At a place run by one of her many proteges, the chef and restaurateur talks about loss, family and Nancy Pelosi’s tablecloth
There is always pressure when your mentor comes to lunch. Anna Tobias worked in Ruth Rogers’s River Cafe in two spells, before opening Cafe Deco, a room of her own in Bloomsbury, a couple of years ago. Tobias greets her old boss in her new place at noon sharp with a mix of affection and a slight nervousness, the more so when Rogers, who is an avid hugger, but quite steely of eye, asks her what we should eat: “I’m told you do fabulous quiches?”
“Ah, sorry, no quiche today.”
Rogers quickly scans the short, simple menu, a little homage to her own practice of shifting seasonality. “I’ll have the winter soup,” she says. “Minestrone soup, and the wild mushroom salad to follow.” She looks around the neat space from our corner table. “This is lovely, Anna. You must show me around later.” Tobias descends to the kitchen with the order, and perhaps with just a little trepidation.
I ask Rogers about her “restaurant children”, that legion of chefs who have worked and trained at the River Cafe in the last 35 years – Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall among them – and gone on to set up places of their own. Does she always look out for them?
“It’s that thing,” she says, “if you love them, let them go. They always appear with that look in their eyes, asking for a word, and you know it’s over.” She smiles. “Later, they say: when I worked with you my biggest problem with the day was making my ravioli thin enough to see through. Now they talk about worries about the electricity bill. Owning your own place often takes you further and further away from the kitchen.”
Rogers, who carries the questing spirit of someone who grew up in Woodstock, New York, in the 1960s has always done her best to resist that separation. She first set up the River Cafe with her friend Rose Gray as a canteen for her architect husband Richard’s practice at Thames Wharf. Their original lease only allowed them to do lunchtimes; good, she says, in retrospect, because it meant the pair of them, domestic cooks at the time, could work out what they were about without too much pressure. “If I have one piece of advice for anyone setting up on their own,” she says, “it is just: start small. That way you have less to lose.” She takes a spoonful of Anna Tobias’s minestrone soup, and declares it very good.
The River Cafe became synonymous with a newfound ease of British dining – big windows, open kitchens, proper olive oil – back in the 1990s. Concentrating on authentic Italian flavours, Rogers and Gray created their Mediterranean utopia in an unloved corner of Hammersmith. I did a stint working in the kitchen for a week for a story in the millennium year, when Richard Rogers had just been appointed head of a new “urbanism unit” in London, charged with making the city more livable. The River Cafe was exhibit A of that spirit, home from home for New Labour. When Vanity Fair ran its famous London Swings Again issue, the launch party was inevitably held at the restaurant. At the Tory party conference in 1998, Peter Lilley took the platform and bemoaned how the nation was “now all about Britpop and The River Cafe”. In my days working there, I not only learned how to make a mean pear tart, but also had a front row view of Ruth – Ruthie to everyone who knows her – deftly holding court. The restaurant had a system to identify “friends of Ruthie” (FOR) and “friends of friends of Ruthie” (FOFOR) in the reservations book, but it had been abandoned when they realised that took in pretty much everyone who came.
Having lunch with her is both to be reminded of Baroness Rogers of Riverside’s restless charm – she gives the impression mostly of wanting to listen, rather than speak, eager for news – and a sense of how much of another country that easeful, hopeful past now feels. The restaurant is doing well, she says, in spite of wider problems with staff and supply “that have been part pandemic and a lot of Brexit”. “I had a customer recently who is in the current government,” she says. “And he said to me: ‘Don’t worry, things will eventually be OK.’ I said: ‘I am worried, and things were already OK. Young people were coming in and going out. We were relaxed, part of the continent – and now?’”
She pulls out her phone. “My brother lives in Paris,” she says. “And he sent me this today which is a picture of a sign outside his local school – that day’s lunch menu: cucumber vinaigrette, fish meunière, cheese plate, fruit salad. Children get four courses, proper cooking, all subsidised or free. And here?”
Rogers, who is a very energetic 74, kept busy during lockdowns by opening a River Cafe shop, doing delivery, helping with various charities and by creating a podcast – Ruthie’s Table 4 – that saw her exploiting her unrivalled address book and interviewing FORs and FOFORs about their food memories.
“When I did Nancy Pelosi,” she says. “I was dying to talk about Trump. But we talked about how she never had a meal without a tablecloth. How her breakfast is chocolate ice-cream. And that was interesting. David Beckham made me tagliatelle with mushrooms; he learned to cook well when he was playing in Milan. I have one question I ask everyone: what is their comfort food? That immediately takes them back to their mothers or their grandmothers.”
Rogers’s own second-generation American parents had roots in Russia and Hungary; food was always an occasion for conversation. Her love of Italian food was nurtured when she married Richard and came under the culinary influence of his formidable mother, Dada, who grew up wealthy in Trieste. On her deathbed, Dada pulled her daughter-in-law close and gave her two familiar pieces of advice: “Ruthie, promise me you will put more cream on your face and fewer herbs on your fish.” She and Richard, it always seemed, from their years living in Paris while he worked on the Pompidou Centre, had a marriage made of love and wonderful bold colour.
In the years since I saw them in action first-hand, some of that colour has leached from Ruthie’s world. In 2010, after a long battle, her irrepressible double-act partner at the restaurant Rose Gray died of cancer. The following year Richard and Ruth’s younger son Bo drowned in his bath at the age of 27 following a seizure. And last December Richard himself died, aged 88, after suffering two years of brain damage following a fall.
Partly in homage to those last years, Ruth created The River Cafe Look Book, published towards the end of 2022. In a rainbow of colour it pairs surprising images with pictures of River Cafe food – a plate of spaghetti vongole and some wilting tulips, a pink telephone and a raspberry sorbet – the recipes for which follow. “I was asked to do a cookbook for children,” Rogers says. “But [the photographer] Matthew Donaldson and I thought perhaps you could do a book that works for 12 year olds and 82 year olds. After Richard fell, he had quite severe neurological problems. Somebody gave me these books, which paired images – a Vermeer painting with the moon, a baby’s profile with the edge of the sea – inviting you to make connections. People with autism, people with dementia see things in that. And Richard loved looking at these books. So we thought maybe we could do the same kind of thing with food, pair of photographs together – the look book.”
There is a lovely sort of defiance in the Pantone pages of the book, I think, a rage against the dying of colour. I wonder if Rogers ever thought of retreating from the world that she and her husband created?
“There are two places that I feel safe, inspired,” she says. “The River Cafe and my home. I mean, everybody has different ways of dealing with grief. There’s no right way or wrong way. My way has always been not to stop. Just keep going. And then one day I might just fall on the ground.”
She smiles. “I cooked last night with [co-executive head chef] Joseph Trivelli,” she says. “I was pretty tired but you always get a bit of energy, I talked to customers, did the menus. I’m so lucky I can walk into the River Cafe and be busy any time.” To prove the point she pushes aside her salad plate and checks the time. “Is it OK,” she says, “but I wanted this early lunch so I could get back to the restaurant?”
The River Cafe Look Book is out now (Phaidon, £24.95). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply