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Ruth Rogers

The woman in charge

Text by Susie Rushton
Portraits by Chris Rhodes
Styling by Bianca Raggi
Issue nº 24, Autumn & Winter 2021

Ruth Rogers can get a table at any restaurant, but good luck getting one at hers. Thirty-four years after it opened as a canteen next door to her husband’s architectural practice, the River Cafe is still turning them away like it’s 1999, unwavering in its commitment to seasonality, with service that’s as chic as it is colourful. And ruling the pass is the unstoppable 73-year-old chef, who vets every menu and scrutinises every delicious plateful. A raconteur as dishy as her renowned ricotta al forno, Ruthie effortlessly brings together everyone from film stars to presidents, with the great and the good vying for a place at the table. Let’s pull up a seat.

It’s just after 10am, and Ruth Rogers is not here, although the restaurant she co-founded is in full flow. Three staff on the front desk are confirming reservations, the cobalt blue carpet is being vacuumed, the long stainless-steel bar gleams. A dozen or so waiters, dressed not in uniform but in a spectrum of colourful clothing underneath white aprons, are alert. White paper tablecloths — the reason, Ruth has said, that the River Cafe only has one Michelin star — flutter in the breeze from the open warehouse doors that look onto the Thames. Meanwhile, at the far end of the open-plan space, underneath the projected clock, heavy lifting is under way in the kitchen. Huge turbots the size of logs are being heaved onto boards to be surgically portioned. Three perfect joints of veal are resting in juices, and behind a glass wall, one junior chef is leaning his whole body weight onto a large knife to chisel chunks from a giant round of Parmesan. The River Cafe still serves the kind of perfectionist Italian cookery for which it first became famed more than three decades ago. In 1996, The New Yorker called it “what many people believe is the best Italian restaurant in Europe”, and the superlatives have never stopped, the reservations book never been short of diners happily willing to pay equally superlative prices for the sheer pleasure of each mouthful.

Shortly Ruthie — as she is known — does appear, dressed in a Bella Freud 1970 jumper, a calf-length denim skirt and white sandals, a tangerine Bottega Veneta handbag pulling on one arm, her familiar feathered hair and pale blue eyes darting about the restaurant above her mask. She’s zipped over from her home in Chelsea, a property conceived by her husband, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers — made Baron Rogers of Riverside in 1996 — who also takes credit for the design of the restaurant. She immediately takes a pen from me and starts editing the lunch menu, which is handwritten twice a day. She prices up, prices down. Repeatedly edits out the word “with” from dish descriptions. “Artichokes — but how are they done?” she asks in her softened New York accent, before eventually holding the corrected menu aloft.

Running one of the most successful restaurants in London is far more complicated than it used to be. The River Cafe has been packed with grateful diners since reopening in April — the kitchen serves the same number of covers as before the pandemic — and the empire now includes an online shop. Conceived in crisis, the retail operation dispatches bright boxes of pricey olive oil and lemon tarts to destinations thousands of miles away from its Hammersmith base. And Ruthie, 73, is at the centre of it all. The post-pandemic logistics, a new offshoot and all the usual high-level socialising at which she’s so adept demand of her such propulsion, such good humour and steady nerves, that it seems obvious why her restaurant has been 34 years at the top.

Susie: I was thinking you’ve taken big risks in your life. Leaving home in upstate New York in 1967 at the age of 19 and moving to London. Then, soon after, getting together with a man, Richard Rogers, who was 15 years older than you. Some people might say that’s risky. Later on, starting a business like the River Cafe, even though it began on a small scale — that was a gamble. Do you recognise that trait in yourself?

Ruth: When you look back, yes, I suppose so. But when you’re in the situation you don’t necessarily think like that. I came to London for six months, and I stayed 50 years. So it wasn’t me thinking “I’m going to move to this country.”

S: So it wasn’t deliberate?

R: No. When I came to London as a student from Bennington College, I came for the fall term only. Of course, there was then a big decision to stay. And my parents said, “If you stay in London, you have to go to college,” so I went to the London College of Printing to study graphic design. And then the next year I met Richard, and that decision was to pursue a relationship and see what happened – feel what happened. But when I met Richard, I fell in love; that was it. And I suppose the opening of a restaurant in Hammersmith was a decision, but it was a small one. Did I think I would risk the next 20 years making it grow? I’m not sure. I always think: When do you actually make decisions in your life? Often, decisions are made for you. In the case of the River Cafe, I saw the beautiful space, and Richard’s office was right here, next door, so is that why I did it? Did I say, I love that man and so I don’t want to leave him? His age, being older than myself – did I say to myself, There’s a risk that at a certain time he’s going to be… I don’t know. All these things, when I look back, it makes me realise I do have courage – and optimism. That’s a deadly combination!

“I don’t even like waiters to say, ‘Did you enjoy your meal?’ It’s just asking for praise.”

The couple married in 1973, and by 1987, with Richard’s international career soaring, they had two children. Ruth knew the chef Rose Gray through Richard, as they had studied together. Rose had already set up several small enterprises — restoring old stoves, making paper lampshades — and begun working as a cook. Ruth says Rose was the first person she thought of when the opportunity to open a cafe — with very restricted hours — arose in the Thameside warehouse development that Richard’s studio was masterminding. The legendary partnership of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray would last until Rose’s death from cancer in February 2010.

S: Can you remember the conversation you had with Rose about setting up the River Cafe in 1987?

R: Richard and I were skiing and looking at applications for a little cafe-restaurant in his development. And I said, “The only thing worse than not doing a restaurant would be to have a bad one. So maybe I’ll do it.” Richard jumped on that.

S: Did you have any experience of cooking then, as those words came out of your mouth?

R: No, of course not. Nothing. Cooking for my kids. But I knew that Rose had gone to New York and she had been cooking at a restaurant called Nell’s and she’d come back and was working for Conran, for 192, at these little restaurants. I knew that she definitely did want to be a chef and have her own place. So I called her up and said, “Come and see the site,” and we just decided to do it. She knew what to do.

S: So that cemented it for you?

R: Yes. Also, it helped that we were at different stages of our lives. Her youngest child was 14 and she was, “Now it’s my time to work.” And I still had a husband who was very ambitious and doing all this work, and I had a four-year-old, and an 11-, 12-year-old.

S: So perhaps it was useful that the start of the River Cafe was low-key.

R: In the beginning it was just me and Rose, and we were only allowed to open for lunch for the first eight months, and only to those people who worked in these warehouses.

S: It was classified as a workplace?

R: A canteen. Not just for Richard’s office. But those restrictions meant we could grow as a restaurant. I mean, even though Rose knew a lot, it was a big learning curve for both of us. We had a kind of naive confidence. We had financial backing of £25,000 from Richard. But we didn’t make money for years. I recently saw the accounts from those years, and it’s impressive that we were making so little money, losing so much – and just carried on.

S: You were a few years behind Rose in your culinary education, weren’t you?

R: I’m 10 years younger than Rose. At a certain point, I realised I loved it, the daily demands of it. Coming home and feeling like I’d been in a performance. I loved being close to Richard, in his office, and the connection that he would come in, I would go out. I mean, it was still hard. Sometimes it was frightening. For instance, I didn’t have so many kitchen skills. But you know, I learned, and Rose taught me. And we have people with skills in the kitchen that I can’t do – I wouldn’t be able to pick a crab, or roll out ravioli in the way that they can.

S: But you gained expertise and were the boss nonetheless.

R: Yes, I know what to do; I know what is a good salad and what isn’t a good salad. I know that I can be at the pass. I can write the menu in the way I know it should be. When Rose died the dynamic changed. There had been so much to do in terms of running the restaurant. I would do nights, she would do days; then we would switch. At a certain point we didn’t ever cook together.

S: After Rose died did you ever think you would not carry on?

R: When she died? Never. I never saw that as an option. I thought maybe I’d have to bring somebody in. Rose and I never discussed it. In fact, the only time Rose acknowledged she might be dying was once, when we were writing a cookbook, The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook. She called me up and said, “I want you to finish the book.” She was really tired. She said, “Just finish it.” And so I did.

Ruth was photographed in Chelsea, west London, at the home she has lived in with her husband, the architect Richard Rogers, since 1983. Here and in the opening image, she is wearing a smashing blue cotton corduroy coat and a black sable jacquard skirt, both by PRADA. The black opaque tights are from WOLFORD. The jumper, leather shoes and jewellery are Ruth’s own. In the final image, she’s in a white cotton poplin sleeveless blouse and a navy textured cotton-mix skirt, both by DIOR.

In the early days of the River Cafe some diners didn’t understand the spare, rigorous ethos that Rose and Ruth promoted. Their Italian cookery was inspired by the years Rose had spent living in Lucca in Tuscany in the early 1980s while her partner, David Macilwaine, a sculptor, worked on an exhibition, and by Richard’s Italian roots; he was born in Florence. It required specific regional ingredients, carefully sourced in season, with no compromises. A series of bestselling cookery books, starting with The River Cafe Cookbook in 1995 — so successful it is referred to as simply “the blue book” — amplified their ideas further. Seasonality was the quality Rose and Ruth emphasised, many years before it became mainstream in Britain.

S: Are we in a good place with seasonality now here in the UK?

R: Well, I think there is work to do. People still look for choice rather than quality. You can still find raspberries on sale in February, asparagus in September. It’s all about education. We do need to feed children better. It’s political. We know that it’s cheaper if you buy something when it’s in season, it’s more sustainable for the environment, and it’s more delicious. People keep coming here, to this very expensive restaurant, and it’s January and they want tomato salad. We have to explain why we don’t have it.

S: Do people still do that, ask for a tomato salad in January?

R: Yeah, they might. But this is an Italian restaurant, and we don’t have a tomato salad in January. When Rose and I started, every time we’d do a Q&A, afterwards all the questions would be about ingredients. It would be, “It’s all very well to say we should have anchovies in the vitello tonnato, but where do you get the anchovies?” You know? You can credit Jamie Oliver for changing that. You can credit Freddie Laker for getting people on cheap flights to Sicily.

Whether you are sitting at one of the notoriously hard-to-book tables in July or at Christmas, the atmosphere at the River Cafe is always exciting. In the long, narrow dining room with its intimate tables, there is not much formality but plenty of gusto, disarmingly friendly service and a famous face or five among the crowd.

S: How do you make people feel welcome?

R: We didn’t want it to be what I would call a Temple of Food, where you felt you had to shower, change, put high heels on, get dressed and be terrified by the sommelier or by a chef in the hat. Why do you have to have all that if you just want good food? Why can’t you walk in and see the whole restaurant before you, see the chefs cooking, hear the buzz and know that there is a democracy to the tables? There’s not a “special” place to sit here. People ask, “What’s the best table?” And I say, “Well, Richard Rogers likes that table, but then Lucian Freud liked this table, so you choose!”

S: When you go to a restaurant, the maître d’ will know who you are; do you notice that you’re being ushered to what’s obviously the “best table”?

R: But I think that’s nice. I’m a really good restaurant date, because when you see somebody from your own profession come in, you want them to have a great time. Even more than the movie stars, you want other chefs or other restaurant people to come. Maybe when I go to another restaurant, they know I’m on their side.

S: Why are you a good restaurant date?

R: Oh, ’cause I can usually get a table!

S: Are there other things the River Cafe does differently to most restaurants?

R: I was in Australia with Richard, because he had done a building there, and we were with the former prime minister Paul Keating. And we could not get through three sentences without somebody telling us, every time our food was put down, what we were eating, where it had come from, why the waiter liked it. We don’t do that here. I don’t even like waiters to say, “Did you enjoy your meal?” It’s just asking for praise. It’s very tempting, of course, but we don’t do it.

S: For some diners chatting to the waiter is part of the experience.

R: Yes, and some people come and all they want to do is talk to the waiters. And then there are people who you just sense are at the restaurant to get divorced. Or propose. Or get fired or hired. And I’ll say, “Leave that table alone!” People do very private things in a very public space. You see people crying, you do. But at the River Cafe we are pretty… happy here.

S: How can you tell if people are really enjoying their meal? Is it simply a clean plate?

R: If I’m on the pass I can just see somebody… it’s an expression they have. Obviously, you know they haven’t enjoyed it if they send it back, if their chicken isn’t cooked enough or their beef is too done. But then… if a waiter brings back a whole plate of something that they’re going to scrape into the bin, you might wonder what was happening. And the waiter will say, “Oh, she didn’t like it,” or “She was full,” or “She wanted sea bass and she’d ordered turbot.” Something like that.

“I know what is a good salad and what isn’t.”

The River Cafe immediately attracted a loyal following of artists, filmmakers, actors, architects, media magnates and fellow foodies. In the 1990s it became a destination for New Labour politicians. Ruthie is the chief connector, the draw for a cast of famous diners. One side project she developed during the pandemic is a new podcast, River Cafe Table 4, set to air this month, that harnesses her impressive social network. In a series of 47 recordings, everybody from Al Gore to Wes Anderson will contribute an audio recipe and reminisce on a culinary theme.

S: How did you end up making a podcast?

R: About 15 years ago, Ian McKellen did a charity thing at our house in which he read Yeats, sang a song and did a bit of Shakespeare. At the end, he read a recipe from The River Cafe Cookbook. It was ribollita, and it was just gorgeous to listen to. I thought, What if we did an audio project and asked people to read a recipe from the River Cafe? Our first one is Michael Caine reading the panna cotta with grappa.

S: Wow.

R: Paul McCartney told me about having his first glass of wine with John when they went to Paris; they spent 10 cents. And Wes Anderson talks about cooking a pigeon. If I asked Al Gore to talk about climate change, he’d probably say he was busy. But I say, “We’re only going to talk about food.” His recipe was pappa al pomodoro.

S: It’s quite a straightforward pitch, and the recipe loosens the subject up.

R: Yes, exactly. Food is so personal. David Beckham told me about how his mum was a hairdresser and she worked all day, and they’d have dinner, and then she’d go back to work afterwards – she’d have clients coming to the house for hairdressing. I also did Victoria Beckham, and she was quite funny.

S: Were your own parents interested in food?

R: No, no. Not in a foodie way. We never ate packaged food, I never had takeaway. We lived in the country. My mother cooked pretty basic food. For them, sitting at the table was about conversation. When I was young, it was the 1960s and 1970s, so within five years of my growing up, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy – all assassinated. There was the Vietnam War. My father was pretty political, and my mother was too.

S: Do you talk about politics at the table now?

R: Yes, it’s a lot of the conversation in the Rogers family. We all have opinions, as one of my daughters-in-law said! Exhausting, but we do. We have a lot of ideas. Everybody’s pretty engaged. I’d say we’re of the Left, and so we’re always critical because our government is always the opposition.

S: If conversation heats up and there’s conflict, do you mind?

R: Yes, it bothers me. It quite bothers me. As a mother. So sometimes we call a halt to it. I’m not that great with conflict. I know you’re not supposed to avoid it, so we don’t, and it goes on and on, but at a certain point, it’s enough. But the disagreement is never enormous. There’s nobody saying, “I don’t believe in climate change,” or that they believe in the Iraq War. Basically, the core is goodness and acceptance.

S: What issues make you want to protest now?

R: Well, I will go on any march for climate change. I’m hugely admiring of people like Jane Fonda who chain themselves to the fence for climate. I marched against Trump – the Women’s March in Washington the day after his inauguration.

S: Does marching do anything? What do you think?

R: Yeah, it does. I think it does. The Women’s March was very important. I think it matters in the press. I’m not a political historian, but I think it mattered during the civil rights movement, and I think it certainly mattered in Vietnam. Maybe it didn’t with the Iraq War. It’s hard to measure. And also, there’s nothing wrong with it making you feel better.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 Ruth decided to shut the restaurant before government rules forced closure. Most of her staff were on furlough for many months, while she and her top team, including her co-head chefs Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli and managers Charles Pullan and Vashti Armit, conceived Shop the River Cafe and other projects. Ruth spent her lockdown at home in Chelsea with Lord Rogers.

S: Did you cook at home more during lockdown?

R: Yes, I did. I cooked – simply, because my kids aren’t at home any more – and I also cooked via FaceTime with my kids and grandchildren, friends. We’d make ice cream, chocolate chip cookies. I hadn’t made chocolate chip cookies in a hundred years.

S: What’s your kitchen like at home?

R: Oh, in my home kitchen I have nothing. People always laugh when they come to my house, because I’ve got five burners on top. It’s a very architectural house; this was 1983, when Richard designed it. I wasn’t a chef then, I had a family, and it’s a very minimal kitchen.

S: Tell me what you have.

R: Five burners, two dishwashers, two ovens, fridge with a freezer in the bottom – so it’s like that [sketches it out on the paper tablecloth]. That’s a unit, this is our living room with chairs, this is a dining room table, here you have a row of cupboards. This is the fridge-freezer. And I have a drinks fridge, as it were, for wine.

S: It’s interesting you have two dishwashers but just one fridge.

R: My big advice would be to have two dishwashers. Because you can use one as a cupboard. Otherwise, you’re always, always emptying the dishwasher.

S: And what are your worktops?

R: Stainless steel. It’s all stainless steel – you have to come over one day – that Richard did in 1983. It’s almost an antique. And we have not changed the kitchen at all. Up until a year ago I had four burners, and it was just a nightmare, because there was a problem with the gas. Renzo Piano would come round and tell us what we had to do to fix it. Then Richard would get people in from his office – I’d tell them the burners weren’t working, and they’d give advice. And then I finally got someone in from the fancy Italian, really upmarket kitchen design people. I went in there and I said, “I am Ruthie Rogers, my husband is Richard Rogers, and I cannot cope with my kitchen. Would you come over and do it?” And so they sent their chief engineer, and he spent the whole day underneath the stove, trying to work out how we could make these four burners work.

S: They didn’t light at all?

R: They did work, but they were really frustrating. After the engineer came, he wrote me a letter that said something like, “Dear Lady Rogers, I think your kitchen is so beautiful, but you are trying to make something designed in 1980 work in 2019. I suggest you donate it to the Museum of Modern Art.” Haaa! Well, we got it fixed and it’s fine now. I got a fifth burner put in, the ones Renzo Piano designed for Smeg. It’s great. If you walked into my kitchen, you’d think, Wow.