Ruth Rogers re­mem­bers set­ting up River Cafe

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THIS PHO­TO­GRAPH WAS taken by Jean Pigozzi at the River Cafe in 1993 for our first cook­book, which was pub­lished the fol­low­ing year. At the time we wanted a book with pho­to­graphs of the food and recipes, but also that showed the en­ergy of the restau­rant and just how dy­namic it was.

Be­fore open­ing the River Cafe, I lived in Paris with my hus­band, the ar­chi­tect Richard Rogers, while he worked on the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre with Renzo Piano. When we re­turned to Lon­don he was look­ing for a space where we could be a com­mu­nity. He found some empty ware­houses on the banks of the Thames in Ham­mer­smith and knocked a few down to make a green space.

While work­ing on the area, Richard kept say­ing he wanted a place for peo­ple to eat and asked if I wanted to set up a cafe. So I ap­proached my friend Rose Gray, who had just re­turned from New York. The minute we saw the space, we both fell in love with it and a vi­sion for the River Cafe was born.

Be­tween us we had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence (ac­tu­ally none in my case), and had just been do­mes­tic chefs. So we started with just nine ta­bles, and the restau­rant has grown over the past 30 years. Now we can have up to 250 cus­tomers for Sun­day lunch.

One dis­tinct fea­ture of the restau­rant is the clock pro­jected on the wall. The sum­mer be­fore we opened in 1987, I was in Um­bria with Richard. One night, we went to a bar called Todi for din­ner and I saw a clock with the words ‘cafe river’ on it, so I asked if I could buy it. That lit­tle clock was the first thing we had in the restau­rant and so started a tra­di­tion.

At home, Rose and I had open kitchens where our chil­dren would come in and help us pre­pare din­ner, and we wanted the River Cafe to have that same fam­ily-ori­ented feel­ing. It re­ally did be­come a fam­ily – Jake Hodges, one of our first chefs, who is be­hind me in the pho­to­graph on the right, now has a fan­tas­tic Span­ish restau­rant, and our head man­ager, Charles, is mar­ried to Rose’s daugh­ter Lucy.

If we had opened at the size we are now it would have been a dis­as­ter, and I’m grate­ful for those early days when Rose (who passed away in 2010) or I would be be­hind the bar mak­ing sand­wiches, or in the kitchen do­ing a pasta.

We re­ceived a Miche­lin star in 1997, but for me recog­ni­tion is our great chefs – or the reg­u­lars who have come in ev­ery week since 1987. — In­ter­view by Jes­sica Carpani River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Rose Gray, Joseph Triv­elli and Sian Wyn Owen (Ebury Press, £28) is avail­able from 5 Oc­to­ber

I’m so grate­ful for those early days, when Rose or I would be be­hind the bar mak­ing sand­wiches

Left Rogers in the restau­rant’s kitchen in 1993

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