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.