Ruthie Rogers on Cooking as an Act of Imagination
For the American-born chef and restaurateur Ruth Rogers, owner of the Michelin-starred River Cafe on the north bank of the Thames in London’s Hammersmith neighborhood, food is a portal: to memories and cultures. To conversations. To meaningful connections.
Since Rogers, who goes by Ruthie, co-founded the celebrated Italian restaurant with Rose Gray in 1987, it has become a well-trod stomping ground for a bevy of artists, filmmakers, writers, actors, architects, and other movers and shakers—many of whom have appeared on her podcast, Ruthie’s Table 4, including the director Steve McQueen, British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, and the artist Tracey Emin. (Gray died in 2010, and Rogers has overseen the restaurant herself ever since.) Similarly, and not entirely disconnected from its notable clientele, many highly regarded chefs have come up through the River Cafe’s kitchen, including Jamie Oliver, April Bloomfield, and Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer of the New York restaurants King and Jupiter.
Rogers’s latest project, The River Cafe Look Book (Phaidon), captures her true spirit; that of the restaurant as a whole; and that of her late husband, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Richard Rogers, to whom the book is dedicated. A playful paean to the restaurant’s simple and delicious recipes, from fusilli with zucchini to sea bass over potatoes, it presents “recipes for kids of all ages” in a colorful array that expresses the egalitarian attitude of the restaurant (every single recipe page is a slightly different hue of the rainbow). The first half of the book—more artbook than cookbook—features juxtaposed pictures by the photographer Matthew Donaldson on each spread, one a dish, the other an artfully arranged image: a plate of brown lentils opposite fallen leaves on a street; beaten lamb cutlets next to charred matchsticks; smashed potatoes with green beans paired with an overflowing vase of yellow tulips. A book as much about looking as eating, it encourages, in Rogers’s wonderfully joyful way, engaging the full body and mind as a cook. “Cooking is more than just science, rigorous and measured,” notes the book’s brief introduction. “It’s also art—a picture on a plate. Cooking involves all of your senses. Above all, it involves your imagination.”
On this episode, Rogers talks with Spencer about her journey in food and cooking; her 35 years at the helm of the River Cafe; and the rigorous culture of kindness and openness, paired with toughness, that she has built at the restaurant, both in and out of the kitchen.
Rogers discusses the thinking behind her latest project, The River Cafe Look Book. She also speaks to her first-ever cookbook, The River Cafe Cook Book, a.k.a. “the blue book,” from 1995, and to the restaurant’s origins.
Rogers recalls her childhood years in Monticello and Woodstock, New York.
Rogers talks about her path from boarding school, at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado; to Bennington College in Vermont, for a year; and then on to the London College of Printing, where she studied graphic design. She also brings up her time in the 1970s in Paris with her late husband, the architect Richard Rogers, who was then at work with Renzo Piano on the Centre Pompidou.
Rogers speaks to her close relationship with Rose Gray, their path to opening River Cafe together, and the values they collectively imbued the restaurant with throughout its evolution.
Rogers highlights her podcast, Ruthie’s Table 4, which she launched during the Covid-19 pandemic; gets into the River Cafe’s evolution and growth over the years; and emphasizes the open-kitchen culture she has built at the restaurant.
Rogers contemplates grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death, and shares why the Beatles song “With a Little Help From My Friends” resonates with her so much.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Ruthie. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
RUTHIE ROGERS: Hello, how are you? I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for asking me.
SB: Let’s start with The River Cafe Look Book, your new book featuring recipes “for kids of all ages.” I love this idea of a cookbook that could be as much for kids as it is for adults. And that at the end of the day, we’re all kids, basically.
RR: Certainly in cooking, we’re all kids, I think. About three years ago, we had finished our River Cafe 30 book, and we love doing books. I love doing books. They communicate, they teach the people who work for you how to cook. You think about the recipes you’re cooking, and I always say that recipe is part science and part poetry. We create a recipe—not that often do we create a new recipe. A recipe evolves. After thirty-five years, I rarely have come in and said, “I have an idea for an ice cream” and “I have an idea for a cake.” It’s, “What was the last cake you made? What was the last ice cream you did?” And then it evolves.
But Debra Black, who[se husband, Leon Black] owns Phaidon, was having lunch in the River Cafe, and I think it was a lunch for the Metropolitan Museum trustees. She called me over, she said, “Ruthie, why don’t you do a book for children?” And I’d been thinking about it, but I thought, Phaidon’s a great publisher. I know her. Let’s think about that. So we started thinking about it and I think it was just before the pandemic. And we thought, How do we do a book for kids, which is a River Cafe cookbook? And we thought, Well, we’d go to the ingredient, and the ingredient would be, I don’t know, say, take a tomato. And we would say, “Buy a tomato, of course in season. Peel the tomato.” We show them how you peel a tomato. Then you might squeeze the tomato and then you might fry the tomato.
So we started taking—we worked very collaboratively with Matthew Donaldson, who’s our photographer, and Anthony [Michael] and Stephanie [Nash] from Michael Nash Associates, and so it’s collaborative. We don’t do the work and then send it to a design firm or an architect. We all got together. We thought, Well, we could do a kind of step-by-step book. And so we did it step by step. We took lots of small photographs and we laid them out and it was really painful the way we did it.
SB: Well, yeah, I wanted to bring that up because, rather than a straightforward cookbook, it essentially looks at the world through the lens of food.
SB: Especially pasta. And you paired each of the fifty dishes next to this artistically crafted picture.
RR: Well, because we just thought when we did that, and we had all the photographs of Matthew’s food and we tried to dissect it by step-by-step, it wasn’t what we did. It was patronizing. It was assuming a beginner didn’t know how to peel a clove of garlic. So we thought about it in another way. We thought about, How do we inspire somebody to cook? How do we make somebody want to cook? Very often, you look at a cookbook, and it has the photograph on the right and the text on the left. And you might like the photograph on the right because it looks delicious. But then when you see the recipe on the left, you think, Uh, maybe not. It’ll take me all day. So we got rid of that concept.
And then, we were quite inspired by a book that was bought by my daughter-in-law, Bernadine Haung, who bought it for us because my husband, Richard Rogers, suffered brain damage when he fell on a marble floor in Mexico. And this was done by two artists, two neurologists, and a photographer, and it was a grant from the Nestlé Foundation. And what it did is it shows what happens when you pair photographs. And I’m sorry, it’s very hard to do this by audio. Maybe you can—
SB: Yeah, to the listeners, Ruthie has pulled the book out and is showing me. But we will include a visual from this book on our website, so you’ll be able to see it.
RR: Okay. So it shows you that when you pair photographs, something happens to your way of looking that—
SB: So a plate with spoons and a fork and a porcupine.
RR: And a rabbit and a Japanese geisha. So we thought, Could we do something like this with food? And so that’s where the idea came from.
SB: And what’s the title of this book?
RR: This is a brilliant series of five books. It’s called Photographic Treatment, and Laurence Aëgerter is the artist. It was published thanks to the Nestlé prize of Grand Prix Images, Vevey, Switzerland. It’s very, very compelling, isn’t it, to see how you match photographs. So what we did was Matthew took photographs of every recipe we had. And we wanted the recipes to be simple, we wanted them to be easily shopped for, and of course, we wanted them to be delicious. He took all these photographs and Matthew works a lot in shadow. The first photograph we have is of a pizza next to, what would you call that, looks like?
SB: It looks like a sort of paddleball, basketball court.
RR: Basketball court, yeah. And this is a photograph that’s probably taken fifteen years ago. So we didn’t ask him to take photographs of the food that he would think of. We went through all his archives and—
SB: There’s a spread in there where there’s an image of lamb cutlets and then several charred matches on the other side.
RR: This one.
SB: Exactly. [Laughs]
RR: Yeah. So it makes you laugh. You’re laughing. Not very often do you laugh at a cookbook. Somebody said in a review that this took the concept of cooking and turned it into something completely different.
SB: Well, and you dedicated this book to your late husband, Richard Rogers. Would you say it’s reflective of his way of looking?
RR: Yes. And I think he also looked with humor, he looked at detail, and he also loved color. And so, his Barajas Airport in Madrid, every beam is a different color. And so what we did was, it was very hard to kind of segue from these photographs into black and white, so we made every single recipe on a different colored piece of paper. So you look at this range of colors that go through the book, which make you also very happy and want to cook. It’s a very beautifully printed book. I have to say that, nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the photographers, the designers, and the printers in Italy who basically printed this book on matte paper. And you can see the little ice here in the sorbet and you can see the numbers on the phone. It was a very beautifully printed book.
SB: Well, there’s so many recipes in there that I want to try—
SB: —and that stood out to me. But two in particular that I wanted to bring up, especially from the perspective of time, are the slow-roasted tomatoes with basil and the slow-cooked peas. I was wondering if you might speak here to your slow-roasted and slow-cooked recipes, just generally, and how you think about this relationship between time and cooking.
RR: Well, I would say that if I’m tired and I feel I’ve had a really long day, the way that I relax is to make a risotto because you really can’t hurry a risotto. You can’t cook the onions fast so that they get brown because then when you’re eating them, you’ll taste them in the risotto. You can’t stir in the rice and coat each grain with oil in a hurry. You can’t add the additional herbs at the right time or if you want to put a vegetable or a meat, in a hurry. It takes time, so it’s not a good dish to make when you have a lot of people coming, and it’s not a great dish to make when you’re in a hurry. But I used to come back from work when I worked as a graphic designer and everybody would say, “Sit down and relax.” And actually, for me, relaxing was to go and make a risotto very slowly.
I think it’s the same with peas. Peas are delicious if you pick them and you put them in boiling water and you take them out and you add olive oil or you add butter, or you add some chopped basil, if you do that, and—whammo—you could sit down in five minutes and eat. Practically, you don’t have to eat anything else in a dish of peas. But then you can also take peas and you can add them with very thinly sliced onion that you’ve melted in olive oil or butter, and then you slow cook them for quite a long time without any water. You just let them slow cook. They release their water, and they become dark, and they become almost little bullets of… Some of them are so soft, they have no crunch at all, and some of them have a bit of the crunch, but they absorb the oil and they’re dark and they’re rich and they’re slow.
My brother once said to me, when I said that England was changing, more and more people were working, and women were working. And he said, “Oh, well, that’s great. That’ll help the cooking because they won’t have six hours to boil the cabbage.” [Laughs] There was a joke about the British where they, you know, why is it that in some cultures, as I was just saying, slow-cooked peas, slow-cooked spinach, slow-cooked tomato, slow-cooked cabbage. And yet, another country can cook it for hours and just take every bit of taste out of it.
SB: On the subject of cookbooks, you’ve made many of them, how do you think about the time you’ve spent putting these cookbooks together? What has it offered you to be able to organize your thoughts in book form? And also, just maybe we could start with The River Cafe Cook Book, a.k.a. “the blue book,” the first one.
RR: Yeah, the first one.
SB: Which was not only a catapult in some ways for the restaurant’s reputation, beyond where it’d already grown at the time, but became a catalyst in making a lot more books.
RR: I think the first book, the blue book, came from—we opened in 1987, and by 1993, ’92, people knew they were eating in the River Cafe. They were coming. We started in a very odd way, which was that we were only allowed to be open for lunchtime because we were in a residential area. And actually, it’s even worse than that. We were only allowed to be open for lunchtime to the people who worked in the warehouses where the restaurant was. So it was very restrictive, but it was perfect for two women who really did not know how to run a restaurant and only really cooked for their children and families.
But then slowly, we were allowed to open at lunchtime to the public. And then slowly, we were allowed to open to the public at dinner. And then we were allowed to be open one day of the weekend. So it became a very slow, slow process, but we grew with the restaurant. And we thought, How do we communicate our recipes, what we’re doing? Rose [Gray] and I both had lived and worked in Italy. She lived in Lucca with her family. And my husband’s family were Florentine. His mother came from Trieste, his father from also the north of Italy, but they moved to Florence. He had grown up with very, very good Italian food and Rose learned to cook Italian food.
So we thought, Why was it when we were in London that we didn’t have this food? We had rather heavy food. We had food that appealed to the masses, in the sense that we would have a pasta with tomato, but there was no such thing as pappa al pomodoro, which is a bread soup from Tuscany. And in the winter you would have no beans. And yet, of course, we wanted cannellini and borlotti beans. So we thought, Maybe as a way of communicating to the world, or the small world, of what we were cooking, we also wanted to tell the people who were working with us what they were doing. Because they would come and say, “You know that pasta sauce you wanted me to make,” I looked at amatriciana, “You do it differently.” And we’d say, “Yeah, we do do it differently.” So we were writing our own recipes, and that’s when cookbook one started.
SB: And what’s your approach to creating new recipes? In the thirtieth-anniversary book, you included these recipe notes. And when I was looking at them, I was curious to hear more about those recipe notes. How you sort of, they kind of seemed put together on the spot, but I was curious how you kind of go about that. Is it improvisation?
RR: It’s the way that you cook. Yeah. No, I’d say that, well, first of all, how do we form a recipe? How do we write a recipe? And I think what you do is we’ve been cooking inspired by the food we ate in Italy. In the beginning it was just Tuscany, and then as we started buying more wine, we went to Piedmont, we went to Puglia, we went to Liguria. And so I think we came back with that food and then we would let it grow. So maybe the pesto that we made used to be in the pestle and mortar, but then we tried getting it as they do in the Cinque Terre, much more smooth and so it was brighter green. And so you put it in a blender and you get air into it. And so I think that probably like your work, like an architect’s work, it’s a progress, isn’t it? It’s a progression from what you do until you keep changing it, but not in a radical way.
And then of course, I’m not the only cook in the River Cafe, and so we have other cooks. I can come in the restaurant and see that they would’ve put more pancetta in their ragù of veal. And I might have put less. But it’s interesting to know that Danny’s food is Danny’s and Sean. But we all have the overlaying concept of what we want to do in the River Cafe, but we might interpret it in slightly different ways.
SB: We’ll get back to River Cafe, but I wanted to go back to your upbringing in upstate New York. Your father was a doctor, your mother was a librarian and trade-union activist. Tell me about the home you grew up in, your entrée into food and cooking, and how your parents, and growing up upstate, impacted your development.
RR: Yeah. Well, I grew up in a small town—I was actually born in where all the hotels are—I was born in Monticello. My father was a doctor there. He’d met another doctor in the war and they came back and decided to set up a little practice there. He was a radiologist. They both were children of immigrants. My grandparents came from Russia and from Hungary. And I think that they grew up with poverty. They grew up on the Lower East Side, but then there was that constant work ethic. And slowly, slowly, my father went to medical school and my mother went to college much later. And then, I think growing up in a small town in upstate New York, they never forgot their politics that they’d had growing up in New York. And I’d say, I think the real trade union organizer was my grandmother who came from Hungary. She was working in shops making ties, or in textiles, or whatever.
She was a force. I think she had a poker game on Friday nights, and she was a great cook. She was Hungarian. When she used to come and visit us, she’d bring her rolling pin with her, and she would make strudel and she would make soups. I remember that. I was quite young. I was the youngest in the family, so she died when I was probably eight. And then, I think in my own house, we grew up as mealtimes would be a possibility of talking. That basically—we always ate well. My mother and father always cooked for us a meal. I don’t think we ever ordered in. We rarely went to restaurants unless it was a very special occasion and we went to a Chinese restaurant. We used the dinner table as a place to talk—to talk about what we’d done during the day, talk about civil rights, talk about nuclear war.
My mother was very involved with peace projects. And they were really active, I think, in that as I was growing up. And I think that, food-wise, I particularly remember summers with these small farms that were around Woodstock and that we would go, if we wanted. I would say, if we wanted corn for lunch, we would go in the morning, and if we wanted corn for dinner, we would go in the afternoon. So there was, from a very early age, it wasn’t a broad palate, but it was a palate that respected the freshness of ingredients.
SB: And the local.
RR: And the local. Yeah.
SB: From 1964 to ’66, you left to Colorado where you attended the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. What led to that move? And can you paint a picture of what your time there was like?
RR: Yeah. It was very, I suppose, different in my family to even conceive of going to a boarding school. My sister went to the Putney School in Vermont. And summers, they were long summers, so there was a question of what to do in the summer for a teenager. They heard about the school called the Rocky Mountain School, which had a summer program. And so off I went. I went to Colorado. It was near Aspen. I must have been 16, and I loved it. I just loved that summer. We hiked. We learned to rock climb. We went in the back of trucks and went to Mesa Verde. We climbed peaks. What really appealed to me was there was a sense of community. It was one of those schools where you studied in the morning, and then the afternoons were cleaning up the school, cooking for the school, going to villages nearby, a real sense of participation. And sport—there was hockey, there was kayaking, there was canoeing, there was horseback riding. And I was just so happy there.
I’d always been a really homesick child. I was always the one that came home from camp in the middle of summer because I was homesick, or I didn’t like staying at my friend’s houses because I was homesick. But in this place, I just felt, this is where I wanted to be. So I asked the headmaster, John Holden, who was also running the summer program, if I could come back. And he said, “Yeah. Ruthie, watching you, seeing you here, you can come back in the fall.” It was a pretty liberal school, so it was not very well done. So I said, “Okay, I’ll be back in September.” And I went home and, as I said, I applied, I was accepted, and then I told my parents. They were great. They let me go.
I look back on school and I look at the experiences of people, my husband in particular, who went to a very English boarding school. And for me, Sunday nights were a pleasure because I loved school. I loved going back to school on a Monday morning. I loved the dorms. And we skied in the winter. We started a scholarship program. I started it, really, with another friend of trying to do work, and make money, and then get kids from local communities to come. So I was there for two years.
SB: And you then go to spend one year at Bennington College in Vermont before moving to London to study graphic design at the London College of Printing. Why did you leave Bennington for London? And when did graphic design come into the picture? Did you imagine you might become a graphic designer? Was that—
RR: No, no. I think that I went to… The mistake was, looking back, that I’d grown up in a very small town, and then I went to high school in a very, very small town called Carbondale. And then, I applied to Bennington in a very, very small town, actually because I had a boyfriend who was at Dartmouth, probably. After one year, I thought I was going to go mad and I thought, There’s a world out there. I didn’t study at all my first year. I think I did really badly. They were probably as happy for me to go. And I think that they said, “Why don’t you take six months off?” And my parents had a friend in London. I had quite a few close friends, because it was ’68, who were leaving the United States to avoid the draft, who were going to Oxford, going to the LSE [London School of Economics].
We all went together and I lived in London. It was quite difficult that first fall because I didn’t know what I was doing there. I didn’t know anything about London. But I thought after a couple months, we did a lot of work politically. It was a very exciting time—because there was Vietnam, there was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, there was Paris, there was Berlin; well, there was New York—and so there was a student movement that was going on internationally. And so I became very involved with other Americans who were at the LSE. And my parents, of course, said, “Either you go to school or you come home,” which is quite right. When I was at Rocky Mountain, I’d made a book. And when I was at Bennington, I did quite a bit of graphics and art and printmaking. And so I went to see the head of the London School of Printing and Design in South London. I just showed him my portfolio and he said, “Right, you can start in January.”
That was an eye-opener. That was so interesting because to be in London, it was sixties, but I think there still was a sense of post-war. There had been rationing. All the students there, I often tell, every student who was there had a grant. So they had grants at that time, so you were paid to go to college. And these were all mostly, a lot of kids there, were kids who grew up from quite poor families and they were wanting to be printers or type-setters or graphic designers or photographers. They would take their grant and live at home and give it to their parents. So actually, parents were paid to send their children to college, something which has clearly changed in the last fifty years. And I loved it there. I did photography, I did graphics. And then very soon after that, I met Richard Rogers, and that, as they say, was that.
SB: And tell me a little bit about your graphic design work.
RR: I have it in my portfolio. It was a series that probably you would get, if you went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] or if you went to any other art school. We had typography. We actually, have to say, we set type. You’d go down and there would be the printing presses and you’d put blocks in, and you’d learn how to set type. We had Don McCullin, who’s an incredible photographer, came and gave lectures. I think David Bailey gave a lecture in photography. It was a very exciting school to be in. I’d never done graphic design at all. I had no idea what one of those pencils was, or the difference that you could get a 3B or a 4A, or anything like that. I had no knowledge. You’re setting type and taking photographs, and they just sent us exercises. We had to do ads. We had to do a book. We had to do a poster. It was very much typographical and graphic design. And I did that for three years. I lived in London. I lived in a flat. There were a lot of Americans. And then I met Richard, and my first job, two summer jobs I had, were on magazines. I went for, it was a magazine called Queen and it became Tatler. I’m not sure I really knew what I was doing, but I had a great ability to make friends with people who could show me how the fax machine worked or how to measure something or how to do something.
SB: Well, let’s fast forward to 1987 when you opened the River Cafe with Rose. Tell me about Rose. I know you met in London in 1969, and she later, as you mentioned, lived in the hills of Lucca.
SB: What was this path with her? How did that—
RR: I met Rose. Rose and I were both living in London. She had actually known Richard when they were both in high school. We both left London at the same time. I left in 1971 to go to Paris where Richard won a competition with Renzo Piano to build the Pompidou Centre. Rose went to Tuscany with her four children as a way of getting out of London. It was a very bad economic time for everyone. And so she went to live in Italy. When I was in Paris, we lived above a market. That was an education in itself because I’d never really understood the concept of fruit and vegetables arriving, and then fruit and vegetables leaving, and then another fruit and vegetable coming. So there was this seasonality, obviously.
I took some cooking lessons there. I had a baby there. Every stub in our checkbook was for a restaurant. When Richard wasn’t working on the building, we were eating in a restaurant. And Renzo, the same. They both came home for lunch every day. I think that food, it just was such an obsession for those years we lived in Paris. When we came back to London, the question was what to do. Richard knew that he did not want to move into an office in the city. He even thought about moving out to the country, something I definitely did not want to do. But after Paris, he wanted to do something that was inclusive, that was about community, and architects and other fields doing together. And so, he found these warehouses on the Thames called Thames Wharf, and they were old oil production warehouses. They bought them, he and his partners, tore down one of the warehouses, put a park in the front, and there was always a space for a restaurant. Whether it was a canteen or café or a restaurant, there was a space.
SB: And you started as what is effectively a canteen, but then it quickly expands. Tell me about that journey.
RR: Well, Rose and I went to look at it and it was probably the size of this room. You could have one fryer, you could have one grill, and we had four hot plates. We had a small bar and we had six tables. And I think we were always, always ambitious to be a restaurant. I think that we wanted to grow and to be bigger and to learn. But the restrictions meant that at lunchtime, Rose would make sandwiches and I would make one pasta, and then she would make one pasta and I would make the sandwiches. We always say that the biggest competition we had was not another restaurant, but the woman who came on her bicycle to sell sandwiches. So we had to price point it very low.
But I think that Rose particularly—I’m sorry you haven’t met her—she was a force. She was strong. She was tall. She was ready to spend every hour of her life cooking and being a restaurateur. I was a bit more mixed because I still had a child under 4 at home. I had another one of 9. I had an active life, in terms of Richard’s work. So we were at slightly different stages. Rose was ten years older than I was. But I think we both felt very ambitious about making this restaurant the best Italian restaurant in the world.
SB: Could you talk about some of the underlying philosophies that you both shared that you brought to the restaurant?
RR: I would say that Rose and I were a very successful team because we voted the same way and we raised our children the same way. And so, I think that we looked at the moral values of the place that we wanted to have, and we also looked at the way we would treat people as personalities who worked with us. We knew we wanted a restaurant that everybody participated in, which we did at home. So if we’re having a dinner party, our kids peel the onions and another person might pick the parsley. Rose, we both had a central island that everybody gathered around. We thought we could create that in a workspace. We wanted a restaurant where we changed the menu for every service like you did at home. So you would come and you would see, as I did in the French markets, what was in the market, and then you would cook. You wouldn’t go to the market with a recipe, but you would create something from what you could find.
We wanted a workspace where, most of all, people wanted to come to work. And how do you do that? You make sure that they have enough money to travel to work in a comfortable way, on the train or on a bus. You have a restaurant that makes sure that you have two full days off a week, as if you are working in an architect’s office or a newspaper. You have a restaurant that gives you maternity leave, that gives you food to eat that’s been cooked by our chefs, that we don’t order in food. You give understanding. So if there’s a chef that is slower than somebody, you respect it, as long as they can operate in a professional way. And you teach. You teach. And I think we were there every day, so I think people who worked for us wanted to be there every day.
I think that these values, obviously the restaurant has changed, it’s grown—we have 150 employees instead of four—but we gave people air, light, space, all that. And that’s not to say that it’s a touchy-feely, family, loving restaurant. If you have people coming in and wanting to eat in their lunch hour or dinner in the evening, it’s rigorous. You can’t be late. If you’re late, you don’t get in trouble with your boss. You get, probably, in trouble with the person whose parsley that you were chopping so you could make the sauce. So it’s very collaborative. It’s very focused. But the best you get out of people is through hope, rather than fear. And I think we inherited a tradition which was based on fear, which was based on a kind of macho, horrible attitude, which we were two women. And I think it still exists. I think it’s changing. We weren’t the only two women. There was Alice Waters in San Francisco. There was Sally Clarke in London, Judy Rogers. I can name many, many people.
SB: For sure. I was wondering actually, do you view the trajectory of the River Cafe in some ways similar to what Alice Waters has done at Chez Panisse? Or even coming out of this culture of Frances Moore Lappé’s, Diet For a Small Planet? Do you view it in that context?
RR: I do. I think you can’t separate. First of all, I have huge respect for Alice, and I think she was doing this before we did, definitely. I think that the feminist movement was the same time; the organic and sustainability was being talked about. I think that we were all thinking about being open to people, that the kitchen wasn’t placed underground, and somehow there was a chef with a white hat that made you feel scared. I think everybody, it’s hard to look back because I don’t think we were aware of it, but everything was being discussed and being looked at, what we do when you start something that has to do with food and all the levels it takes.
SB: And quickly, this restaurant attracted a loyal following and clientele—artists, filmmakers, actors, architects. What do you think was this pull, this draw that brought this community in? Could you speak to how it was able to sustain what formed? Because that community still exists around this restaurant in this really special, intimate sort of profound way?
I think a lot of Britain was recovering from a very, very hard time. Lucian Freud came every day for lunch, and he stopped coming with every improvement we made. Every time we made something a little bit better, he got a bit more annoyed.
RR: And so I think artists are curious as well. They want to find out what this place—in the middle of nowhere, really; it was pretty far away to get to—what they were doing, what we were doing. Yeah, I don’t know, you’d have to ask probably them why they liked it more than me.
RR: I think that we created a place where artists, and as you say, writers, architects… First of all, Richard had his architectural practice there, and we put paper dairies on the table, which we still have, and people from TripAdvisor absolutely hate. They say they just can’t believe that we still do that. It became a kind of place where the restaurant became a place where you could work as well. Christopher Hampton wrote Les Liaisons Dangereuses sitting outside. Richard would bring over his architects and he and Renzo, very many people, would take the paper home with them because they’d communicated. We never had a dress code, and I think we were quite generous in terms of saying, “Yes. Yes, you can have a bigger table. Yes, you can play some music. Yes, you can sit outside.”
SB: Well, it seems like there’s some way of being kind of slowed down, away from the rush of the day, and getting to have this “River Cafe time.”
RR: Maybe. As you say, the day as a place. I think if you can create a place where people can slow down. I mean, we’re sitting over the High Line, how beautiful is that? That you can be in a city and walk and just be quiet. I was saying that if I was leader of the world, one of my political priorities would be making more benches for people to sit down. I love a bench. I love waiting for a bus where there’s a bench. I love—friends of mine, the Scardinos, have a house in the country, and it’s quite a big forest, but when you walk through it, there’s always a bench. There’s somewhere to sit. And I think if you go to Paris, there’s a cafe. And maybe you don’t even want a coffee, but you want to sit. Maybe you don’t want to have a pasta, but you like to sit.
And those fantastic Renaissance—the Strozzi Palace in Florence, where they actually built the benches into the building means that you sit, and then you talk to somebody. You know, stoops. My grandparents in Brooklyn sat on the stoop. My mother, in London, lived with us in 1990. I went to a residence meeting and they said, “What are we going to do about the woman who sits on this stoop?” And it was my mother, sitting in the back. And I thought, Well, that’s what we love to do: see the world go by, sit on a stoop, sit in a café, sit in a restaurant, not hurry.
SB: Not disconnected from this, you now have a podcast, Ruthie’s Table 4, on which you interview many of the people who come to your restaurant, many of your friends. Everyone from Steve McQueen to Sir David Adjaye to Stella McCartney to Nancy Pelosi. Was this for you a way of capturing the spirit of the restaurant in audio form? How do you think about the podcast? And what do you hope it offers the people who listen to it?
RR: It really started during lockdown when we just missed everybody so much. There was a real sense of lack of connection. Suddenly we were all in our own houses and we missed each other. And Zad Rogers, my stepson, and I had been talking about an event that we had at our house, which is a charity event. And Ian McKellen, the actor, had done a performance and he read a poem, and he sang a song, and he played the piano, and he ended by reading the recipe for ribollita. And so we thought, Why don’t we just read a recipe every day? And it’ll come from the River Cafe, it’ll just start at seven in the morning. People can go and get the ingredients and then they can cook.
And then we thought, Well, if we did that, it could segue into a story. It’s hard to remember exactly how it happened, but the first three people we talked to were Michael Caine, Wes Anderson, and Jake Gyllenhaal—all friends. I think they probably were as bored at lockdown as we were. We took our recordings and we did it. And what was really interesting is that whoever you talk to about food, if I were to ask you, if I was to ask David Beckham, or later on I’ll be with John McEnroe, is that whoever you’re talking to about food, it stirs a memory, and I had no idea.
SB: Your episode with David Adjaye, he begins speaking to why he mostly eats vegan now and African cooking.
RR: Mm-hmm. It transports you. People remember things they might not have remembered. If you’d said, “Tell me about growing up in the East End, and tell me about what your primary school was like.” Ehh. But if you say—Mel Brooks, who’s 96, can remember the name of the woman who made the first pasta he ever ate when he was 6. Ninety years ago, and he can remember her name. Now that is Mel, of course. And also, whatt was very compelling was that very many people talked about their grandmothers, almost more than their mothers. Especially people like Steve McQueen who came from another country, and the grandmother brings the food with her, and the child rejects it, and the mothers sort of have to, but it’s the grandmother’s food.
And the time that grandmothers have to cook. So we just did these and people said yes. It’s just amazing that people, when we ask them, said, “Sure.” Doesn’t take a lot of time. We won’t ask questions about, “What’s it like to be a footballer?” or “What’s it like write a song with John Lennon?” We’ll say, “What was the first glass of wine you ever had?” And Paul McCartney talked about going to Paris and having three pounds to spend on wine.
SB: And it being terrible. [Laughs]
RR: Terrible. And the other thing that’s interesting that I keep seeing is that people, nobody really grew up entitled. Some more than others. But they definitely see their success in terms of freedom with being able to have a choice of food they might not have been able to talk about. So they talk about the first time they could go to a restaurant and order something without thinking about the cost, or being generous and wanting to buy their family a meal. It’s very moving.
SB: Tell me about the significance of “Table 4.”
RR: Table 4 is a pun on the word “for.” So Table 4 is, there are five tables that are in the windows of the River Cafe. You know those tables that are along the edge? Those are the round tables that we serve, probably five to eight to nine tables, and then the rest of them are fours inside. And so Table 4 is a table where Michael Caine likes to sit. Actually, now that he’s having trouble walking, he sits more towards Table 10, which is closer to the door. And it’s a pun on the word: I think Matthew Freud came up with it… table for [my granddaughter] Ivy Rogers, table for David Beckham. So it’s a table “for,” but it was also from “Table 4,” which connotes where you’re sitting in the restaurant. But there are a lot of people who don’t like Table 4. I don’t terribly like sitting at Table 4. I liked sitting at Table 1. Somebody once came in and said, “Show me the best table in the restaurant. I want the best table.” And you’d say, “Well, for this person, Table 21 is the best table. Table 82 is the best table.” I’m just beginning after thirty-five years to learn the table numbers. I’m still not very good.
SB: Well, the restaurant has not just continued to grow in popularity and reputation, but it physically has grown from the original footprint. So as you were mentioning, first in 1994, then again in 1999, and following a fire in 2008. Even with this, though, there’s always remained this incredible intimacy.
SB: And I was hoping you might share a bit about your approach to growth over the years, how you think about growth, and maintaining that special sauce that makes The River Cafe, The River Cafe.
RR: Oh, thank you. Growth. We’ve grown slowly. So as you say, we have a chart here in the River Cafe 30 book [opens the book to an illustration], which shows the plans of how we grew. So first we had this tiny restaurant with nine tables and we were in the middle of the restaurant taking bookings and answering the phone. And then the second growth we had, we suddenly had some space in the warehouse. And so we went—you still walked through the restaurant—but there was a bar that defined it and windows that covered the wall here. Then, a few years later, we had a place that we could put an entrance. Imagine having an entrance into a restaurant! And so we had a bar and at the bar, you could have a drink while you waited for your table, and that was very exciting. It was still very, very linear. One room with a kitchen in the back. And we had a wood oven. We put a wood oven in, and that was very, very important for us in our cooking.
And then, we did have the fire in 2008. We were able to get more space, so we put a private dining room. But the whole concept from the very first day to now is that you have a wall of windows looking outside with a lot of light. Again, if you’re a chef and you’re on the grill, and you’re tired and you’re fed up because somebody sent their lamb back, you can go outside and look at the river Thames. You can breathe and you can get some air. And so that has always been very, very important in our physical growth.
And in terms of the growth that we’ve had—most people, by the time they’re 35, would’ve had many more restaurants. Wolfgang Puck came in not long ago, and I said, “Wolfgang, I want to be like you. I want to have forty restaurants.” And he said, “Ruthie, I want to be like you and have one.” I think that he doesn’t really want one, and I probably don’t want forty. But somewhere in there you can say that we have had ideas of opening another restaurant. It’s all about the site, isn’t it? If somebody said, “Come to L.A.,” and we were on the ocean, I might go. If somebody said, “Come to Greece and be on an island,” I might go. We don’t know.
SB: Tell me about the culture of the kitchen. You’ve had so many incredible chefs come through—Jamie Oliver, April Bloomfield, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer of King here in New York. There’s a real sort of profound, it seems to me, legacy of these chefs that have come through the kitchen. And I was wondering, what do you think makes it so special to be a chef at the River Cafe? Is it this open kitchen design? Is it the culture of the restaurant where everyone’s contributing to the food prep?
RR: First of all, I think you’d probably have to ask them. But I would say that what I think they really take away from the River Cafe is never… First of all, there’s a culture of kindness. We have an open kitchen, so nobody shouts. You can’t because there might be customers sitting near you. It’s run by two women, so there is absolutely no question of any bullying or making women feel less than they are. My chef said, interestingly, the other day, that she loves the idea that she never knows what she’s going to do when she comes to work. None of us do. We write the menu every day for each service. So if I come in in the morning, sometimes I go for a bike ride, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes you swim, sometimes you work out, you’re thinking, When I get in, I need to write the menu. How do I feel today? Do I feel hungry? Do I feel I need comforting? I think I won’t use the mozzarella, I’ll use ricotta.
It’s a short menu. You have six or seven, sometimes seven or eight starters, antipasti. We always have grilled squid on the menu with red chili. We always have a mozzarella. We usually have a ham like culatello or prosciutto. And then you think, Well, should I do carne crudo or maybe carpaccio? They’re beautiful cannellini beans. Maybe we’ll just have a bowl of cannellini with a new oil. So you’re thinking about it. And then you come in, sometimes I call at night and say to the chef, I say, “What do we have for tomorrow?” They’ll say, “Well, sea bass wasn’t great, so we have turbot, and the turbot is really expensive, so maybe we’ll put a slightly cheaper fish with it.”
And so, you sort of know what you have. And it can be Dover sole, sea bass, and turbot. And then there’s usually one slow-cooked meat like veal, which we do very slow-cooked. And then we do a beef or a lamb on the grill. And we do a game—pigeon, grouse, partridge. So there’s six mains, three fish and three meat. And there are three ways of cooking them—there’s the grill, we slow-roast them, or we use the wood oven. And so there’s a fish and a meat in the wood oven, a fish and a meat on the grill, and a fish and a meat in hearths three. And then we have our pasta section. We make our fresh pasta and we also have one hard pasta. So you’re sort of thinking, and then you come in and you look, “What’s been left from the night before?” Rather like you do at home: “Do I have tomato sauce left over? Do I have pesto? I don’t want to use pesto today. Give that to the staff later on.”
And then you look at your team and you know that Eliza makes really perfect ravioli. And you know have Hamish, who started not long ago, so you might give him something simpler to do. You kind of work your menu out. It takes sometimes an hour. Meanwhile, the head chef and a couple of the other chefs are working out the menu, the other chefs are prepping the fish, prepping the meat, prepping the game. Maybe they’ll put on a tomato sauce because we always use a tomato sauce. And the waiters come in. Instead of laying table, they’re stoning the olives, they’re chopping the chilies, they’re washing the rocket. And so everybody’s kind of working.
And then, the chefs finish the menu, we write it by hand, and then we give out the jobs. We might say, as I said, somebody did pasta yesterday, so the section’s the same way. You don’t know if you’ll be on the grill or hearths three or hearths four. You know, if you’re a starter chef, you’ll be on colds, but then you’re working your way up. It’s a small team. There are eight or nine or ten or eleven, twelve chefs, and we all work together.
SB: Well, you’ve called the kitchen a “great equalizer.” Even going back to this Adam Gopnik piece in The New Yorker in 1996, he called the River Cafe a “casually democratic restaurant.” Something that still holds. How do you think about your approach to running the kitchen and the restaurant? How do you think you realize this equalizer quality, this democratic casualness?
RR: I have to say that, as I said before, is that we are kind, we are curious, and we are helpful, but we are also tough.
RR: Yeah, it’s rigorous. Because, as I often say to people who work there, Table 4 could be Paul McCartney, but it could be somebody who’s saved up all month to come here. It could be somebody who’s taking their grandmother for the first time after getting out of the hospital to lunch. It could be somebody who’s had a baby. We don’t know. But what we know is that when they walk in this restaurant, it’s theirs, and we are there to serve them. By saying that, the floor has to be clean, their table has to be beautifully laid, you have to look good. If you’re tired or your boyfriend broke up with you, leave it at the door. Rose died. We had to carry on the restaurant after she died, but the customer who comes in to have their meal, that’s not their problem—or, it might be because they knew her, and want to talk to her.
So really, I’d say that it’s not that casual fun. It’s really rigorous to work [at the River Cafe]. It’s hard work. We’ve had people who come, and they are a doctor or they’re a lawyer, and they say, “I think I want to be a chef.” And we say, “Well, go to school. Don’t learn it in the River Cafe. Go to school and then come back. And remember that your shifts will go on later, and remember that you may have to do Saturdays, and remember that you’ll be told halfway through to change your apron, and remember that.” We’re not putting people off because I think I have the best job in the world. I really do. I said to someone, “If you want to go to one of those restaurants,” and maybe it’s the way we were thirty years ago, there are restaurants in Hackney, and there are restaurants in the East End that are great and maybe are more relaxed and some people can’t take it. But I think working in the River Cafe, the rigor and the stress and whatever it is, is also coupled with going to Tuscany for four days to learn how olive oil is made.
SB: Every year.
RR: I just came back last week, we took twenty people to Tuscany. And then if you’ve been to Tuscany this year, next year you’ll go to Piedmont. And the next year, you’ll go to Milan. And then maybe you go back to Tuscany again in four years. So there’s a real investment. We’ll teach you how to make the best potatoes al forno you’ve ever made. We will teach you. There is time to teach. So I think coupled with that, coupled with the rigor, it’s a good place.
SB: It’s an education.
SB: It makes me think what you were saying about your time in Colorado. So fascinating. This community, this—
RR: Maybe, yeah. And the food has to be—it’s all about the food. There’s no point saying, when I’ve come in and people say, “Why don’t we put something in the ravioli, a different kind of cheese?” And I said, “We can try that. After work, we can try one. But right now, we have somebody who had that…” I’m not thinking about whether you’re bored. I’m not thinking about whether you’re tired. I’m thinking about the person who is going to eat this and is going to sit there, and that’s my concern. I’ve had chefs come to me and say, “I want to move on to the grill.” And I said, “Well, we’ll tell you when you’re ready to move on to the grill because I can’t risk it right now.”
SB: Well, before we finish, and I wanted to make some space for this because you did mention the loss of Rose and we’re coming out of a pandemic, this enormous period of loss. Also, the loss of Richard last year and your own very tragic situation with Bo [Rogers] a decade ago. What has given you the strength to push forward and get through this loss? And has the restaurant and the community you’ve built been a sort of guiding light for you?
RR: Mmm. I wish I knew what gets you through grief. I wish I had the answer because a friend of mine’s brother died, and her mother went to bed for six months. She was very French. I always think of her doing that, and I think, That was her way. My way has been, I think, to be active and to say—of course I go home and cry into my pillow, but I also get up and then go to work. For me, being active. And I’m so lucky to work with really young people and to have people who really—they’re so kind.
I also have an incredible family. Ivy is here. Zad is here. Zad is the producer for the show, and Ivy’s here in New York, so she’s just handcuffing herself to me. And so last night, I gave a little talk at the book party, and I said, “There’s a Beatles song, which goes ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’” I think I’ve had a lot of help from my friends and my family. It just keeps you going, really.
SB: This idea of being a kid at heart, kids of all ages.
RR: Kids of all ages, yeah. Loss is terrible. I don’t know who came up with the concept that you had to have a lifespan, but they should be put in the dustbin of history. [Laughs]
SB: That’s a great way to end. Ruthie, thank you.
RR: Thank you very much.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 18, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.