookbook, winner of the Outstanding Chef in America award and chef and co-owner of the famed Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.
Ms. Rodgers graduated in 1974 from Horton Watkins High School in Ladue. She spent her senior year in Roanne, France, where her hosts were the Troisgros family, owners of a restaurant considered one of the best in the world.
“It was just incredibly good fortune,” Ms. Rodgers told the Post-Dispatch in 2002.
At home, her neighbor across the street was an amateur chef. He worked for Monsanto, oversaw textile and chemical work in Roanne and had stayed at the hotel operated by the Troisgros family. He introduced Ms. Rodgers to the family and brokered an exchange.
Catherine Troisgros was about 16 years old at the time and was eager to spend a year in the United States. Judy stayed with Catherine’s parents while Catherine became an exchange student at Ladue High.
In France, Ms. Rodgers spent every waking hour in the kitchen taking notes. She returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Stanford, where she studied art history. She made the 40-mile trek from Palo Alto to Chez Panisse, the restaurant Alice Waters had opened in Berkeley.
Her waitress turned out to be the daughter of her Stanford adviser, who introduced her to Waters. Rodgers mentioned that she had returned from France with 100 pages of handwritten recipes.
“Her eyes just lit up,” Ms. Rodgers recalled. “To the right person, that information was gold, and that person was Alice.”
Ms. Rodgers filled in for Waters on the lunch shift, although at the time she had no formal training. She was still writing applications for law school when Waters offered her a job as lunch cook.
After two years, Ms. Rodgers returned to France to learn with another master chef. She returned to America “absolutely broke.” That’s when Marion Cunningham, who had revised “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” hired her as chef for a restaurant in Benicia, Calif.
That job launched her career. She began getting a lot of notice, including an article by the noted James Beard.
Three years later, she pulled up stakes again for a farmhouse near Florence, where she learned about regional Italian cuisines. She returned to America in 1987 as chef at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.
Ms. Rodgers used her experience in France and Italy to transform the menu. She later became part-owner of the cafe.
Her mother, Cathy, had been a fashion design instructor at Washington University. Her father, Jim, who died in 2000, was an engineer and chairman of Washington University’s board of governors. Ms. Rodgers credited them with teaching her the skills to operate a successful restaurant.
“She taught me how to sew, which probably helped me learn how to cook,” Ms. Rodgers explained. “She’d tell me, ‘That’s what the pattern says, but here’s what you really have to do to make it work.’ It’s like a lot of recipes: If you follow a pattern slavishly, you can make clothes, but they won’t be elegant.”
As for her father, “When you run a restaurant, it’s a lot like engineering a little city of people and systems.”
In 2002, Ms. Rodgers wrote the best-selling “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.”
Anthony Devoti, owner of Five Bistro on the Hill, worked with Ms. Rodgers at the Zuni Cafe for a year. He dropped off his résumé at the restaurant after reading in Saveur magazine that she was a fellow St. Louisan. He was hired the same afternoon.
“She was way cool,” Devoti says. “She had an unbelievable palate. She was always creative, always tweaking stuff. Everything was very collaborative. We tasted every dish together as a team, and everyone put in their two cents — and she listened to us.”
Devoti adds, “You could tell she was from St. Louis. Her personality, that Midwest friendliness, came out.
“She was a die-hard baseball fan. She would always talk to me about the Cardinals and go to games when they were in town.”
Devoti sees his restaurant as a “seedling” of Rodgers’ philosophy of keeping things simple.
“You’re buying beautiful food,” he says of the main lesson he learned from her. “Don’t screw it up.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Survivors include her husband, Kirk Russell of Berkeley; her mother, Cathy Rodgers of Ladue; her brother, Doug Rodgers of Ladue; and her sister, Carolyn Rodgers of Boston.
Ian Froeb of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.