tThere is always pressure here when your teacher comes to lunch. Anna Tobias worked at Ruth Rogers’ River Café on two shifts, before opening Deco Café, a room of her own in Bloomsbury, two years ago. Tobias greets her old boss in her new noon-place sharply with a mixture of affection and slight nervousness, all the more so when Rogers, a snuggly snuggle, but utterly stern, asks her what we should eat: “I’m telling you to do wonderful quiches?” “
“Ah, sorry, no quiche today.”
Rogers quickly scans the short and simple menu, a little homage to her own practice of changing seasonality. She says: “I’ll take winter soup.” Minestrone soup and wild mushroom salad. She looks around the elegant space of our corner table. “That’s nice, Anna. You should see me around later.” Tobias went down to the kitchen with the order, perhaps with a little trepidation.
I asked Rogers about her “restaurant kids,” that legion of chefs who have worked and trained at the River Cafe in the past 35 years—among them Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall—and have gone on to create their own places. Is she always looking for them?
She says, “It’s that thing, if you love them, let them go. They always show up with that look in their eyes, asking for a word, and you know it’s over.” She laughs. “Later, they say: When I worked with you my biggest problem of the day was making the ravioli thin enough to see through. Now they talk about concerns about the electric bill. Having your own place often takes you away from the kitchen.”
Rogers, a soul searching persona who grew up in Woodstock, New York, in the 1960s, always did her best to resist this disconnect. 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. The original lease only allowed them lunchtimes; Good, she says, in retrospect, because it meant the couple, home chefs at the time, could work out what they were about without too much pressure. She says, “If I have one piece of advice for anyone making it on their own, it’s just that: start small. That way you’ll have less to lose.” She takes a spoonful of Anna Tobias’ little soup, and declares that it is very good.
River Cafe became synonymous with the newfound ease of British dining – big windows, open kitchens, proper olive oil – in the ’90s. Focusing on authentic Italian flavours, Rogers & Gray has created a Mediterranean utopia in an unloved corner of Hammersmith. I had a stint working in the kitchen for a week for a story in Millennium, when Richard Rogers had just been appointed head of London’s new ‘urbanization unit’, charged with making the city more livable. The River Cafe was showcasing A of that spirit, a home from home for New Labor. when Vanity Fair Running the popular London Swings Again release, the launch party inevitably took place at the restaurant. At the Conservative Party conference in 1998, Peter Lilly took the stage lamenting that the nation was “now all about Britpop and The River Café”. In my working days there, I not only learned how to make a pear tart, but I also had a frontline view of Ruth—Ruthie to everyone who knows her—deftly holding court. The restaurant had a system for recognizing “Friends of Ruthie’s” (FOR) and “Friends of Ruthie’s Friends” (FOFOR) in the reservations book, but it was abandoned when they realized it swelled up pretty much everyone who came in.
Lunch with her is to be reminded of the restless charm of Baroness Rogers of Riverside–she gives the impression mostly of wanting to listen, rather than to speak, and to crave news–and a sense of how comforting another country’s past, full of hope now feels. She says the restaurant is doing well, despite broader problems with staff and supplies “which have been part of the pandemic and a lot of Brexit”. “I had a client recently in the current government,” she says. “And he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay in the end.'” I said Morning Worried, things were already fine. Young people were coming in and out. We were comfortable, 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 the sign outside his local school—that day’s lunch menu: cucumber vinaigrette, fish meunier, cheese plate, fruit salad. Kids get four courses, proper cooking, all subsidized or free. And here?”
Rogers, a very energetic 74-year-old, has kept himself busy during the lockdowns by opening a River Café shop, doing deliveries, helping out with various charities and by creating a podcast – Ruthie’s table 4 — which has her tapping into her unparalleled address book and interviewing FORs and FOFORs about their food memories.
“When Nancy Pelosi did,” she says. I was dying to talk about Trump. But we did talk about how she never ate a meal without a tablecloth. How her breakfast is chocolate ice cream. And that was very interesting. David Beckham made me a tagliatelle with mushrooms. He learned to cook well when he was playing for AC Milan. I have one question for everyone: What is their comfort food? This instantly brings them back to their mothers or grandmothers.”
The second generation of Rogers’ American parents have roots in Russia and Hungary. Food has always been an occasion for conversation. Her love of Italian food arose when she married Richard and came under the culinary influence of his formidable mother, Dada, who had grown up wealthy in Trieste. On her deathbed, Dada approached her daughter-in-law and gave her two familiar pieces of advice: “Ruthie, promise me you’ll put more cream on your face and less weed on your fish.” It always seemed that she and Richard, from their years living in Paris while working at the Center Pompidou, married out of love and gorgeous bold color.
In the years since seeing them in action first-hand, some of that color has seeped out of Ruthie’s world. In 2010, after a long battle, her irrepressible co-star at Rose Gray died of cancer. The following year, Richard and Ruth’s youngest son, Bo, drowned in his bath at the age of 27 after an epileptic fit. And last December, Richard himself died, at the age of 88, after suffering brain damage for two years from a fall.
In partial homage to those last years, Ruth was created The River Café Appearance Book, published at the end of 2022. In a rainbow of colors, he pairs striking photos with images of River Café food—a plate of spaghetti vongole, some wilted tulips, a pink phone and raspberry syrup—and the following recipes. “I was asked to do a children’s cookbook,” says Rogers. “But [the photographer] Matthew Donaldson and I thought maybe you could do a book that would suit children from 12 to 82 years old. After Richard’s fall, he had severe nervous problems. Someone gave me these books, which I pair with the pictures—Vermeer’s painting with the Moon, Portrait of a Child 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 we could do the same thing with food, a couple of photos together – the look book. “
There’s a beautiful kind of defiance in the pages of Pantone’s book, I think, a rage against the dying of color. I wonder if Rogers ever considered withdrawing from the world she and her husband had created?
“There are two places where I feel safe and inspired,” she says. “The River Cafe and my home.” I mean, everyone has different ways of dealing with grief. There is no right way or wrong way. My way has always been unstoppable. Just keep going. And then one day I might fall to the ground.”
She laughs. “I cooked with you last night [co-executive head chef] Joseph Trevelli,” she says. “You were so tired but always got a little energy, you talked to clients, you made menus. I’m so lucky I can walk into River Cafe and be busy at any time.” To prove the point, she pushes the salad plate aside and checks the time. “Is that okay, but I wanted this brunch so I can get back to the restaurant?”
The River Cafe Look Book is out now (Phaidon, £24.95). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply