As you walk into the River Café the first thing you will notice is that it is bright. Not just because of the wall of windows giving great natural light onto the dining room, but also that the wood oven is a startling bright pink and the waiters and waitresses are all in brightly colored shirts. There is a long bar running along the right side of the room and glass behind that which gives the space an open, fresh and effortless atmosphere. It feels art-deco influenced in design, leaning towards California-chic and it welcomes you into the space effortlessly.
Ruth Rogers is a bit of a legend in this city, coming from upstate New York in the 60’s, marrying the architect Richard Rogers (who designed the Centre Pompidou among others buildings) and creating a restaurant that apart from winning some awards, has provided a space for young chefs to find their footing and gain experience, but most of all to taste.
I spent some time with Ruth at the restaurant talking about food, Italy, seasons, the United States and growing up in the countryside. What came out of our conversations is a personality of someone who is grounded in quality, in flavor, in Italy, in tradition as well as having a passion and drive that keeps her in the restaurant kitchen anytime she is in London.
Growing up in Woodstock New York, she was a child whose upbringing was studded with the seasons. Fresh corn in the summer months is a fond memory that she and I both share and she talked about her time there fondly. Sitting around the table and eating was important and it gave her an understanding of community and commensality, but it wasn’t until she met the mother of her now husband, Richard that she started down the path of cooking.
Richard’s mother grew up in Trieste and Florence, the child of an aristocratic family, she moved to London to escape Mussolini. She started to cook out of necessity, not having any house help to do it for her, and became well known for her own renditions of Italian foods, so much so that people were always wanting to eat at their house – her food had become well known. Ruth met Richard’s mother and the connection they made was unique. Neither were trained chefs, but both enjoyed being in the kitchen and the pleasure that cooking a nice meal can bring to your friends and family.
Moving on a few years, Richard and Ruth moved to Paris in the 70’s and it’s here perhaps where this American girl got her first taste of the Continental European way of shopping for food, cooking and eating. Living very close to a market, she was re-introduced to the seasons, the changing of the fruit and vegetables, the weekly variations of what was good, fresh and available. Paris left a strong influence on her in terms of gastronomy, as it does to many who visit or live there but it was stepping into Italy for the first time though changed her entire gastronomic perspective.
The basic idea of using quality ingredients, simply prepared goes a long way. As we sip our espresso, she continues talking about the moment she had some bruschetta with new olive oil in Tuscany. Simple, clean, delicious – and it is a memory that she will never forget. The simplest ingredients, when sourced right can be so lifting to the spirit, to the body that you would think that they were otherworldly. There is little on earth like new olive oil, and for Ruth it was pure bliss.
The menu at The River Café changes daily as the seasons do and sourcing from suppliers who also work seasonally helps shape the menu and give it the ultra-seasonal approach that they seek to achieve. Although many of their dishes are classically simple, it all comes down to the taste and the quality. As Ruth told me “when you have a dish that is so simple, each ingredient must be the absolute best quality”. It makes total sense to me and apparently to the diners as well judging by the sustained success of the restaurant.
There is a lot of talk now days about farm to table, daily menus, and all of the other restaurant trends that showcase the ingredients. To give those ingredients the best, to make them into the best dish you can, you must understand where they come from – you have to know how they are cooked and eaten in their local area. You have to get into the homes and the kitchens of normal people in small villages – eating with them, observing them and letting their centuries-old food culture guide your inspiration for your menu in London. This is why Ruth believes in taking her chefs to Italy each year to meet wine producers and to eat with families. Notin restaurants, but in peoples’ homes because this is where you will learn how to preparefood in simple, real ways.
As a restaurateur, Ruth has become very successful with the restaurant, which is an extension of her own philosophy of cooking and eating. Outside of that, she is also a mother and grandmother, an avid film buff and of course loves eating out. Our conversation turned to favorite spots in New York, how Brooklyn is such a great spot forfood now and of the Union Square Greenmarket where you can pick up many of the fresh products from upstate New York that feel so familiar to her.
Food changes a lot, trends merge and form into new concepts, chefs invent and re-invent and in the end, you can come back to the simple methods, great ingredients, and no fuss and you have what might just be a perfect meal. Ruth is not only still leading the way in this, but in some respects is a mile ahead of the rest.