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Volunteer Spotlight: Zuni Cafe's Judy Rodgers

Interviewed by Mara Flores Naumann

Judy Rogers stands next to Zuni Cafe's renowned oyster bar.In 1987, Judy Rodgers came to Zuni Café (which started in 1979) after coming to eat there for many years, transforming the cafe into what it is now. She shakes her head when claiming to “not do much” as a board member for FMSA, when in fact she has donated her exquisite cuisine to many fundraising events.

Judy is dedicated to good, simple food. Good food includes sustainable and local food, from produce grown in our watershed by local family farms, to fish caught using sustainable methods by a few local fishermen. She is so dedicated to good fish that she is willing to forgo the usual sauces for an excellent grilled fish garnished only with lemon and salt.

 

Where does your commitment to local food come from?
My first cooking was in a French restaurant, where I lived as a young woman.
Virtually all the ingredients were local, or at least French. I was exposed to the idea of a restaurant starting with a chicken with feathers (as opposed to a plastic package), or a whole salmon from the local river or creek. Buying quality local food became normal for me.

Local really matters. We want and need small local farms to survive and the product is better!  There's also the whole overlay of sustainability. It’s just as important what goes in my storm sewer as what fish I buy.

For out of town diners, how do you teach them about sustainable seafood at Zuni Cafe?

We make sure that our staff knows the variety of fish we’re using, where it's from and why we're comfortable serving it. For example, local sand dabs used to be a staple, but they are not sustainable on a large scale any longer in the Bay Area. Nevertheless, there are still a few small fishermen who can fish a small amount out every once in a while. I put a lot of confidence in my fish brokers to say, "Judy, this is okay and this is not okay." I trust that my fish brokers have done their homework. I buy a lot from Monterey Fish and The Fresh Fish Company.  Paul Johnson [Monterey Fish ] also has a retail outlet, selling direct to the public, where folks may be less likely to accept limitations in their choices than they may in a restaurant.  That's the real battle line.

How do you educate your waitstaff?

Our menu changes every day, so half an hour before service each day, we cook samples of each dish and have a meeting with the wait staff. Anything that’s not standard we explain in great length. This kind of fish is comes from here, here’s what the name means, we tell them exactly how it is prepared. If we do a dish with a fish that is considered a "hot button" in the Bay Area, we explain to them why we are comfortable serving this dish. Again, as far as awareness---teaching the chefs like me---I give a lot of credit to Paul Johnson of Monterey Fish Market. The seafood issue is tricky---it’s so dynamic. What's sustainable changes over the years, and from ocean to ocean. When I wrote the recipes for my cookbook, by the time the book was to be published, some of the dishes had to be changed because they called for seafood that was no longer sustainable.

Why did you join the FMSA board?

They asked me and I said yes. Five or six years ago I was talking to Paul Johnson, one of the most forward-thinking fishbrokers in the Bay Area. He and I go way back, to Chez Panisse days, when he was their fishbroker.  Paul asked me if I would take part in  OceanFest, FMSA's annual event. We couldn’t spare anyone from the restaurant, so my husband and I manned the Zuni booth  We had a lot of fun, because it’s not a high-end, fancy charity thing. It’s very focused on this idea that we all need to care about the ocean, which is filled with surprises and trreasures. There were young families, older people, kids. People were dressed comfortably and the whole thing was so happy and unpretentious. It struck me as a terrific grass-rootsy thing, and I thought we should participate every year. OceanFest appeals to me as perfect event with an uncomplicated and positive message. It's so really effective  It makes people concerned about the ocean in an accessible way. So that’s how I met some of the people on the board. They asked us to do it again the next year, and eventually dropped by Zuni and asked me to be on the board.

Why do you care about sustainability?


The same reason I care about clean air or wilderness. The oceans are a gift, a treasure and it’s just wrong--selfish--to squander them. It’s just right to be concerned in this way, that these resources are not pointlessly squandered, but treasured.

I will say I’ve witnessed a lot of change since I was cooking at Chez Panisse in 1978. I can remember what came in the back door in Paul Johnson’s arms, all the local fish he offered. When I look at my old hand written menus from Chez Panisse, or the menus from where I first started at Zuni, it’s a wake up call. There were so many varieties of rockfish when I was the young lunch cook at Chez Panisse. And here I am, same me, same Paul, but not the same rockfish. Likewise, when I first got to Zuni we cooked smelt a lot for little fish frittos and Bay shrimp from China Camp. We very rarely get those anymore. On the other hand, there is a now market for anchovies and squid and sardines, people really love them, and those fisheries are healthy. You can’t not notice that there's just not as many fish.  

What's behind your love of the small fish ?

I first fell in love with them in France, where I learned to preserve anchovies, little mackeral, sardines and so on. When I first served anchovies in 1987, no one was serving them in restaurants---so almost no one fished for them. My fishmonger had to go to a baitboat, a fisherman who fished chovies for bait for salmon sport fishermen in the summer. He would haul them out of the water and drop them in huge vats of glycol. Our fishmonger basically had to bribe this guy to set some aside--not put them into the glycol---so that he could bring them to me to salt cure like in France. Happily, we don’t depend on the baitboat anymore.  Tastes have changed, lots of restaurants are interested in fresh anchovies, so a number of fishermen bring in product.

What was your best seafood experience?

Maybe a simple piece of fresh local fish, fresh off the grill. With nothing more than sea salt and a maybe a trickle of lemon. And I don't think that's unusual for a professional cook. Even the most sophisticated, ambitious chef, crawling with talent and inspiration loves that. There’s something absolutely delectable and undeniable about a perfect piece of simply prepared fresh fish.  It’s just too good to embellish and tranform.  It's most seductive in its purest form, right from the water to the plate. Delicious!