Hitting the 30-year mark in the restaurant world is a hard enough feat these days, when the churn of openings and closings seems to move at a whiplash-inducing pace. But a 30-year-old restaurant that’s only getting better with time? That’s a true rarity, and for the River Café in London, due in no small part to the chef at the helm, Ruth Rogers. When Rogers and her co-founder Rose Gray opened the River Café in 1987, their melding of fresh seasonal ingredients with Italian tradition on a daily-changing menu was a revelation. Rogers’ new cookbook, “River Café London,” is a celebration of the ensuing three decades, during which she and Gray helped change the way we eat, cook, and think about Italian food, mentored a new generation of chefs, and continued to evolve the inimitable River Café.
The book covers every era of the restaurant, from its storied beginning to a touching tribute to Gray, who passed away in 2010, and includes a mix of new recipes and updated River Café classics. As Rogers writes in the introduction, “Change is timeless. A good restaurant is alive. It lives, it grows and so do its recipes...we have grown. We have a new vision, but the same conclusion: with good ingredients and a strong tradition, change and recipes can be timeless.” We caught up with her recently to chat about how she applies this philosophy at home.
The River Café is known for its simple Italian food. Is the way you cook at the restaurant also how you cook at home?
As one of our head chefs Sian Wyn Owen likes to say, the way we cook at the River Café is a way of life. I do cook Italian at home, but more importantly, I’m not a lonely cook. I always have friends and family around me, and that’s how we do it at the River Café. Everyone participates in the cooking—even the waiters help with kitchen prep before service, so there’s a real sense of community.
You’ve said your mother-in-law Dada was a huge influence on your cooking. What were her most important lessons?
She really taught me the Italian way of cooking vegetables, to cook them for longer so that they absorb the oil, like the zucchini trifolati (Italian for sautéed) in the book. Her slow-cooked tomato sauce is also a big one—she used to make it every day. We cook it for a long time at the restaurant, until the oil comes up to the top.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
How do you approach entertaining at home?
The equation is the fancier the guest, the simpler the food. Basically, I don’t cook fancy food for anyone. I like having friends over and making a couple pastas and vegetables. I try not to make dinner parties too much of a performance; nothing too precious is on the menu.
How do you like to eat when you travel?
I love going to restaurants and seeing what they’re doing, especially any River Café alumni like Jamie Oliver and April Bloomfield. I also go back to Italy four to five times a year, and there’s always more to learn, whether I’m in Rome, Venice, or Tuscany. But my favorite thing to do is to eat at someone’s home. If I’m lucky enough to get an invitation, that’s what I really prize.
When is the first time you met Martha?
Martha came to the River Café very early on, and we became fast friends. We have a lot of friends in common, and she’s a woman I really respect and adore. After Rose and I wrote our first cookbook, Martha invited us out to her house in Westport to make our signature grilled squid and lemon tart for her television show, and we had a great time cooking together in that beautiful kitchen—a lot of laughs. It was also the first time Rose and I went to the States together, so it was very special.
How did the grilled squid and lemon tart become mainstays on the River Café menu?
Rose and I developed both recipes together. The squid is such a clean taste to start with, something you’d definitely want to have at the beginning of the meal. People just love it with the arugula salad. I hadn’t had it for ages and came into the restaurant the other day and ordered it, and it’s just the perfect starter. The lemon tart was inspired by Alice Water’s Meyer lemon tart, and it’s very intensely lemony. At the River Café, we like our desserts to be as strong in flavor as all the other dishes on the menu. The trick is to grate the pastry so it doesn’t have much contact with your fingers and melt the butter in the dough.
Watch this vintage video of Ruth baking the River Café's lemon tart with Martha: