Like many great chefs, Ruth Rogers wanted to cook the sort of food she made at home. Shrouded in secrecy, with a menu appositional to London’s soggy culinary scene, River Café opened 30 years ago to a small fanfare. “I’m going to tell you about a restaurant you can’t go to,” were the opening lines to its first review, which Ruth fondly recited to us with the air of a cabaret emcee. It’s this theatricality which has, in part, tied Ruth to the River Café for so long; overseeing a dozen cookbooks, visits from Michelin, and the upheaval of the restaurant scene around it. This space – its clean lines, shock pink oven, hand-written menus – has many imitators, but few rivals. But at 30, if the walls of the River Café could speak, what would we hear?
To answer, Ruth stepped Semaine through her daily rituals at work—poking about the fridge, to see if the borlotti beans have been cooked, or mulling over tales from the night before. In 1987, Ruth and Rose Gray, fresh from stints in Paris and Italy, brought their shared passion for food to River Café’s nine tables: “We were only allowed to open for the people who worked in this community, and people kind of sneaked in!” Décor and clientele may have changed (Cy Twombly once scrawled on their paper menu “I love lunch with Ruthie”), but the grilled squid, almond tart, and caramel ice cream have remained the precise, delicious same: “We went quite slow, and I would say that we grew with the restaurant.” Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers, the Pompidou’s Pritzker-winning architect, had his practice next door—the restaurant was a staff canteen of sorts. Now, the blue carpet is well-trod by the country’s establishment, artists and politicians alike making merry by the crackle of that iconic fireplace.
Rogers has the buffered, melodic vowels of a New Yorker long away from home, ringing true when she says: “I’ve got the best job in the world.” Having never professionally trained, Ruth and Rose simply wanted fresh, seasonal Italian cuisine in London—the likes of which they’d seen on their trips together. Shunning her prior roles as a graphic designer, or working in an architect’s office, Ruth seems tailor-made for the rhythms of a chef. The daily rituals at River (“the waiters peel the garlic, the porters are cleaning the clams, then we change the menu every service”) paint the picture of a culinary Snow White – one half expects the riverside birds to start helping lay the tables. This same zest has kept it in the conversation (there’s still mileage in telling how Rogers once had a pumpkin sent business class from Italy, while she sat in economy), due in no small part to the fact Ruth, well, shows up every day: “I think if people know that I love coming to work they want to come to work.”
Three decades hasn’t dented Ruth’s fondness for pappa al pomodoro or spaghetti al vongole, but it’s helped bend the arc of the industry towards equality. In 1977, Ruth rang her laundry, detailing how ill-fitting her pants were, only for them to say: “Get real, Ruthy, these are made for men!”” Now, in her restaurant, at least 50% of chefs are women, whose pilgrimages to Italy blend new tricks with old-fashioned recipes. Ruth describes the menu as “a language that we’ve cooked in for 30 years”; in language as in cooking, simple is sometimes the most effective. Ruth welcomed Semaine inside, giving us a glimpse of the day-to-day, and a taste of that trademark, simple, tomato sauce.
By Jonathan Mahon-Heap for Semaine.
Limited Edition River Cafe Gift Boxes
Coloured Placemat Blue
River Cafe 30: Simple Italian recipes from an iconic restaurant
Larger Picnic Container in Stainless Steel
Tomatoes on the vine
Serving Spoon Blue
No. 112 Classic Paring Knives Set of 4
Small Veg Box (original)
The River Café I Canonici Olive oil
BarWise Bottle Opener
River Cafe Cook Book 2
Delete your Deliveroo, and use these for wooing instead. Ruth’s essentials will help you simmer like nonna does; just add pasta.
River Cafe 30: Simple Italian recipes from an iconic restaurant
Good Grips Locking Tongs
Tower salt grinder
1 kg of Parmigiano Reggiano
Tower pepper grinder
Inside the River Cafe
While the Thames ebbs and flows behind, some 1,000 phone calls flood the River’s reservation lines every day. For those looking to forgo the waitlist, step inside with Semaine instead, with our look at its rituals and recipes.
Ruth's Slow-cooked Tomato Sauce with Tagliarini
The simplest and best. Ruth’s menus offer an abundance of riches; hand-rolled pastas, turbot on the bone, first-of-the-season asparagus—but little can surpass a supremely made pasta al pomodoro. Learn the secret below.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or frying pan, add the onions and cook over a low heat until they are very soft.
This will take at least 40 minutes – the onions must eventually disappear into the tomato sauce.
Some 5 minutes before the end of cooking, add the garlic cloves.
Now add the tomatoes and stir to break them up. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for at least 1 ½ hours. When the sauce is ready, it will be dark red and extremely thick, with no juice at all, and the oil will have come to the surface. Serve hot.
Makes approximately 1 kg
Put the flour and salt in a processor and add the eggs and egg yolks. Pulse-blend until the pasta begins to come together into a loose ball of dough.
Lightly dust a flat surface with semolina and a little extra flour, then knead the pasta dough for about 3 minutes or until smooth. If the dough is very stiff and difficult to knead, you may have to put it back in the processor and blend in another whole egg.
Cut the dough into eight equal-sized pieces and briefly knead them each into a ball. Wrap each ball in cling film and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes, and up to 2 hours.
To prepare your dough for cutting into either tagliatelle or ravioli, put it through a pasta machine, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
We put each ball through at the thickest setting ten times, folding the sheet into three each time to get a short thick strip, and then turn it by a quarter, and put it through the machine again. After ten such folds the pasta will feel silky. Only then reduce the machine setting gradually down to the thinness required. For tagliatelle, you will need 2, for the rotolo, 1.5, for ravioli, a very thin setting of 0.5. These are the settings for our large commercial machine, but all machines are different.
If rolling by hand, you will have to hand-knead and hand-roll the dough the equivalent of ten times through the machine. This needs to be done in a cool place so that the pasta does not dry out.
Around the World with Ruth Rogers
Take the return leg of Ruth’s legendary pumpkin, and discover her Italy. Ruth has brought the flavours of many regions and cities in a single spot; but her old haunts may still hold some secrets…
Where Chef's Eat
Panama Textured-leather Wallet - Sky blue
Sleep well - red
36 Hours: New York
Need Tote Bag in Peacoat
Ruth knows a thing or two about books: her restaurant has sold over 700,000. In the 22 years since her first, Ruth has amassed quite the library, which she shares here with Semaine.
The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking Hardcover
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol.1
The French Menu Cookbook Hardcover
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook Paperback
Roast Chicken and Other Stories: A Recipe Book Paperback
Ruth's 5 Tips in the Kitchen
For the absent-minded chef (aka most of us), the odd tip never goes amiss. Ruth dished out some pointers you won’t find via any #foodporn insta-trawling.
"Cook with seasonal vegetables."
"Go to the market and see what is there before you make your shopping list."
"Where possible, always source wild fish and organic meat."
"I like to use whole garlic cloves when making a slow-cooked tomato sauce."
"Always use a pestle and mortar to pound black pepper corns, rather than a grinder."
"Cook with good quality wine."
"When roasting fish, I like to add half a lemon to the pan."