Ruth Rogers remembers setting up River Cafe
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