Executive Chef Gilbert Pilgram & Head Chef Rebecca Boice, Zuni Café
“The place just humming, looking like Judy described it — it looks like a slice of a cake. At night, when it's all lit up, it looks like you're having a party inside a cake...”

Our food should not be anonymous. That's what Zuni Café owner and executive chef Gilbert Pilgram learned from his grandmother in Mexico City, long ago, and it's a message that was echoed by the chef who propelled Zuni Café into the excellent restaurant it remains today: Judy Rodgers. Rodgers passed away December 2013, after 26 years with Zuni, but continues to be a force in the restaurant and in the minds of Pilgram and Zuni's head chef Rebecca Boice.

Boice and Pilgram, who both spent many years working with Rodgers, each have unique paths that led them into the kitchen. Pilgram fell in love with cooking when he began selling cheesecakes in college, a quick solution for finding enough money to pay for school. He soon realized he had a gift in the making and the business of food and earned a spot in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, as the restaurant's first intern. Boice's story is more family oriented: she was tasked one year with taking over the reigns from her mother to make the family's Christmas lasagna, a job she took very seriously. The hard work showed, when her family annointed her as the new official lasagna maker.

When they both came to Zuni, it was largely for the opportunity to work with Rodgers, “this crazy, skinny lady” who plowed forward with the building of a wood oven, while the restaurant was still running. It was the sight of this project, one where diners enjoyed their meals alongside a construction project that would eventually benefit them, that gripped Pilgram's fascination with Rodgers and with Zuni.

Though I never had the opportunity to meet Rodgers, it seems her spirit was open, joyful, and determined. She worked hard with original owner Billy West to bring this one time cactus-shop-turned-Mexican-restaurant to a level that earned Zuni James Beard award recognition. Rigor, quality, and passion drove Rodgers to teach Pilgram and Boice that it takes an entire year to learn how to make a perfect caesar salad and that it's critical to know your ingredients and where they're from. Thanks to Rodgers, Zuni was one of the first restaurants to bring the local farm to the dining table — the restaurant even had a rickety truck they would use for the regular journey.

This commitment to quality is something Boice and Pilgram deeply embody and have been able to make their own, in this new era for Zuni. For this reason, as Michael Bauer writes, the restaurant “continues to uphold Rodgers' standards. It is and, I think, will continue to be San Francisco's wonderfully eclectic dining room.”

Listen to the episode to hear the full interview. You can also download our podcast on iTunes.

Floor to ceiling windows at Zuni Café, originally a cactus shop with plenty of natural light, usher in light and welcomes the city of San Francisco in for drink and a meal. The oyster station at Zuni, in the spotlight. Executive Chef Gilbert Pilgram and Head Chef Rebecca Boice lean against the hammered copper bar at Zuni Café. The Zuni Café Bloody Mary may seem simple, but the flavors are anything but. Fresh shucked oysters from Zuni's oyster station, served with a dressing and a lemon wedge, make for a perfect appetizer at this San Francisco haven.
The Zuni menu changes with the seasons, but keeps its mainstays year round. The plates are prepped with a care that's caught in the reflection on the cold and glittering copper bar.
No one make chicken quite like Zuni Café, but there is much more to enjoy on the menu aside from the famous roast chicken: caeasar salad, raw oysters, and chicken with pomegranate — a perfect fall entrée. The sparkling bar at Zuni makes it impossible not to order a martini, shaken or stirred. A chef cleans out the wood burning oven. The bar is a colorful spotlight that welcome passersby on Market Street into the cake-shaped restaurant.
The wood burning oven in Zuni sits in the center of the restaurant, surrounded by diners who happily wait the 45 minutes for the roasted chicken. Red bell pepper crostini, an autumn-inspired appetizer.
Pomegranate and roasted sweet potatoes add color to this savory dish. The restaurant features the work of artists, but artfully embraces the building's architecture. Zuni Café sits on the corner of Market Street and Rosé in San Francisco's Hayes Valley/Mid Market neighborhood. The popular Zuni Café cookbook, on display at the restaurant's piano bar.

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