A river’s course
The River Cafe’s Ruth Rogers has remained true to her vision, as she tells Ginny Grant.
London’s The River Cafe is legendary on the world’s food scene, famed for its focus on simple Italian-style dishes as well as for its alumni – Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Moro’s Sam and Sam Clark have all cooked there. As have I, as it happens – almost 18 years ago I managed to secure a chef ’s position there. In that preinternet age, I didn’t realise quite how famous the restaurant was – probably just as well or I may not have had the courage to rock up and ask for a job.
Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray established the restaurant in 1987. They were domestic cooks who had spent time in Tuscany and wanted to serve the simple home-cooked food they were familiar with, not the stodgy pasta dishes that were typical in other Italian restaurants in London at the time. From the start, The River Cafe served seasonal, locally focused dishes using meat from animals that had been raised with care, at a time when none of those things were talked about. Their approach seemed radical then; today, it seems the rest of the world has begun to catch up.
Rogers was in Melbourne recently, presenting a class in The Langham Masterclass series as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and I asked her how The River Cafe manages to stay fresh.
“I think a lot of it is to do with going to Italy – you discover something new all the time. I think that’s crucial. And having young people working for me is important, and being there every day. If I was bored everyone else would be.”
Restaurants, says Rogers, are similar to theatre – dramatic, but with a sense that everyone involved is working together. She credits The River Cafe’s staff with a lot of its success, and says the secret to retaining quality staff is treating them as individuals. “We run our kitchen with hope rather than fear, and we don’t work crazy hours. We respect that the more you invest in a person, the better they work.”
Making sure that everyone is in touch with the heart of the restaurant is also critical. “When the waitstaff arrive in the morning, they prep the parsley, clean the salted anchovies, wash the spinach and pod broad beans… the whole staff are educated and involved in the process.”
Key turning points for The River Cafe have come from adversity. In 2008, a fire closed the restaurant for six months, giving Gray and Rogers time to think about what they could change. “We put in a new wood oven, a new grill and we opened it up more. The menu became larger because the kitchen could take it and we got more ambitious, more confident.” The pair also travelled to Italy and wrote a new cookbook during that time, plus sent their chefs out on different projects – some worked with the restaurant’s producers and suppliers, while others spent time with charities.
From my time at The River Cafe, I recall Rogers and Gray having contrasting but complementary styles. A dish could be prepared in a completely different way depending on which of them was running a shift. Gray executed dishes with flair and panache, while Rogers’ food has always had a deep authenticity.
The biggest turning point of all for the restaurant came in 2010, when Gray passed away from cancer, and I wondered how Rogers has maintained the restaurant’s focus without her partner.
“When I knew that Rose was going to die and was gasping, ‘How do we carry on?’, I gathered our restaurant managers Charlie and Vashti, and our head chefs Sian and Joseph and said, ‘You are my Rose, the four of you’. They aren’t Rose, but it’s a different dynamic. [The restaurant today] is better, not because Rose is not there, but because we have grown in the same way that we would have if she had been there.”