Weeknight Cooking

The Most Useful Chicken Dish I Learned at Zuni Café Was for Staff Meal

A former cook at the famous Zuni Café in San Francisco dishes on an old favorite she still makes today.

January 14, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Zuni Café in San Francisco, helmed by the late Judy Rodgers, is deservedly famous for its roast chicken, one of the only things on the twice-changing daily menu that never leaves the line-up. It is, to be sure, extraordinary: a dry-brined Rolls Royce of a bird, whole-roasted from raw to order in a brick oven seasoned with almost 40 years of fat and fire. Sometimes I’d split the chicken for two with a fellow Zuni cook around midnight, the juices dripping into the sleeves of our rolled-up chef’s whites; the ticket machine blissfully quiet; the hum of a kitchen closing down under quart containers of soap and water. There’s a specific kind of hunger that happens after a deep, long push on the line. Coated in dried sweat, we’d eat the chicken with our hands, standing, in a dark nook by the bathroom in the back of the open kitchen. It tasted like cold water in a desert.

Delicious though the roast chicken is, the most useful dish I learned at Zuni was the one I’d make for staff meal: warm grilled chicken salad with lemon and leftover aioli. Cobbled together without much preciousness, it was the kind of unfussy cooking I could manage when we happened to be knee-deep in the weeds. The first time I made it was during a weekend shift, when a late-lunch rush met an early-dinner rush and staff meal was later than usual. The puzzle was how to stretch some chicken breasts to make sure the dinner crew was well-fed, quickly. I was working my favorite station (the live-fire mesquite grill), and the line cook next to me already had a full oven of birds roasting. So: This simple but surprisingly good chicken dish was born.

Perhaps the most useful part about this recipe is that it’s made up of just three main ingredients: grilled chicken breasts, aioli, and a lemon. (At home I spike some store-bought mayo with a sticky clove of grated garlic for inst-aioli, so make that four ingredients.) The magic is in the manipulation of each component:

  • Mingle the acid of fresh lemon with the fragrance of the zest (mixing the two brings out the qualities of each).
  • Dress the chicken while it’s still warm so it soaks up the dressing like a sponge. This little bit of heat is part of the dressing, and it’ll ensure that the chicken salad is just as good eaten cold the next day.
  • Use two forks to pull thickly sliced grilled chicken into craggy hunks; these hunks are essential for catching the aioli dressing.
  • The best thing about staff meal is that it’s inherently flexible, so roast or poach the chicken if you’d rather not grill, or add a pinch of chile flakes and fresh herbs to the mix, or use thighs instead of breasts. This recipe is not an edict, just a blueprint.

I’ve made this Zuni-inspired chicken salad for bowls of dinner on the couch and for birthday parties, barbecues, and weekly lunches, too. It has become for me, like all things Zuni, timeless.

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1 Comment

Flip D. January 19, 2020

It’s simply fabulous!