Feature Story

The Zuni Chicken Hotline

It was the only secret number I’d ever had.

I don’t know if anyone else had it. And I was never sure exactly where it rang, or who was at the other end of the line. One call and events were set inalterably into motion. The bird, as they say, was in the oven. There was no turning back.

The number was posted, without identification, on a piece of paper taped to a corner of the wall in our tasting department office. It linked us, one block away, to the kitchen at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. It was our Zuni Chicken Hotline.

To call Zuni an oasis on that particular down and dirty stretch of Market Street would be to offer a cliché. It has been more a force field, emanating out of the wood-fired oven and the force of nature that was chef Judy Rodgers.

When Rodgers came on as chef in 1987, she asked the owners, Billy West and Vince Calcagno, for a brick oven. In the decades that followed, the scent of wood smoke and roasting chickens has carried down the block, transforming an otherwise gritty urban landscape into a chic haven where the Bohemians of San Francisco, both rich and not so rich, meet for oysters and a Caesar salad while they wait for roast chicken.

Rodgers made everyone wait: “(approximately 1 hour).”
There was no ordering from the hostess stand, or from the bar. You ordered when you were seated. The chicken would not wait for you. You would wait for the chicken.

Rodger’s roast chicken with bread salad is, in my experience, the best chicken in the country.
Nothing else comes close to the simplicity and pure satisfaction it offers. When the Wine & Spirits office was on Solano Avenue in Albany, there would have been no point to a Chicken Hotline; we were too far away. We moved to University Avenue in Berkeley, still too far. Then Brannan Street in San Francisco, but there was traffic…

So it wasn’t until I could give out our office address as Market at Zuni—when we moved to our current spot one block west of the restaurant—that a Chicken Hotline became relevant.

If friends had joined us for a tasting at 10 am, we might be wrapping up by noon or soon thereafter. At 11:45 we placed the call. At 12:15, long-time staffer Michael Kinney would appear from his back office to announce, “We leave at once.”

At 12:20, we were seated inside the soaring glass wall of windows, the warmth of the brick oven taking any chill out of the air, a Caesar salad on order and a chicken well on the way. For me, Zuni is one of the few true restaurants in America—a place I leave feeling both rested and revived.

And so it came to pass that one day, chef Rodgers answered the phone. “I’d like to order a chicken,” I said.
“Who’s this? And how did you get this number?”
“Uh, sorry…”
And she hung up, or that’s how I remember it.

Over the next weeks, it became clear that the hotline had been shut down. We would now have to wait, like everyone else.

It was around that time that Rodgers published the Zuni Café Cookbook, and Kinney gave it to me as a present. That’s how I learned how easy it is to make a memorable roast chicken at home—not a Zuni-level chicken, perhaps, but a damn good one.

All you need is salt, fresh herbs, a heavy iron skillet and the smallest chicken you can find. Just under three pounds is optimal. It doesn’t work with a fat chicken raised on antibiotics in a cage.

Aside from size, time is the other factor. A day before you plan to roast the bird, you pat it dry with a towel. Working your finger between the skin of the bird and the flesh, tuck herbs underneath the skin.

Then sprinkle sea salt all over the bird, inside and out, two teaspoons, more or less. Put it on a plate and stick it in the fridge.

When you are ready to cook it, preheat your oven to 450°. Pat the chicken dry with a towel and pretend to remove the salt, then truss it. When the oven is hot, set the chicken, breast side up, in a warm iron skillet over medium heat until it starts to sizzle. Then move the skillet to the oven. After 20 minutes flip it carefully onto its breast; if the chicken cooperates, the skin won’t break. Flip again after another 20, and cook until done (one hour, more or less; it will depend on your oven).

When I’m serving guests, I make Rodger’s bread salad, with pan juices, toasted pine nuts, plumped currants, frisée. But usually I do a simple chicken on a Sunday night. And whoever is around to steal the wings when the bird comes out of the oven gets a little bit of heaven, a fleeting taste of where Rodgers must be now.

Heaven is a place where Zuni roast chicken is served whenever you want it. Thank you, chef Rodgers, for some of the best meals of my life.


This feature appears in the print edition of February 2014.
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