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.