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An illustration of the exterior of Zuni Cafe including a worker seen in a window serving food. Lyssa Park

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The Anatomy of a Perfect Roast Chicken at Zuni Cafe

How San Francisco’s storied Zuni Cafe makes its iconic roast chicken and bread salad

Join us as we go into the kitchen and behind the bar at some of San Francisco’s best-known restaurants and bars to break down the anatomy of their most-famous offerings.

There’s almost nothing more restorative and comforting than a good roast chicken.

Where others have envisaged ways of fine-tuning their birds — artisanal rubs, stuffings, among others — the ones at Zuni Cafe haven’t changed much since the late Judy Rogers, Zuni’s legendary chef, debuted them 25 years ago. The roast chicken for two and warm bread salad ($69) is, for this reason, simple and unadorned — a showstopping yet simple combination of a well-regarded breed, a salt-and-pepper marinade, and a quick roast in a vicious, live-fire oven.

The first time I saw it on Zuni’s menu, I squirmed at the 60-minute directive. But there was no way around it. “The element of waiting at the table and being here with one another and engaging with one another, that’s what makes it special,” Zuni’s executive chef Nathan Norris says.

And special it was. I marveled at the color; the way the crackling yet supple skin enrobed a perfectly moist chicken. Nothing was seasoned more than it should have been — it was pure and unadulterated. This is likely why Zuni sells 60 or so of these birds every day. During the pandemic, the number at one point stretched to more than 100 during a four-hour period, pushing the kitchen to its limits. But Norris runs a tight ship of experienced cooks, and — since joining Rogers 18 years ago — has distilled bird cookery to a science.

The kitchen uses a small breed from Mary’s Organic Chickens, which Norris says is the best mass-produced bird of its kind. Its size — just shy of three pounds, making it about 20 percent smaller than your average supermarket chicken — ensures the chicken cooks quickly and evenly in about 40 minutes. That’s why the kitchen eschews free-range chickens from local farms. “It’s not a product that exists in enough volume and consistent sizing,” Norris says.

Every chicken passes through Carlos Garica, a prep cook who joined Zuni more than a decade before Norris. Garcia starts with a small amount of butchery, trimming fat around the cavity opening and neck breast, before seasoning each bird, by eye, with fine sea salt from Giusto’s, a local purveyor. The team prizes it over Diamond Kosher salt because it tastes less “salty,” and this allows them to use more of it as a moisture reagent.

Seasoning runs like clockwork, as expected for Garcia, who has prepped these chickens for some 30 years. “There’s a weight ratio for grams of salt,” Norris says. “But if you salt 80 chickens, you do it by eye.” The thicker the appendage, the more the salt.

Once salted, the chickens are packed into refrigerators to cure for 48 to 72 hours — a longer period ensures crisper skin. From here, each chicken goes on a vintage sizzle-platter, then into a wood-burning, arched oven — a large, fire-breathing beast that burns up to 500 degrees.

An illustration of a roasted chicken on a plate drawn in warm tones of yellow, gold, green, and brown. Lyssa Park

Temperature control is half the battle, knowing how to fit as many as 25 platters of chicken in the oven is another. The first one goes into the back, breast facing the rear, where it’s hotter; then, five more are placed across in rows of three, which Norris likens to a process where platters zigzag across the oven, like Tetris (pictured). “It’s like a non-stop Serpent process for 40 minutes,” he says. A four-and-a-half long rod, forged with lightweight steel, enables the staff to slide the chicken-leaden plates around with ease.

Zuni chef Ross Bergstrom sketched how staff move chickens through the restaurant’s wood-burning oven.
Ross Bergstrom

A quick roast on high renders more fat and coupled with the salt-cure guarantees crisp skin and a moist interior. Once out of the oven, the chickens rest for five minutes before they’re carved and served.

The leaves in Zuni’s bread salad move with the seasons. Mustard greens, chicory, and radicchio are sourced from Central Valley Farms in the cooler months, while other kinds of greens come from coastal ones during the summer. Bread, torn into golf-ball-sized chunks from a rustic round made by the Bay Area’s own Acme Bread are peeled before they’re dehydrated, then grilled until crisp in parts and fluffy within. Sizing must be exact: “If it’s too big, it becomes bready and doesn’t get properly saturated,” Norris warns. “If it’s too small, then it doesn’t have enough space to be rich and silky and gooey.”

Once combined, the bread salad mixture is tossed with an olive oil and Champagne vinegar dressing, then topped with pine nuts, scallions, garlic, and sweet currants, followed by another drizzle of red-wine vinegar. It gives the salad its unmistakable body, with a sweetness that fades in and the kind of brightness that lingers but does not pucker.

Like the chicken, the bread salad is a classic and won’t change. I’ll never forget the first time I had it, and I think about it often until the next time I do.

Zuni Cafe

1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 Visit Website

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