Thirty Years of Café Society

At the River Café, Ruth Rogers gave London’s creative class its very own clubhouse, and helped cultivate a generation of chefs along the way


Ruth Rogers at the River Café
Ruth Rogers at the River Café

On a recent rainy, spring afternoon, Ruth Rogers of London’s River Café was sipping a fresh mint tea in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel while handling a potential transportation snafu on her phone. Later that night, Rogers was scheduled to cook at the Edible Schoolyard Spring Benefit near South Street Seaport, where she would be honored alongside Questlove and the artist Jim Hodges. In the meantime, a minor emergency had arisen, but, oscillating between our interview and a rapid succession of phone calls, Rogers kept her cool while offering a glimpse of the maternal affection for her staff.

Last year, the River Café celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, having opened in 1987 under the guise of a lunch canteen for the firm of Rogers’s husband, the acclaimed architect Sir Richard Rogers, who designed the restaurant’s light-filled space overlooking a garden on the banks of the Thames. Rogers and her business partner, Rose Gray, were in their late thirties and forties, respectively, when they embarked on their plans for a restaurant that would serve the regional Italian-influenced cuisine they’d both grown to love. Gray, who died of cancer in 2010, had been a classmate of Rogers’s husband, whose Italian mother’s cooking was an early influence on both women.

“When Rose died, we were orphaned. I was the single parent, but with a hundred children,” says Rogers. “I took four [of my chefs] and said, ‘OK, you’re my Rose.’ We’d go to meetings and I’d walk in with four other people — it’s a very close relationship.”

This spring, Rogers, who grew up in Woodstock, New York, returned to her native country for a week of appearances. Also on the schedule was an appearance as one of the keynote speakers at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, and a book signing at the Gagosian Gallery uptown for the stateside release of River Cafe London, which celebrates the restaurant’s three decades as one of London’s culinary gems, and includes contributions from a dazzling lineup of contemporary artists who also happen to be restaurant patrons, including Cy Twombly, Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst, and Ellsworth Kelly. Along with two of her head chefs, Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli, Rogers spent months working around the clock to put together the book in time for the restaurant’s thirtieth birthday last September. River Cafe London contains 120 recipes, with 90 of them updated and revised from Gray and Rogers’s first cookbook in 1995, The River Cafe Cookbook, and 30 of them new. The restaurant’s legendary Chocolate Nemesis dessert is included, of course, in all its dark, decadent glory, as is Grilled Squid with Fresh Red Chile and Arugula, both of which have appeared on its menus since the very beginning. “It was really nice to review recipes from the book and change them,” says Rogers. “We didn’t want to just look backwards; we wanted to look forwards.”

The artistic collaborations stemmed from three restaurant menus used as canvases by Kelly and Twombly, which Rogers had framed and hung in her house. “Ellsworth Kelly was a friend, and he came for the opening of one of his exhibitions at the Serpentine [Gallery], in maybe 1995 or ’96,” she recalls. “He gave me these two menus — we change the menu every day, twice a day, for lunch and dinner — where he’d drawn a self-portrait in the bathroom and a still life. And I also had one from Cy Twombly, who’s also a friend, and he just wrote on his, ‘I love lunch with Ruthie.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, it would be really nice to put these in the book.’ I approached Damien Hirst, who has a studio nearby, and I said, ‘Damien, look, I’ve got Ellsworth, what about you?’ and he said, ‘I’d love to.’ So we sent him the menus, and he did six, actually.” The collection grew from there, with contributions from Rogers’s sister, Susan Elias, and her husband, Reinhard Voigt, both painters; and Peter Doig, another frequent guest at the restaurant. Rogers next asked Brice Marden and then Michael Craig-Martin, both of whom she’d run into at events. “We were about to close the book and then the designer said, ‘If you could have one artist, one last artist, who would it be?’ and I said, ‘Ed Ruscha,’ because he also used to come,” says Rogers, rounding up the list of artistic contributions. “These artists were generous to a fault. I offered to send them back, but they were just incredibly warm and nice.”

With a Josef Albers typeface and splashes of fluorescent color recalling the restaurant’s own interior, River Cafe London is equal parts art tome and cookbook. The ambient photography by Jean Pigozzi captures the orderly pace of the restaurant’s open-kitchen dining room, and the stark, moody food photography by Matthew Donaldson merges the simplistic nature of the cuisine with the nuance derived from its singular focus on bold but clean flavors. There are commemorative additions from Rogers, including the restaurant’s gradual floor plan expansions, personal drawings and notes from Rogers and Gray, and Polaroids from an art installation created by the restaurant in 1992. As much as it is a cookbook, it reads more as an ode to the restaurant’s enduring legacy, beginning with the bond between the two women who started it all to the River Café’s status as a pit stop on the global circuit of illustrious restaurants. “What I loved most [about this process] was the collaboration,” says Rogers, who notes that this is her first book to be published without Gray. “We didn’t write the book and then hand it over to the designers; we did everything together. We’d talk and sit, put it on the computer. We cooked all the food in the River Cafe and had it photographed.”

A frequent visitor to New York City, Rogers admits to thinking about having a restaurant here. “Everybody would be shocked for me to say that, as I’ve been asked lots of times and I’ve always said no — but there’s a vibrancy to New York that I love,” says Rogers, whose voice now intonates with the barest inflection of an English accent, having lived abroad for nearly forty years. Her visits here once centered on the routine of her grandchildren, but now that her family is congregated back in London, she’s reverted to rituals of her own. “I really enjoy street life,” she says, citing Sant Ambroeus as her favorite spot for breakfast and admitting to a predilection for hotel rooms on high floors. “I always go to MOMA, and I go to the galleries — Gagosian has the most amazing Twombly show going on downtown — and I love Central Park and trying new restaurants.”

Rogers is slight in stature, but she comports herself with the confidence befitting someone used to being in charge. It’s a trait she shares with her husband, whose latest building, 3 WTC, is opening in June. “I was there this morning,” she says, describing the experience as “humbling” and the project itself as a “tough commission” considering the gravitas bestowed upon the five office towers and memorial site erected on the footprint of the original Twin Towers. “Nobody knew what it was going to be like. Was it going to be full of memories? Was it kind of overwhelmingly grandiose? I think it’s done both — the beautiful water, the fountain. It’s a sign of the future to see the architecture.”

The same glimpse into tomorrow applies to her own restaurant kitchen, which was prescient in its pursuit to employ a staff of at least 50 percent women since it opened thirty years ago. “We were two women running it, but it was really crucial for us to have women [in the kitchen]. For every man, there was a woman, as it’s very important to have both,” she opines. “Like every profession, [restaurants] are dominated by men, but the excitement in London or NYC is that it’s changing.”

One aspect of the River Café’s legacy is the family tree that has extended across the Atlantic, most notably with the 2003 arrival of April Bloomfield, who opened the Spotted Pig before sprouting the rest of her burgeoning empire. Last year, two more recent alumni, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, opened the much-lauded King in Soho, where Rogers had dined the night before (she loved it). “Each of them wanted to do something on their own,” says Rogers. “They come to you and say, ‘Ruthie,’ with that look in their eye, and they say, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to move on,’ ” she says with a smile and a knowing look. “A lot of people don’t — the four head chefs I have have all been with me seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years. So when somebody leaves, I say, ‘I hope you’ll keep cooking, I hope you’ll be strong, I hope you’ll take the values — don’t just take what you learned as a chef; take the values.’ It’s like with children: If you love them, let them go and develop.”

At King, the menu also changes daily, which is something Shadbolt says is instinctive to most chefs who leave the River Café. “As a young chef, you are taught to fall in love with the ingredients primarily, and every chef there is conditioned to look at the ingredient and have real respect and appreciation for it,” says Shadbolt, who started out as a personal assistant to Rogers and Gray before stepping into the kitchen in 2013 at Rogers’s behest. “It’s so rare in a kitchen, where it’s so ingredient-led. There’s not a day that passes where I don’t consider what I was taught at the River Café. It really is the best restaurant in the world, and what I think they’ve created is a masterpiece — it’s magic.”

“When I really think of legacy, I think of the people who work there,” says Rogers. “They take me forward, and we just always think about the future.”

Once she’s back in London at the River Café, Rogers needs to find a way to configure the framed menus. “We tried to put them all up, but [the restaurant] has one great white wall, and they just didn’t work there,” she notes. “We have to rethink it.” And she has no plans whatsoever to stop cooking, whether it’s at the restaurant or at home, where she’s been known to host dignitaries with simple meals that spring from her own personal food ideology: The more important the person, the more simple the food. “I think I’m lucky and privileged to love my work, to have a team of people that are just so great to work with, and to come home to my family,” she says. Then she adds, with a spirited laugh, “I’ll die at the stove.”

Ruth Rogers appears with Danny Meyer and Adam Rapoport to discuss “Thirty Years of Recipes and Stories from the River Cafe” at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m.