“The one thing I have always wanted people to feel when they walked in to The River Café is that they are home. In a way this restaurant is a home for them.”
“The people that really matter to me are not the famous people. First of all, you want everybody who comes to have a wonderful meal.”
This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast.
We meet on a sunny morning in the wonderful home that Ruth and her husband, the British-Italian architect Richard Rogers, created in Chelsea, an area of London home to one of the largest communities of Americans living outside of America.
Ruth Rogers, did you want to be a chef even when you were still young and living with your parents in upstate New York?
It never, ever occurred to me that I would be a chef. We always had good food in my mother’s house and I really enjoyed that. Eating at the table was important, not only for the food but for the conversation. My parents were political and very socially concerned – my father went to Spain for the Civil War. I came to London aged 19 in 1968, and living in Europe I became more and more interested in food.
Why did you come to London?
I’d gone to Bennington College for a year. It was a very tumultuous time in the world and I didn’t want to be stuck in a women’s college in Vermont with the Vietnam War, assassinations, and free speech issues going on. I asked my parents if I could come to London to study graphic design for a term. That term has now been over 50 years.
Why did you stay?
I fell in love. I met Richard when I was 20 and we married in 1973. Richard met Renzo Piano in ‘69/70 and they won the Pompidou Centre competition together. For the first year after they won, Richard would go back and forth between London and Paris; Renzo was still in Genoa. When you win a competition you never know if the building is going to be built, and the French were very angry about an Italian and a British person winning, but by 1972 we realised that it was going to happen so we all moved to Paris.
It must have been a great adventure to build Pompidou in the Beaubourg area of Paris?
It was. Imagine: Richard, coming from London where he had built no larger building than a small factory and a house for his father-in-law at the time. It was like winning the lottery, to suddenly be uplifted to Paris, to create this enormous building commissioned by the Minister of Culture of the French Government. It was really there that I started cooking.
What prompted you to start cooking in Paris?
Renzo had the Italian tradition of coming home for lunch every day, so I started cooking lunch. Richard and I lived over a market, and I discovered the importance of seasonal food, that you go to the market and decide there what you’re going to eat instead of deciding before. Richard was born in Florence, but his family came from Trieste. Richard’s mother Dada was a really good cook, her northern Italian cooking was later influenced by living in Florence. We learnt about Paris through the culture of restaurants and were obsessed with food. The kind of restaurants that we loved stayed with me when I opened my own.
Why did you decide to open The River Café?
The brilliant, big Pompidou building opened in ’76 to international acclaim, but the phone didn’t ring, so we went to Los Angeles where Richard taught at UCLA. We came back to London in the fall of ’78. Richard and his partners were really excited to find disused warehouses on the River Thames in Hammersmith where they could create a community and build a microcosm of the city we wanted to live in. There was a green space, there was the river, there was light. Various different types of people were working there – architects, designers, model makers, painters – but there was no place to eat. A good friend of ours called Rose Gray had gone to New York to help a friend of hers set up a restaurant, and she was back and cooking in London. I contacted Rose and said, ‘Come and look at this site in these warehouses; maybe we could do this together.’
What was the space like?
Very small, we only had room for about six tables. That was the first restriction. The second was that we had very little money. The third restriction was we could only be open at lunchtime, because we were in a residential area. The fourth was we were only allowed to serve the people who worked in those warehouses, not the public. In fact, having these restrictions made it possible for two inexperienced women who never had a restaurant of their own, far from the centre of London, with very little money, to do this.
“The restaurant interior is about space and light and clarity, with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the river.”
Ruth Rogers, this was in 1987. Was your food Italian?
From the very first day. Rose had lived in Lucca in Italy with her children for two years, and I with the roots of Richard’s mother, Richard’s family and Richard. We clearly realised that the direction we wanted to go was Italian food; and we wanted to change the menu every day, like you do in your own house. You go shopping, see what’s in the market, and then come home and cook it and eat it.
Did you have a speciality?
One day Rose would do sandwiches and I would do pasta; and the next day I would do sandwiches and she would do pasta. We switched, just doing sandwiches and pasta.
What happened next?
We almost went bankrupt. It was very hard to make any money at all, but we stuck with it and Richard supported us. After about six months, we were allowed to open to the public for lunch. At last we could become a restaurant. Lucian Freud used to come almost every day. He loved The River Café.
What about serving dinner?
Another year later we were allowed to open Monday to Friday in the evenings, and then we were allowed to open on the weekend. In 1993, four years after we opened, a space came up next door, and we decided to expand the restaurant so that we could have a proper kitchen, a wood oven and more people.
Did you become fashionable?
We became of interest. There was an article in The New Yorker saying what a wonderful restaurant we were. Somebody came from the Los Angeles Times. People wrote about this little restaurant that was outside of the centre and you had to drive quite a long way to get there and didn’t really know what you were going to eat and the waiters were not dressed like waiters but in their clothes with an apron. People started coming.
Lucian Freud came at the beginning and later you had many famous clients. Like whom?
Artists like Cy Twombly and Ellsworth Kelly; great writers like Salman Rushdie; politicians like John Kerry, later on the Foreign Secretary; actors like Michael Caine, Ralph Fiennes; and all the wonderful architects like Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel. Famous people don’t really matter to me. First of all, you want everybody who comes to have a wonderful meal. The people I’ve just mentioned are close, really good friends, and they’re part of us. The River Café is like a family, and people come back. Some come back every Thursday, some every birthday, some all the time. People have a real sense of loyalty. The one thing I have always wanted people to feel when they walked into The River Café is that they are home. In a way this restaurant is a home for them.
Was the space designed by Richard?
We have enlarged four times and never did anything unless it was designed by Richard. The restaurant interior is about space and light and clarity, with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the river. It has a totally open kitchen so you can see all the chefs cooking, and it has a bright pink wood oven so you can see the fire with food being cooked. It has a very beautiful, long bar that everybody works behind, and a beautiful series of reflective glass screens.
“Why can’t we have restaurants where you have very good food, but can also feel relaxed?”
Ruth Rogers, what did you do when Rose tragically died of cancer in 2010?
When Rose died it was like being a single parent that had one hundred children. We both had the same role, we were partners, so it wasn’t as if she was responsible for one thing and I was responsible for the other. I was on my own, but I had incredible support from everyone who worked in the restaurant, and I knew that my colleagues in the profession were there for me if I had a problem. There was also the incentive to make the restaurant really better and better and better, as Rose would have wanted. We were together for twenty-five years, now it was up to me to show that the restaurant was capable and – because of all Rose’s input – possible to carry on.
Do you still cook for your customers?
I do. I am cooking tonight. I have about 30 chefs, and 100 employees. Most evenings there are 160 or 180 customers, and we have tables outside with a huge garden that goes down to the river. We can’t grow enough vegetables to feed all the customers, but we have artichokes, borlotti beans, Swiss chard, a lot of herbs, cavallo nero, so people can see vegetables growing.
What happened when Covid started?
People became frightened of eating out, and the staff were nervous about working, so we closed the restaurant on Tuesday, 17 March. On the Wednesday we thought we would do a delivery service. If people couldn’t come to the restaurant then we would come to them, so we did a delivery service of boxes of food: four different vegetables in the box, a pasta sauce and a bag of pasta, and then desserts. You could have artichokes and borlotti beans, and spinach and roast tomatoes. You could have a zucchini soup and then a lemon tart or chocolate cake. We had a lot of orders, but people were nervous coming to work and nervous cooking the food, and so even though we had a big business going we stopped it because there was just too much anxiety.
We decided that we would open Shop The River Café, and sell online the olive oil, cheese, pasta, risotto, the food that we had in stock. Every year we go to Tuscany in November and choose our own olive oil. They bottle it for The River Café especially. Very slowly we started adding fish, meat and desserts. In the first couple of weeks everybody was furloughed and so nobody was cooking, but I made tomato sauce here at my house and then pesto. When some chefs felt safe to come back to work, they made the food.
Has your online shop gone well?
Very well. It was exciting to start a new business, and we’ve kept it going. Every week I do newsletters telling people what we’re doing. This week’s shows a pumpkin and things you can do with pumpkin, and then we have lobsters, tomatoes, and summer pudding. The one before was tiramisu, and the one before that was on our birthday so I showed photographs of me and Rose and our first menu.
What about your clients who came from all over the world?
We miss them terribly. This is the summer when all the Americans stayed home. But the British also stayed home, so quite a lot of our customers who normally travel were in London.
Because you have places for tables outside, was this summer a lesser disaster for you than for others?
We’ve been really lucky, because in July, August and September we could have tables outside. Restaurants of my friends that are in the centre of London have been struggling.
Are you ready for winter?
Yes, we will have tables on the terrace that are protected from the wind and the rain by plants and trees. We had to take 30 percent of our tables out of our restaurant for social distancing and have to find a way of making that up. It has been a terrible year for everyone. People are losing their jobs, but fortunately we didn’t have to fire anyone.
What is the secret of your success?
You have to ask other people why they like me. I can’t describe that. People do trust us. They know that we have really high quality ingredients, and they enjoy the fact that our people really enjoy customers, and try and say yes. In the old days, if it was a special occasion or you wanted very good food you had to go to a formal restaurant and dress up and behave yourself; and the maître d’ would make you feel a bit stupid. Then Alice Waters and a lot of people said, ‘Why can’t we have restaurants where you have very good food, but can also feel relaxed? You don’t have to go through that very formal whole thing.’ That describes what The River Café is.
The vegetable garden at The River Café
A dish of langoustines
The garden section of The River Café leads down to the River Thames.
Diners seated on the terrace of The River Café
There have been eleven innovative River Café cookbooks to date.
Ruth Rogers enjoys sitting next to her pink oven at The River Café
“I want everyone who works for me to love going to work.”
Ruth Rogers, do you think that the palette of people has changed over the years?
Enormously. People travel to Italy, eat that food and drink that wine and come back more knowledgeable. When we first opened the restaurant we did Pappa Pomodoro, and this man said, ‘The fact is that I’m not eating bread and tomatoes. What do you think I am?’ Now, everybody knows and wants it.
Which are your best sellers?
It depends on the season. People love ravioli and we sell a lot of pasta, but then they also love the fact that we can put a Dover sole or a whole Turbot in the wood oven. We do a fish and a meat on the grill, a fish and a meat in the wood oven, and a fish and a meat roasted in the oven. So that is a very short menu – we only have three fish and three meat.
What is your favourite dessert?
We have a famous intense dark chocolate cake called the Nemesis that’s our big seller. It has no flour, and is not heavy. It’s beautiful. Or people eat ice creams, lemon tart, panna cotta.
What cookbooks have you written?
The first, The River Café Cookbook was the first cookbook that didn’t have a photograph of food on the quite simple cover. River Café Two was about cooking in the wood oven. Johnny Pigozzi did photographs for all our books in black and white. The third book, which I am going to redo, was called Green; every month of the year in vegetables. After Green we did four little Pocket Books, and then we did a TV series. We did River Café Easy One and Easy Two, and then I’ve done the new one.
Why haven’t you opened restaurants all over the world?
I like having one restaurant because I can focus on making it more beautiful, with better food and better people working there. We almost did another one about two years ago, in Mayfair behind Claridge’s, but when we went to planning permission some local residents objected. I will do something else in London, where I can control it. We have River Café Offsite, and last year I took twenty-three chefs to Rome and cooked for 300 people for the wedding of an American young couple. They could have chosen an Italian restaurant in Rome, but they wanted The River Café.
Is yours a good business?
Yes, it is. We’re doing well, make a good profit. This year is a disaster, but the year before was the best we ever had.
How have you managed to keep The River Café going so well for so long?
We’re all there every day, me and the people who work there. Steve Jobs said, ‘If you love your job, you’ll never have to work again.’ I think that it’s really true. I love going to work, and I want everyone who works for me to love going to work. If they do then people love coming to eat there.