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||Anyone who still equates London with bad food and bad teeth should go back. After a long, delicious lunch at The River Cafe with its proprietor Ruth Rogers, one begins to understand the giddiness that led The New Yorker' s Adam Gopnik to recklessly proclaim it the best Italian restaurant in Europe. But then again, it might have been the company. Ruth Rogers is one of the most effortlessly charming women one could hope to meet, and as far as the clichˇ of the dictatorial chef goes, she is a breed apart. Her ease and generosity have made The River Cafe one of the most popular yet unpretentious restaurants in London.
With no formal training, Ruth opened The River Cafe in 1987 with her partner, Rose Gray, ostensibly as a canteen for her husband' s offices. (Richard Rogers is the architect responsible for such modern masterpieces as the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Lloyds building in London' s financial center, and the soon- to- be- completed Millennium Dome.) As word got out about the meals being prepared for the office, more and more, people wanted to come to lunch, and a full- fledged restaurant was born. The River Cafe' s slightly isolated Hammersmith location deterred no one and hasn' t for more than ten years.
In its own quiet way, the restaurant has become something of an institution. Three cookbooks have sold extremely well, and their popular television cooking show will soon appear in the U.S. And yet The River Cafe has managed the very difficult trick of becoming a brand name without losing any of its integrity. After a lunch with Ruth, during which she talked about the restaurant, her family, and current political scandals with equal enthusiasm and humor, her success at pulling off such a feat comes as no surprise.
JUSTIN: Let' s start with the menu.
RUTH: Everything is domestic, like the way you cook at home you look in the fridge, you see what' s there, or else you go shopping and buy what you want to cook. That' s how we started. Even now, although it' s grown, we try to keep that principle. Everything that we buy is in season, so we don' t buy raspberries from New Zealand, we don' t buy grapes from South Africa. The idea is that it' s seasonal and it' s regional. And it' s Italian.
JUSTIN: What can you recommend today?
RUTH: We have vongole, which are clams, and then we have the salad of roast teal, which is duck, so it would have been cooked this morning. We don' t have a freezer or a microwave. The crab is very good. And we have bresaola, air dried beef, with lemon and artichokes. We have spaghetti with bottarga, which is grey mullet roe, and there' s ricotta with trevise and margarine. That would be a vegetarian dish. The main courses are a pan- roasted chicken I did this on television. It' s stuffed under the skin with mascarpone. We have sea bass, which is grilled. Grilled lamb with swiss chard. A monk fish which is wood- roasted. We have that oven now, a wood roasting pizza oven.
JUSTIN: Is that new?
RUTH: When we changed the restaurant about five years ago, we put in a wood oven. Everyone kept saying that a wood oven is for pizzas, but we put everything else in it fish and vegetables and meat. We realized that we could roast things and have this fantastic flavor. You have a very high heat which seals in the flavor and then you just kind of let it relax, so it' s very nice. The monk fish is done in the wood oven, and we have grilled scallops and pork chops which are with wood oven vegetables. So what are you going to have?
JUSTIN: I' ll have the crab to start.
RUTH: I' ll have the wood- baked clams and we can share. And then? [she calls the waitress]
JUSTIN: I think, the sea bass.
RUTH: I' ll have just a vegetable plate. Would you like some wine? Red?
RUTH: We' ll have the Syrah. You know, we started eleven years ago and most restaurants by this time would have opened two. We thought of opening another one and we went and looked at all these different places, and they were so awful, on main roads or in the city. We realized that what we have here with our own garden is very special. We just put the garden in this past summer. So rather than open a second, we decided to reinvent ourselves here.
JUSTIN: If you had another restaurant, you would have to be at one and Rose at the other.
RUTH: We' d spend all our time going between the two. And the cookbooks and the television program take up a lot of our time.
JUSTIN: Tell me about the TV show.
RUTH: We did one last spring, six parts, and we just did another one, another six parts.
JUSTIN: I haven' t seen them.
RUTH: Oh, I' ll get you a tape, they' re really funny. I had no idea how foreign it would be to be on television. I found it incredibly difficult. We were pretty confident in our ability to talk about our work and we' d done some demonstrations, but then when the cameras were on, it was a different story. I don' t know if you' ve seen the "Two Fat Ladies" program, but it' s about these two eccentric ladies. There are all sorts of gimmicky shows, funny ones and eccentric ones, but we wanted to be serious in the sense that we wanted to teach people how to cook the food that we cook at The River Cafe.
JUSTIN: The books are like that.
RUTH: Yes, we knew that we wanted them to be like the restaurant. We wanted to cook the food here, put it on the table and photograph it and that was it. And that worked. We thought we could do the same thing with the television show. But we had only one camera so we had to do three different takes. I had to say, "I love sourdough bread and I' m going to show you how to cut sourdough bread." The first thing I had to do was talk to the camera and say why I loved sourdough bread. Then I had to say it again and again and again ... Is this interesting to you?
JUSTIN: Yes, yes.
RUTH: So they' d do three shots with one camera. The first one would be me saying, "This is how you cut sourdough bread. It' s important to cut it thick and when it' s fresh." And then the director would say, "Okay, look at the camera when you say it." So I' d say, "I like to cut sourdough when its freshly cooked." And then you' d do it again and again, and by the fifth time, I' d say, "I hate fucking sourdough bread and I don' t want to do it any more!" And I burst into tears.
JUSTIN: But that wouldn' t be the end of it?
RUTH: Oh, no. Then you' d have to say, "Take your knife and cut it at an angle like this." And each time you do it, you have to remember what you picked up with your left hand as opposed to your right. We had to do that a hundred times and when we got it right, I' d have to do it but not speak. They' d come in close and show me going through all the motions but I wasn' t allowed to speak. Then you' d have to speak and not do any cooking. So [laughs] I' d say, "Now, I' m stirring the sauce until it gets really thick," but I wasn' t allowed to stir because it would make a noise. The whole thing took eight hours, for one three- minute recipe. Eight hours!
JUSTIN: How did Rose do?
RUTH: She was more relaxed. She was much better at being herself with the camera there. I was terribly self- conscious. I just lost my words all the time. They' d ask, "Why do you put mustard in the sauce?" and I' d say, "I don' t know!" [laughs] Of course, I knew, I just found it very hard to talk. But it was a success because they commissioned another one, and the second series was much easier. We also did segments where we went to Italy.
JUSTIN: There are pictures from that trip in the new cookbook.
RUTH: That' s right. Those come from us wanting to go to the source of the ingredients. So we went to the places where they make the ricotta or where they make the parmesan cheese. We went to an ice cream place in Florence. We wanted to show people where these things come from, because ingredients are everything to us. It was very interesting because you think that Italy is so chaotic and the Italians are so "mangia this," whatever the image is. But then you go to these very rustic farms and the cows and goats would be outside and then when you' d go into the place ...
[The first course is brought to the table.]
... where they actually make the cheese and it could be rocket science. They could be making cruise missiles or whatever they make in those labs, or some kind of incredible vaccine, because they are so precise and it' s all stainless steel and they wear these beautiful hats.
We went to the place where they make the polenta, and it' s in a garage I mean, literally behind a filling station, and there is this guy with a machine making polenta. People really liked that. I think it was kind of inspirational to see.
JUSTIN: Tell me how you met Rose.
RUTH: She was in school with Richard. They' ve known each other since they were seventeen or something. They were in art school together and then her first three children are exactly the same age as Richard' s first three. So they went to the same schools. But she went to live in Italy when we went to live in Paris, so we didn' t see each other for a while.
JUSTIN: When did you live in Paris?
RUTH: When Richard was doing the Pompidou. My first child was born in Paris. When we came back to London, Richard bought these warehouses and started doing all the construction for his offices.
JUSTIN: And this was?
RUTH: In 1985. It was a real backwood. There was nothing here at all. We were looking through applications for people who wanted to do the cafˇ here and they were so horrible that I told Richard, "The only thing worse than not having a place to eat is having a bad place to eat." So I thought I should do it, because I had been sort of restless and wondering what to do next, but I didn' t want to take this on on my own.
I knew that Rose had come back from Italy and was doing some cooking and was more and more involved in restaurants. Do you know Nell' s in New York?
JUSTIN: The club on 14th street?
RUTH: Yes. Nell and Rose are very good friends. They lived together for years. So Rose went over to set up the kitchen there in the ' 80s, and then she came back here.
JUSTIN: So you opened it as a canteen for the offices?
RUTH: I think that was the initial idea, but we were pretty ambitious. From the minute we started talking about it we thought, "We' re not going to just do tea and sandwiches." We were determined to do the best restaurant we could, and make the food we liked to eat in Italy. Which really had no relation to the food we got in Italian restaurants in London.
JUSTIN: Someone told me recently that The New Yorker called The River Cafe the best Italian restaurant in Europe.
RUTH: Well, that was Adam Gopnik. It was a really stupid thing to write. I don' t think he realized what he was saying. I mean, he may have. He described coming here on a Sunday evening and sitting outside and having this fantastic dinner. It was a really nice article but he wrote something like, "It has been said that The River Cafe is the best Italian restaurant in Europe." And of course that meant that we were a better Italian restaurant than the restaurants in Italy. And oh! We had every newspaper calling us up "How dare you?" Italian restaurants were calling up, Italian newspapers. It was this huge thing, and then of course it died down. But we never said it.
JUSTIN: You mentioned perhaps opening a cheaper restaurant and attracting a wider audience. In many ways, the television program takes it out of an expensive restaurant or book and reaches that audience.
RUTH: What we cook on television is relatively simple actually. We are an expensive restaurant because of the kind of restaurant it is; it' s all to do with the amount of staff, the rent we pay, the hours that we' re open and everything else. The restaurant' s source, the inspiration, as I' ve said, comes from home. It was started in domestic kitchens and we really like the idea that it ends up in domestic kitchens. The cookbooks and the TV show take it back to homes. People say how easy the things on the TV series are to cook and it doesn' t have to be the most expensive ingredients and you don' t have to buy a lot. That' s sort of the point.
JUSTIN: I' ve known people who worked for you, and from the way they describe it, it' s so different from the way most kitchens are run. A friend was saying that waiters are also involved in preparing the ingredients.
RUTH: That' s right. Rose has four children, I have three stepchildren and two children of my own, and in a way, the idea of the waiters coming in is rather like our children helping us cook at home. They come in in the morning and we make a prep list, we write the menus and the waiters will slice up the various ingredients for whatever we' ve decided to make that day. They' re doing all those jobs and as a result, they know the food they serve. It makes it much more interesting for them. And at the end of the day, we all sit down and have a meal together. That includes kitchen porters, the chef, everybody. I' ve never worked in another restaurant, so I don' t know if this is common, but making the staff meal is important because we want them to eat our food. We don' t have a quick turnover. The staff tend to stay a long time. They' re a bit like our kids, in a way.
JUSTIN: I' ve heard about kitchens where there is real antagonism between the chef and the rest of the staff. There' s a feeling of paranoia because everything that goes out of the kitchen is the chef' s responsibility, but the chef can' t do everything so he tries to frighten everyone into working very hard.
RUTH: Restaurants are very pressured, very stressed. I think it' s different here because we have an open kitchen and because there' s more of a link between the waiters and the kitchen staff. And also maybe because we' re women, because we' ve been mothers. And maybe because that concept of the temperamental chef is so old- fashioned, it' s just something that' s finished.
JUSTIN: Thank god.
RUTH: There' s also, apparently, a lot of sexism in restaurants. We have women chefs who' ve worked in other kitchens and tell stories that I find horrifying. There' s a chef in London who is known as a bully and thrives on that image. I don' t want to eat his food because I hear things. We heard a story about a cook who was prepping something for him and she was leaning against the counter and he walked up behind her and whacked her on the back of the legs and told her to stand up straight. He tastes the sauces his kitchen staff is preparing and will tell them it' s disgusting and throws it on the floor. I just think that' s so bad. He trades on his image.
I think the influence of America has begun to change all that, since the mid- ' 80s. There are more restaurants where you can see the chefs cooking like Spago on the West Coast, which was terribly successful. I think there are different kinds of restaurants for different occasions. There are restaurants which are temples of food very expensive and very posh and serious restaurants where the kitchens are much more hierarchical and produce very good food. But it' s not what I' m interested in.
JUSTIN: It' s interesting you mention that the Americans have begun to change that sort of thing. Whenever I decide something is American as opposed to English, or vice versa, I immediately come up with half a dozen reasons which contradict that. But at the same time, there is something quite English about the idea that the firm hand approach will make you better.
RUTH: Yes. I thought about this with my children. Different schools suit different children, but there was a sense in the English system that you can' t give children too much confidence because they' ll get cocky. And when we moved them to the American school here, it was entirely different. Every day the teachers told them how clever and fabulous they were. I' m not sure if that' s the best either, coming home every day saying, "I' m a clever person because ..." [laughs] But I do think that' s better for you than feeling miserable about yourself. There are people who walk into my restaurant and say, "This table isn' t good enough, my waitress isn' t smart enough, this tablecloth is dirty." And I think, okay, I know about you ...
JUSTIN: You went to school in America didn' t you?
RUTH: That' s right. I was born in the Catskills, in upstate New York. When I was about twelve we moved to Woodstock and then I went from there to boarding school in Colorado. And then I went to Bennington, but after a year, I couldn' t stand it. I' d just been in the country too long.
JUSTIN: Why did you come here to London?
RUTH: Because I didn' t know what to do and I was really lost. And then friends of my parents said I could come and stay with them, so I left. When I first came to London in 1968 it was really political. I had a boyfriend who was at Oxford and we got completely involved. I used to tell my parents that I was going to school, but I wasn' t. I was making posters and going to meetings and picketing Pan Am because they were sending planes to Vietnam. There were all these Americans here and we used to meet and talk about the war, and everyone was passionately happy here and loved England. Everyone said they were going to stay but they all went back. I think that unless you fell in love, which I did, that the pull to go back is pretty strong.
Certainly I' m here because of Richard, but my restaurant is here and my kids are here now. It' s really just become my home. I sort of like being a foreigner, an American person in London.
JUSTIN: What do people here think about the President' s affair?
RUTH: I really don' t know. It' s always a caricature of America in the press. But to me, what happened between Clinton and Monica is between them and his wife. I don' t like the demonizing of Monica Lewinsky. A girl intern in the White House wouldn' t you want to fuck the President?
[The waitress comes over to take the dessert order.]
RUTH: Give us a few minutes, please.
JUSTIN: So who does the desserts?
RUTH: We all do. Most restaurants have dessert chefs and sauce chefs and this and that, but we make everybody do everything. We just started this new thing where the people who are doing desserts come in earlier and do the puddings. The most famous dessert is the Chocolate Nemesis. This one is in our book, and it' s something everyone always tries to make and says they can' t. It' s gotten all sorts of press because people say it' s impossible and it' s also very, very intense, so if you like chocolate, that' s a really nice one to have.
Now, what about some dessert?