One of my most vivid memories of working at Zuni Café was during Pride weekend.
The energy within the walls of Zuni is always special on the most normal of days; positioned at the edge of downtown, the edge of Hayes Valley, and the edge of the Castro, it feels like the center of the city. During Pride, everything is dialed up. You’d see so many kinds of people. The people, the craziness, the outfits, the packed bar.
And it was during that first Pride weekend that I witnessed one of the things that makes Zuni so special: There was an allowance of freedom. It is a place that welcomes anyone and everyone. There was an overwhelming sense of acceptance.
So much of that mentality extended to the cooking in the kitchen, too. For me, working for Judy Rodgers was so inspiring as a cook. I saw the way she analyzed things, how she was really hyperfocused on the small details that made big differences. With her food and her kitchen, there’s nothing to hide from. Things speak for themselves. The food was exactly what she intended it to be.
When I would be on the oven station, I would have to make the ricotta gnocchi, and we would have to go through the whole process — straining the ricotta the day before, squeezing it all out, cracking the eggs, grating the cheese, seasoning it all.
Every day, I would bring her a taster, and it was the one time I would always have a one-on-one interaction with her. She could tell when the cheese needed to be strained more, or if I had to use more eggs because the size of the eggs was smaller in the winter. She even knew if the water was boiling too hard or not simmering enough. Just from a taster.
She had a confidence in what she was doing. There’s an exacting precision. I love that style, and I feel like, over the years, I’ve come back to that in my own cooking — I’ve become comfortable in my own style.
There was always nourishment in Judy’s food, and to this day, there’s nourishment in how Zuni feeds and supports its city and many communities. That, to me, is always at the heart of Zuni.
Brandon Jew is the executive chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s.