If Chez Panisse owner-chef Alice Waters recommends you for a job in the food industry, the odds are strong you’ll be hired. So it happened for Sacramento-based chef and restaurant consultant Kathi Riley Smith.
Smith received the unsolicited endorsement and as a result is working as the visiting chef at San Francisco’s highly influential Zuni Café for 10 days this month through Thursday.
Of course Waters didn’t just pull Smith’s name out of thin air. The Bay Area food maven not only knew Smith had a unique history with Zuni but also of Smith’s enduring friendship with the restaurant’s influential owner and chef Judy Rodgers, who died in December of appendix cancer.
San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, who called Rodgers’ Zuni a foundation of the city’s extraordinary culinary scene, ranks Rodgers with Alice Waters in terms of significance to American cooking.
Smith and Rodgers first worked together in the early ’80s at the Union Hotel in Benicia where food legend and “Fannie Farmer Cookbook” author Marion Cunningham was a consultant. Rodgers had just left Waters’ Chez Panisse and was developing her own sensibility framed by stints living and cooking in France and Italy. Smith had creative instincts, passion for cooking and an ability to learn on the fly.
“I got the job as the sous chef with Judy to open the Union Hotel,” Smith said while sitting in a midtown Sacramento cafe. “The learning curve after that was tremendous and the benefits from that relationship have been incredible for all these years.”
Smith spent a year and a half nearly inseparable from Rodgers, who mentored her as they went.
“We drove together, we worked together, we drank together and drove home together,” Smith said.
The idea was to create a truly American restaurant using Larry Forgione’s An American Place restaurant in New York as a vague model. They scoured the Time/Life Cookbook series, but always made things their own.
Their premise was American food, Smith said, “but we took concepts from Europe and called it something American. Like polenta. Polenta’s not American, but we called it grits.”
It was the only time Rodgers and Smith worked together, though they always remained friends. After a year and half, Smith moved on. She worked awhile at Chez Panisse and then landed in 1984 at Zuni, where she became the executive chef under original owners Billy West and Vince Calcagno.
After her daughter was born in 1985, Smith no longer had interest in the demanding, all-encompassing work of running a first-class restaurant kitchen. In another year she left. (Rodgers, meanwhile, took over Zuni in 1987, staying the remainder of her life.)
In 1988, Smith and family moved to Sacramento. Her husband, Bob Smith, is creative director and owner of Bongo Post, a comprehensive creative services and post-production studio in midtown.
Kathi Smith continued to work as consultant with kitchen personnel and on menu development for David Berkeley and the La Bou restaurant chain, among many others. She sometimes works as a private chef and develops recipes for Elise Bauer’s popular Simply Recipes website.
When Rodgers became ill, Smith visited her in the hospital and then weekly at her Berkeley home where Smith would stay a few days at a time when Rodgers’ husband worked out of town. Smith said they talked about food and life. At times they didn’t talk at all.
In Rodgers’ obituary, The New York Times’ Eric Asimov wrote that Zuni “helped transform the way Americans think of food through its devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared.”
In May, Gilbert Pilgram, one of Zuni’s co-owners, attended a celebration for Alice Waters’ 70th birthday and discussed with the guest of honor his need for a backup for chef Ken Turner.
“Alice thought for a moment and then said, ‘What about Kathi Riley? ... Kathi was the perfect idea from Alice,” Pilgram said.
Smith said there were probably half a dozen people as qualified or more than she was, but she knew it was the unlikely opportunity of a lifetime.
Smith also understood the enormity of the task at hand. There’s little room for sentimentality in maintaining the always-evolving mesh of one the Bay Area’s busiest, most respected eateries.
“I would send Gilbert emails saying ‘I’m both intimidated and excited,’ ” Smith said. “He would send back ‘Lose the intimidation, embrace the excitement.’ ”
They struck up a plan to have Smith begin going to Zuni a couple of days and nights a week, orienting herself to how the restaurant works now.
To prepare, Smith went back into Rodgers’ famous “Zuni Cafe Cookbook.” “I tried to gather up a lot of Judy’s spirit within me, but even with that, it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I got there, and I was floundering with the menu-writing. Gilbert ... said ‘Kathi, you just need to stay on track with Judy’s food. That is what you’re here for.’ ”
Smith went to Rodgers’ house and came away with boxes of old Zuni menus, which she studied meticulously.
“I realized I had to go deeper,” she said. “I think people just assumed because of my friendship with Judy and because of having worked there so long ago I knew Zuni food. A lot happened in 27 years that I was not part of.”
She drives from Sacramento and stays at a little hotel a few doors up from the restaurant. Her responsibilities include early afternoon meetings with prep cooks and sous chefs, tasting the prepared food to see if works before committing it to the night’s menu, and meeting with the front-of-the-house staff so they’ll also know the menu. At 6 o’clock, the doors open just as the menus come out of the printer.
At a recent midweek night, the 146 seats at the restaurant were filled. Staff members greeted Smith happily and cooks drifted toward her with compliments and observations when she briefly slipped into the kitchen after her workday was complete.
“It’s mostly about bringing in incredible products,” Smith said. “And combining them in the right order to make them shine and look beautiful and taste wonderful on the plate.”