Given the many moving tributes I've read to the memory of Judy Rodgers I was initially hesitant to add my voice to the mix. After all, though I've eaten at ZUNI countless times over the years, and had seen her either behind the stove or otherwise engaged in the business of the day, I only met Judy Rodgers once.
It was at a book signing for her classic ZUNI Cafe Cookbook, arguably the single most important, no, let's instead say useful, contemporary book yet published for the home cook. Ten years in the making, it's one of the best written, too. Although I'd already read the book from cover to cover, I couldn't resist standing in line to thank her, and to say, "I learned something from you on every page." In return she thanked me with that wide-open, gently beautiful smile of hers.
But for me, like so many others, ZUNI is more than just a great restaurant. It's a symbol of the heart and soul of San Francisco. It also happens that ZUNI changed my life; because if not for ZUNI I would never have met the love of my life, my wife Sher. I'd already been going to ZUNI for several years. One day as I was helping an ex-girlfriend find an apartment we decided to break for lunch at ZUNI. In those pre-Craigslist days we were looking at listings in the newspaper when I realized that the pair of young women seated next to us were doing the same thing.
We started a conversation, realized we had several things in common, and ended up getting together for dinner a few times. One of these women was a close friend of Sher. And though I wouldn't find this out for a while she thought Sher might find me interesting, and vice versa, and arranged the group outing at which we met. When we started dating seriously ZUNI became "our" place. For many years Sher and I would meet there every Thursday night, plus, of course, whenever the mood struck us. Which was, uh, quite frequently. When we decided to marry we considered holding our wedding at ZUNI, but as often happens economics trumped desire.
When we opened our own businesses, without consciously realizing it, we aspired to make them ZUNI-like. Not in terms of look or concept but in the way they make vistors feel — warm, always welcomed, like part of a family.
The last time we saw Judy was several months ago. She was lunching at Piccino with a friend. Friends of ours were at a table next to hers. And when I walked over to greet them I was delighted to see Judy, looking well, laughing, and flashing that signature smile.