A river’s course

Cuisine - - PROFILE -

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.”

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