It’s a fam­ily af­fair

In the 30 years since found­ing iconic Ital­ian restau­rant The River Cafe, Ruth Rogers has nu­tured one of the clos­est-knit kitchens in London. She talks to Francesca Ryan about her Christ­mas tra­di­tions and shares some favourite recipes. Pho­to­graphs by Sam A

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

The River Cafe’s Ruth Rogers’ favourite recipes

IT’S NOON ON a crisp win­ter’s day and out­side The River Cafe in Ham­mer­smith, west London, a clus­ter of ta­bles over­look­ing the Thames are op­ti­misti­cally laid for lunch. Inside, there’s an air of quiet an­tic­i­pa­tion. ‘The cur­tain goes up at 12.30pm,’ says chef and co-founder Ruth Rogers (or Ruthie, as she is known). ‘It’s very the­atri­cal. You go through your lines. The chefs have to be ready – so if some­body hasn’t made the salsa verde, squeezed the or­ange juice or cut the lemons...’ The menu changes twice a day, ev­ery day; to­day they ex­pect to serve 100 cov­ers.

With its fo­cus on sea­sonal, au­then­tic Ital­ian food, The River Cafe is as in­flu­en­tial now as when it opened in 1987, and has made its name as a fer­tile train­ing ground for some of the cap­i­tal’s finest chefs, from Jamie Oliver to hus­band and wife Sam and Sam Clark of Moro. The week af­ter my visit, the restau­rant team take their an­nual trip to Tus­cany. ‘Our chefs know how to make a great pas­sata,’ Rogers says, ‘but to ac­tu­ally go to Italy and un­der­stand how olive oil is made – you see the olives on the trees, you see them sep­a­rated and dried – you come back re­ally re­spect­ing the in­gre­di­ent.’

The oil will fea­ture in The River Cafe’s range of lim­ited-edi­tion Christ­mas gift boxes. Launched two years ago, they are the brain­child of Sian Wyn Owen (the restau­rant’s head chef, who shares the role with Joseph Triv­elli), and are filled with prod­ucts used daily in the restau­rant – from pasta and po­lenta to dessert wine – and re­flect the re­la­tion­ships that have de­vel­oped over 30 years with Ital­ian farm­ers and pro­duc­ers. A favourite of Rogers’ are Paolo Petrilli’s jarred toma­toes, grown on his farm in Puglia. ‘It’s purely peeled toma­toes and a leaf of basil, with no ad­di­tives or juice, a tra­di­tional way of pre­serv­ing toma­toes that has been done for cen­turies,’ she says. ‘They are de­li­ciously

Bol­lito misto

Serves 8-10

This is the clas­sic dish for New Year’s Eve in north­ern Italy. The lentils sym­bol­ise wealth, the meat health, and the mostarda, good spir­its for the year to come. You can re­place the ox tongue with veal or beef sil­ver­side, cooked in the same way; just add three to four tinned or fresh plum toma­toes and 50g dried porcini to the stock in­gre­di­ents. — 1 small ox tongue, weigh­ing

about 1.2-1.5kg

— 1 large boil­ing fowl or capon, weigh­ing about 2.25-2.75kg

— 2 pre-cooked cotechino sausages, or zam­pone di Mo­dena

— 20 car­rots, scrubbed

— 3 cel­ery hearts, each quar­tered length­ways (use the sticks for the stock)

For the stock

— 1 bunch pars­ley stalks — 1 head gar­lic, cut in half — 4 car­rots, scrubbed

— 4 bay leaves

— 2 red onions, peeled

— 2 tbsp black pep­per­corns Soak the tongue in cold wa­ter overnight. Drain and place in a large saucepan. Cover with wa­ter and add half the quan­tity of stock in­gre­di­ents. Sim­mer for three hours, skim­ming off any scum as it comes to the sur­face, un­til the tongue is soft and a fork or skewer can be eas­ily in­serted. Re­move the tongue from the stock and place on a board. Peel off the skin – it should come away eas­ily. If it doesn’t, re­turn to the saucepan and cook for a fur­ther 30 min­utes.

Af­ter the tongue has been cook­ing for two hours, put the boil­ing fowl in an­other large saucepan and cover with wa­ter. Add the re­main­ing stock in­gre­di­ents and very gen­tly sim­mer for 1¾-2½ hours, de­pend­ing on size.

Cook the sausages in boil­ing wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to the in­struc­tions. Cotechino will be ready in 20 min­utes; zam­pone are larger and will take 40 min­utes to cook.

Add the car­rots and cel­ery hearts to the chicken 20 min­utes be­fore serv­ing. Season with a lit­tle salt.

Turn off the heat un­der the three pans and keep the meats in their var­i­ous liq­uids. Taste the chicken stock and add more salt if nec­es­sary.

To serve, cut the tongue into 1cm thick slices; the chicken (some white and some brown meat) into sim­i­lar slices; and the sausages into thicker slices. Ar­range on a large warm serv­ing plate and pour over some of the strained chicken stock.

Ar­range the car­rot and cel­ery around the meats, if you like and serve with spinach, mostarda di Cre­mona and lentils.

Risotto with red wine Serves 6

— 300ml chicken stock — 150g un­salted but­ter,

at room tem­per­a­ture — 1 red onion, peeled

and chopped

— 1 head of cel­ery,

finely chopped

— 300g risotto rice

— 1 x 75cl bot­tle Barolo — 150g Parme­san,

freshly grated

— crème fraîche, to serve

(op­tional) Heat the chicken stock and season if you need to.

Melt two-thirds of the but­ter in a large pan and gen­tly fry the onion and cel­ery for about 20 min­utes or un­til light brown. Add the rice and stir to coat with the but­ter.

In­crease the heat and grad­u­ally pour in 500ml of the wine, al­low­ing it to be ab­sorbed by the rice. Then add the hot stock, la­dle by la­dle, stir­ring and only adding more stock when the pre­vi­ous ad­di­tion has been ab­sorbed.

When all the stock has been ab­sorbed and the rice is al­most cooked, grad­u­ally stir in the re­main­ing wine. The rice will have taken on the colour of the wine.

Add half of the Parme­san and the re­main­ing but­ter and season with salt and pep­per, tak­ing care not to over­stir. Serve with the rest of the Parme­san plus a dol­lop of crème fraîche on top, if us­ing. sweet and quite of­ten bet­ter than the fresh toma­toes.’

The River Cafe came about af­ter Rogers’ hus­band, the ar­chi­tect Richard Rogers, bought a group of for­mer ware­houses to con­vert into his ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice. ‘Richard de­cided to make a restau­rant here be­cause there was nowhere to eat,’ Rogers ex­plains. ‘I’d just had a baby, and I said to him, “The only thing worse than not hav­ing a restau­rant is to have a bad one. Maybe I’ll do it.”’

It’s hard to pic­ture its early days, with

just nine ta­bles and 30 cov­ers, open only at lunchtime to em­ploy­ees of Thames Wharf and run by two self-taught chefs and Italophiles, Rogers and her friend, the late Rose Gray. ‘When Rose and I started we thought, “Why can’t we have the food we have in Italy?”’

In the late ’80s, when you couldn’t eas­ily source good Ital­ian in­gre­di­ents, it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Re­view­ers, so bowled over by the food, were re­luc­tant to share their dis­cov­ery. The restau­rant won a Miche­lin star in 1997.

From the out­set, Rogers and Gray fo­cused on the im­por­tance of each in­gre­di­ent and its prove­nance, and chose to show just a few (of very high qual­ity) on the plate. ‘Some peo­ple would say, “pappa al po­modoro is just toma­toes, bread and basil – why would I pay £3 for that?” We’d say, be­cause it’s made the Tus­can way – amaz­ing olive oil, and only made when the toma­toes are ripe and the basil is strong.’

To­day, a clas­sic red wine risotto and bol­lito misto (a north Ital­ian stew) are be­ing pre­pared by the kitchen team. Asked what makes a River Cafe chef, Rogers cites ‘cu­rios­ity, en­ergy, rigour – and hu­mour. It’s such a close kitchen.’ She em­ploys 100 staff and, un­usu­ally in an in­dus­try known for its high turnover, many of them never leave. ‘We are like fam­ily at the top,’ says Wyn Owen, who has worked there for 19 years (to Triv­elli’s 18). ‘I was best man at Joseph’s wed­ding; he’s like my brother. This is a way of life as op­posed to a job.’

Rogers’ staff are given two days off a week, ‘so they can eat out and read’, and fol­low­ing Gray’s death from can­cer in 2010, the Rose Gray Foun­da­tion was es­tab­lished. Any mem­ber of staff can ap­ply for a £2,000 grant to do ‘what­ever they think will make them a bet­ter per­son, and The River Cafe a bet­ter restau­rant’, Rogers says. ‘One of our chefs wanted to learn how to make pot­tery be­cause he felt it would make him a bet­ter cook and teacher. That’s a trib­ute to Rose be­cause she was such a great teacher.’

Rogers has re­ceived many of­fers to open River Cafes around the world, but wor­ries about di­lu­tion of the brand (‘would you wanted to be pro­posed to in River Cafe Dubai?’). A sec­ond London site in May­fair, how­ever, was in the plan­ning for two years be­fore com­plaints

‘We are like fam­ily at the top. This is a way of life as op­posed to a job’

Dada’s Christ­mas cake

Serves 8-10

This is a tra­di­tional choco­late cake from Florence. — 150g un­salted but­ter, un­soft­ened, plus extra for the tin

— 500g crys­tallised

clemen­tines

— 500ml Vec­chia

Ro­magna brandy

— 100g sul­tanas

— 150g hazel­nuts

— 600g blanched al­monds — 50g caster sugar

— 100g plain flour

— 3 large, or­ganic eggs — 100g soft dark-brown sugar — 150g bit­ter­sweet

choco­late, roughly chopped — peel of 2 lemons, pith

re­moved, finely chopped

For the marzi­pan

— 250g blanched al­monds — 150g caster sugar — 150ml Vec­chia

Ro­magna brandy Pre­heat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. But­ter a 25cm round cake tin and line the bot­tom with parch­ment pa­per.

Chop the clemen­tines into 1cm pieces and cover with 400ml of the brandy to mar­i­nate. In a sep­a­rate bowl, cover the sul­tanas in the re­main­ing brandy.

Roast the hazel­nuts for 6-8 min­utes un­til the skins are loose and the nuts are brown. Re­move the skins and chop the nuts.

Roast 200g of the al­monds for 6-8 min­utes, then pulse­chop in the food pro­ces­sor to a coarse tex­ture. Pulse-chop an­other 200g of the al­monds to coarse. Finely chop the re­main­ing 200g of al­monds to flour and keep this sep­a­rate.

Cream the but­ter and caster sugar to­gether in a food pro­ces­sor un­til pale. Sift in the plain flour and half the al­mond flour. Add the eggs one by one, beat­ing all the time. Re­move to a bowl. Stir in the brown sugar, the chopped nuts and re­main­ing al­mond flour.

Drain the brandy from the clemen­tines and the sul­tanas and mix into the cake mix­ture to liq­uefy and make it eas­ier to com­bine. Fi­nally stir in the clemen­tines, sul­tanas, choco­late and lemon peel.

Spoon into the pre­pared cake tin and bake for 1½ hours or un­til cooked. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the marzi­pan, put the al­monds into the food pro­ces­sor and process un­til finely ground. Add the sugar and brandy and pulse-chop to com­bine for 2-3 min­utes. It should be­come a very thick, sticky paste. Spoon this on to the top of the cake in a layer about 1cm thick. Rough up the sur­face with a fork. Place un­der the grill to brown, be­fore serv­ing. from lo­cal res­i­dents caused it to be aban­doned. ‘We were re­ally dev­as­tated.’ Her hus­band’s prac­tice has since been re­lo­cated to the Lead­en­hall Build­ing (dubbed The Cheeseg­rater), which he de­signed in the City (hav­ing had lunch to­gether ev­ery day, ‘he hates lunch now; he just has a yo­gurt in the of­fice,’ she says), but in Ham­mer­smith, Rogers, now 70, has as much en­ergy as ever. She and Richard, 85, see a per­sonal trainer three times a week, and she is at the restau­rant by 9am most days. ‘We’re not stand­ing still,’ she says. ‘We did a pop-up at Frieze [art fair in London] this year for the first time. It was amaz­ing, 400 peo­ple a day. We loved it.’

At Christ­mas The River Cafe closes so that staff can spend time with their fam­i­lies, and this year, as she has for the past 25 years, Rogers will spend it in Puerto Es­con­dido in Mex­ico. But first she hosts a pre-christ­mas party at the cou­ple’s home in Chelsea. ‘We have all the fam­ily, that’s about 40 of us.’ Lob­ster, clams and oys­ters are served, and ‘we al­ways have Dada’s Christ­mas cake’, made to a recipe in­her­ited from Richard’s Ital­ian mother. ‘She moved to London just be­fore the war in 1938 and yearned for pan­forte and panet­tone.’

Her mother-in-law, who died aged 92, re­mains one of Rogers’ big­gest in­spi­ra­tions. ‘She was an Ital­ian liv­ing in sub­ur­bia who had a very def­i­nite at­ti­tude to­wards food. She said to me, ‘Ruthie, put fewer herbs on your fish, more cream on your skin.’ Not bad max­ims to live by. river­cafe.co.uk

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