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Lunch with Ruth Rogers, founder of the River Café

Ruth Rogers  (Chris Rhodes)
Ruth Rogers (Chris Rhodes)

To walk across the floor of the River Café with Ruth Rogers is to make peace with the fact that progress will be slow. Not long after meeting the spry, 75-year-old co-founder of one of the most influential British restaurants in history, I realise that, for her, the blue-carpeted expanse of its famous main dining room is really a catwalk of seemingly infinite connections and acquaintances.

‘Oh hello,’ she says, stopping to hug and greet a lunching couple while I loiter awkwardly behind her. Next, she is checking in on another table, as they are poised to descend on a frazzled heap of roasted langoustines. And then, having set off to find a quieter spot for our interview, we are suddenly leading two sharp-suited men — one an old friend of hers; the other a former member of the Italian government — on an impromptu tour of the restaurant’s newish stand-alone shop.

‘Restaurants are really important,’ she begins, once the two of us have finally settled in the flaring early afternoon sunlight of an empty private dining room on the water. ‘Because they’re where we go to see people spontaneously.’

Spontaneity, a crackling scene and a kind of convivial, Tuscan warmth has been part of the formula here since 1987, when the American-born chef and her friend Rose Gray first started an Italian canteen for staff at the adjacent architectural practice of her husband, Richard Rogers (Gray died of cancer in 2010; Lord Rogers, following brain damage after a fall two years earlier, passed away in 2021).

True, the story of its gastronomic and cultural impact — as the Michelin starred, reassuringly ruinous flag-bearer for determined hyper-seasonality, an abiding locus for both the post-Blair political class and uppermost A-list celebrities, and the place where the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got their start — is practically scripture. But much of the restaurant’s exalted 36-year legacy and continued relevance emanates from Ruth Rogers (always Ruthie, to all that know her). Her occasionally flinty rigour. Her personal touch. And, yes, her ability to bring a degree of glad-handing, sophisticated nonna energy to the most outwardly fancy of settings.

Christmas is what we are ostensibly here to talk about. Specifically, the appropriately luxe and modish, fuchsia-hued holiday gift boxes that the River Café’s retail arm will ship all across the UK. Yet it is hard, amid a deepening cost of living crisis and staffing issues exacerbated by Brexit, to avoid talk drifting towards how ‘the Caff’ has coped with another financially tricky year. ‘Every day there are challenges,’ she says in her whispered, upstate New York drawl. As if by magic, artful plates of antipasti have been brought across to us from the main restaurant. And so we eat as we talk. Her, from a plate of fresh, seeping buffalo mozzarella beside a mulch of warm cime di rapa; me from a bitter, bright tumble of roast pumpkin and radicchio salad. ‘The people working for [us] are paying more rent,’ she continues, nibbling. ‘The food they’re buying is costing more, [while] the fish and olive oil we’re buying [at the restaurant] is costing us more.’

These fluctuations have nudged the restaurant’s notoriously punchy prices that little bit higher. Yet Rogers notes that passing such cost-creep on to the customer isn’t unique to hospitality. ‘Have you tried to buy a dress, or a T-shirt?’ she asks. ‘It is such a struggle. And I’m not a communist.’ Well, quite. Though, it should be noted that Rogers has always balanced her status as purveyor of artful, 35 quid plates of chilli-flecked calamari with, perhaps unexpectedly, a pronounced social conscience (a fact evidenced by her recent award of a CBE for services to both the culinary arts and charity).

These days, that tendency mostly manifests via the issue of school food provision (‘It’s shocking that [all] the children in this country don’t qualify for a free meal. I think Sadiq Khan has done brilliantly in London’) and a staff that is notably, and atypically, female-heavy. I wonder what she made of the Thomas Straker diversity row? And the TikTok star’s (hastily walked-back) implication that talented female and ethnic minority kitchen staff aren’t always easy to find? ‘Oh please,’ she says, witheringly. ‘It’s a long subject but I grew up with affirmative action and I’m a firm believer in it. So it’s very important to all of us here. Women in the kitchen, women on the bar, women sommeliers and different cultures.’

In fact, it is the team, the buzz of service and the daily problems to solve that keep her so engaged with the day-to-day running of the River Café — long after she could have justifiably stepped back. Would she not want a life where she wasn’t quite so involved? ‘No,’ she says, quickly. ‘And I also think because my husband died a year and a half ago, it’s a way of affirming something he and I did together; that Rose and I did together. It’s a way of continuing. Maybe I’m grieving. Maybe I’ll suddenly, as my friend said, just fall down and it will all hit me.’ She laughs lightly. ‘But it does hit me. Every day.’

If there is pain, ‘being active and creating’ is her way of leaning into the skid of it. Ruthie’s Table 4, her preposterously star-studded interview podcast is approaching its 100th episode; plans are afoot to open a bar beside the shop before Christmas. Having fallen into this life as a former design-student and self-taught chef she is, it seems, remorselessly addicted to it. ‘My feeling is that I always want people to leave feeling better than when they arrived,’ she says, after our plates have been cleared and she is poised to hurry back to the dining room for another meeting. ‘That’s our job. And it’s an exciting one.’