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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Julia Clancy is a nationally published writer, editor and recipe developer with over a decade of experience as a chef, both privately and in restaurants. She writes about people and place through the lens of food and drink. She was recently the restaurant critic at Boston Magazine, and her current work has appeared in Food 52, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Thrillist and Craft Beer, among many others.


wik May 24, 2020
I curse my mesquite trees in spring because of my pollen allergies, I curse them in fall because of their tiny leaves all over my house, but I adore them year-round because of their beautiful wood in my barbecue pit! hug a tree!
Flip D. January 19, 2020

It’s simply fabulous!