Monday, December 9, 2013

Tribute to Judy Rodgers

While I didn’t know Judy well, I had the good fortune to work with her for a short time in my early days at Chez Panisse. She was between gigs, and was filling in downstairs. My earliest memory of Judy was that of her asking Paul Bertolli, “So how do you do your ratatouille?” I remember thinking it was a strange question, since ratatouille was such a basic dish – nothing to it – throw some eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, etc. into a pan with some basil and garlic. It was the kind of question I’d probably have been afraid to ask for fear of seeming ignorant. But now in hindsight, I see that the question revealed some of the characteristics that made her such a wonderful chef. 

At the time I met her, Judy was well out of the starting gate and had made a number of laps around the track in her knowledge of cooking. She brought a sense of rediscovery to even the most basic dish, a sense that there was still something to be learned from making that dish on any given day. Every detail mattered, from how you sautéed the vegetables, to which olive oil was used and how to finish and present the dish.

When I think of Judy, my first thought is of fried chicken. Her fried chicken was quite spectacular! Paul had put it on the menu one night as the entrée. We started preparing it two days in advance, meticulously trimming the fat and seasoning the meat. Judy knew which areas of fat on the bird were likely to burn in the process of getting the chicken perfectly crisp and brown.

The frying process was slow. As the first seating progressed, concern mounted. Serving two pieces per person was quickly putting us behind. “Start another pan!” Well into the thick of the seating we found we needed more and more of the stove. Every cast iron skillet in the restaurant (eight as I recall) was full of slowly frying chicken. The person cooking the second course had to relinguish more and more stove space to us. There were times when we were tending 30 pieces of chicken and preparing the accompaniments, not to mention putting food on plates. It was one of those “how did we get ourselves into this?!?” moments.

These memories illuminate who Judy was as a cook. Her approach to each dish was guileless and egoless. She had the ability to look at a recipe anew and trust that something could be learned. I felt a sense of pride working with her because I left feeling like we made a dish the best it could possibly be on that particular day. I became a better cook for having worked with her.

Damn, that was some great fried chicken!

The following quote from Judy describes her perfectly: “I’ve never thought of myself as having invented a single solitary dish. I’m just sort of the thing through which this food gets made.” She was understated, but what made her great in my eyes was the willingness to ask a simple question, allowing a fresh perspective to emerge that might lead to new discoveries. 

And if we do this (as she did) consistently throughout our lives or careers, we leave our mark because we are doing what we love and doing it to the best of our ability. The world is a better place for it. Thank you, Judy.

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