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 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
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
— 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
— 1 head of celery,
— 300g risotto rice
— 1 x 75cl bottle Barolo — 150g Parmesan,
— 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
This is a traditional chocolate cake from Florence. — 150g unsalted butter, unsoftened, plus extra for the tin
— 500g crystallised
— 500ml Vecchia
— 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