Zuni Café in San Francisco is my second favourite restaurant in the world (I have to say Chez Panisse, where I worked as a pastry chef for Alice Waters, is my favourite). I go there every time I go home to California. Usually I'll go straight there from the airport. It's like a tradition!
So, when Jon Rotheram and Tom Harris, chef-owners of The Marksman pub in East London, asked me to take part in their latest cookbook dinner [a series of events that sees Rotheram and Harris invite a guest chef to choose a cookbook and build a dinner around it], I had to choose The Zuni Café Cookbook written by former chef-owner Judy Rodgers, who has now sadly passed away.
The book itself is amazing because it's really informative and almost like a cooking course. Judy Rodgers teaches you so much about how to cook and in every recipe, she explains why she's doing what she's doing. She's very specific but she always has a reason for it. I've had it since it first came out and I reference it not only for the recipes, but also often look to it for inspiration.
Funnily enough, I had a meal with Judy at the St. John Hotel, where Jon and Tom were both chefs, many years ago. They've cooked for her and respect her and her food, so they were really excited. They both have copies of the book as well, so it just made sense.
I chose the menu over a glass of wine with Gilbert Pilgrim, who was Judy's partner at Zuni Café and took over the helm when she passed away, carrying on her traditions of cooking and keeping it true to what she was doing. He was my boss when I worked at Chez Panisse and a very dear friend now.
Originally, I wanted to do the Zuni Café chicken because it's their classic "thing." The chickens are roasted whole in the restaurant's wood-fired ovens and you'd serve a half chicken per person. But when I mentioned it to Gilbert, he told me, "It's impossible, you'd need so many ovens to cook that many chickens! You'd actually have to hire in ovens, you'll kill yourself!" With 60 people dining on the night, we'd have needed at least 30 chickens and basically have had to cook them all at the same time.
The Marksman only have two small ovens downstairs so it wasn't really possible. It was good I had that chat with him!
We actually chose the dishes quite quickly. Because of time of year and because the dinner was in a pub, it was really easy to choose. It made total sense to do the kind of food like slow-cooked oxtail. It seemed really in-keeping with the kind of food that Tom and Jon make. It was a nice union of the cookbook and the pub.
We tweaked the recipes a little bit mainly because of the ingredients that were more readily available here. With the salad we served, Judy's recipe calls for pecans, which is a very American nut, and we wanted to use English walnuts. We also wanted to use the green and pink chicory because they're so beautiful. Little things like that.
The roasted vegetables with the oxtail were an addition. Judy doesn't call for them but the guys had these beautiful mini carrots and little onions and we thought it would be really nice to have them with the dish. We tried to stay really true to the essence of the book.
We did a lot of prep all day Monday and Tuesday. The meat took two days to cook, and I think we shelled about 200 chestnuts by hand and then the same amount of walnuts. I kept saying to the team, "This is the best way to do it," and then someone commented, "Yes, especially if someone else is doing it for you!" That's definitely true!
They have such a great team at The Marksman, it was seamless. It could be weird if you have another chef come into your kitchen but it was a lot of fun. Everyone is really calm and jolly. The freezer was doing a funny thing the night before but it ended up working great on the night and the espresso granita was great.
I'm such a huge salad fan and I love those first chicories of the year so that was my favourite course. I thought those walnuts were really special and fresh, and the persimmons too. And then of course, the oxtail was awesome. It was so sticky and good. I thought it worked really well with the polenta and buckwheat because it's so earthy.
There's nothing fancy about what we did. It was really a simple menu and about the ingredients, and preparing them just right. But simple food takes a lot of time and care.
As told to Daisy Meager.
Claire Ptak is a food stylist, food writer, and owner of Violet bakery and cafe in Hackney, East London. She is originally from California.