"That's The River Café over there," a portly jogger says to his equally out of breath companion in a tone that mixes both pride and gluttony.As I edge further down the Thames Wharf in the direction of the restaurant, I can already see co-founder Ruth Rogers through the rain-drizzled windows, directing her kitchen as it prepares for lunch service.
Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and April Bloomfield all received their culinary schooling within these four walls. The River Café also championed seasonality and wood ovens before they were millennial buzzwords. And despite its modern looks (the sinks in the bathroom are sci-fi chic), the place still has a sense of old world glamor—something I have backed up by a friend, who says he struggled to concentrate on dinner here recently when he noticed Michael Caine and Rupert Murdoch tucking into truffle tortellini on a nearby table.
"Rose and I didn't sleep until we had made egg tagliarini every way possible," Rogers tells me. "This place never would have been a success if we hadn't."Raised in Woodstock in upstate New York, Rogers love for seasonality began at a young age. She starts off by telling me the widely shared story of Bob Dylan passing her 15-year-old self an invite to a rehearsal on a napkin at a local diner.
READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food
"Turning him down was my biggest regret," she jokes.But a Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan doesn't make her eyes light up anything quite like corn. She beams: "It was a farming community so if you wanted corn in the morning, you got up early to get it fresh from the farm. I miss seeing my dad come back with them."
Rogers, now 66, moved to London in 1967. While many of her friends enrolled at British universities to escape the Vietnam draft, she just wanted to study graphic design and live in the big city.It was meeting architectural husband, and now Lord Richard Rogers that brought Rogers back to her seasonal roots. Traveling with Richard through Italy and France as he designed landmarks including the Center Pompidou, Rogers says the two countries' passion for food made her realize graphic design had been a big mistake.
"The Italian food had been a revelation," she remembers. "I expected heavy and thick tomato sauces and roasted eggplant, but it was grilled fish with salsa verde. You would talk to a five-year-old child and they'd tell you what farm the goat's cheese came from."
While she was exploring Europe, so too was Rose Gray, who Rogers had been introduced to via Richard as one of his school friends."I heard she had gone to Tuscany to live and had been cooking in New York and was really interested in food. When we both came back as soon as I saw Rose, I knew instantly that I didn't want to be a graphic designer anymore."When Richard moved his offices to Thames Wharf, Hammersmith, he quickly realized his staff had nowhere to eat. And so in 1987, The River Café—then a lunch canteen—opened for business. Inexperienced as chefs, Rogers and Gray decided to make it up as they went along.
"I made sandwiches, Rose made pasta, and then we switched—it was a tiny little menu," smiles Rogers. "We always had the same ethos, we wanted to run it like the Italians; you didn't go to the market with a shopping list, you just saw what was there and cooked. That mentality has never really changed."As an American with both Hungarian and Russian roots, Rogers says that The River Café's Italian cuisine was created by "two students of the culture." And having held a Michelin star since 1997, the only real menu progression over the last 20 years was to learn more about the Italians."When we started, we were this little Tuscan restaurant but through our suppliers, we have gone on trips to every Italian region imaginable. We have been to Piemonte, Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany. The food is from every single region," she says of the menu. "This isn't pretentious food, it is well thought out traditional food. If you walk around the kitchen today, you will see people who are really learning to cook our way. Elliot over there is making pasta with nettles."
Rogers then pauses before pointing like a conductor towards an orchestra residing over pots upon pots of organic vegetables: "Over there, she's making artichoke Romana, yesterday she was making chickpea soup."
And this variety, she says, is the secret to The River Café and its many famous alumni's successes.But that success is starting to feel more and more like a rarity. Globally, just one percent of the head chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens are women, with the next generation of Roses and Ruths still struggling to progress ahead of their male competitors. And nearly 30 years on from The River Café's inception, Rogers says the food industry must change its attitude towards women.She remembers: "When I first started working here, I put on a pair of chef's trousers and they were so uncomfortable that I called up London Linen to complain. The man said down the phone: 'Get a life, 95 percent of chefs are men so get used to it!'"Rogers is also tired of seeing the media obsess over macho-chefs.
"One of our female chefs told me that while making soufflés at a famous London restaurant, the head chef threatened to hit her over the head with a frying pan if they didn't rise. I told her she should have called the police," she says. "We keep a 50/50 gender ratio in the kitchen here—it isn't a macho kitchen whatsoever. I adore Gordon [Ramsey] and love him as a person but I resent that television idea of the macho chef shouting. Women don't need to stoop to that level."
Rogers had planned to open a second site next to Gagosian Gallery on Grosvenor Hill, Mayfair next year as The River Café celebrates 30 years. However, complaints from local residents have scuppered the plans.But Rogers says she is "still open" to finding another site, having also muted the idea of launching actual cafes to make the restaurant's menu more accessible. There are also plans to launch a River Café podcast.
At 66, Ruth still comes into work every single day, something she says that Gray, who passed away in 2010 following a battle with cancer, would approve of."We talk about her a lot. I miss her terribly but the greatest tribute to her is the restaurant is doing so well without her. I cannot say I feel her or sense her, it is over, she's dead. I'm not that kind of person. But everything we do still reflects Rose."She insists that any culinary partnership seeking to replicate the Gray and Rogers blueprint must stretch beyond food to be successful."One of the reasons we had such a successful partnership was that on the big issues we had the same approach," she explains. "We voted the same way, we raised our children in the same way, we had the same kind of ethos in terms of the restaurant and nurturing. We were employers, sisters, and mothers to all of our chefs. All of them take a bit of The River Café away with them."And Rogers says she won't be slowing down her commitment to a gruelling daily schedule anytime soon. "I never switch off. The other day one of our chefs called me at 11 PM to ask my permission to order something in—it made my night. Look, they'll probably have to carry me out on a stretcher. I just hope I don't disturb dinner service."For more iconic British chefs, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.