A Food Hero Visits the Test Kitchen
Hanging out with Ruth Rogers of the River Café was the highlight of our week.
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The test kitchen is pretty cool about culinary heroes. After all, they see Martha on a daily basis and have worked with leading cookbook authors, chefs, and experts on recipes, stories, and shoots. When I told them Ruth Rogers of the River Café in London was coming to visit, no one was cool. Everyone was excited to meet a chef who has so profoundly changed how we cook and eat and who has pioneered a sensible work environment, very different to that found in many restaurants.
Ruth and her head chef, Sian Wyn Owen, were in New York City for a benefit for Edible Schoolyard, one of Martha's favorite charities, and to promote their new book celebrating 30 years of the River Café. We clutched our copies of "River Café London" and gathered round one of the work tables in the test kitchen to talk.
Neither Ruth nor Sian had eaten lunch, so Shira went to heat up some Split Pea Soup she'd made that morning. Ruth loves soup, and Shira's verdant bowl (she adds spinach for a lush green) hit the spot on an unusually chilly spring day.
We asked Ruth and Sian questions, and Ruth asked us questions, like if stripes were our uniform-no, it was just one of those days! She was curious about how the test kitchen works and checked out the pass. In a restaurant, the pass is the area where the head chef checks plates before waiters pick them up to take to customers. In our kitchen, it's where food made in the course of recipe development is put out for anyone to taste or share. You never know what you'll find; there were blueberry pancakes and brownies that afternoon.
Sarah and Greg were working on a photo shoot for a story that will appear in the September issue and includes the brownies that were at the pass. When Greg stopped by to stay hello, Ruth quizzed him about his baseball cap. He explained it's from Salt & Straw, a Portland ice-cream company. That led to a discussion of good places to get ice cream in New York City.
As cooks do, we asked Ruth and Sian where they had been eating while they were in town. Their favorite places were King, a new restaurant run by two young women chefs who are River Café alumni, and Sant Ambroeus, where they love the very Italian panini. The previous evening Ruth and Sian had seen Martha at a mutual friend's home. Martha and Ruth are longtime friends and had also gotten together earlier in the week.
Of course we talked a lot about the River Café. It's such a unique restaurant, founded by Ruth and her friend Rose Gray (who passed away in 2010). It has always had a very different culture to the typical macho restaurant scene of long shifts, few days off, and a lot of shouting. Sian explained that the restaurant is all open plan and Ruth said, "You don't want to hear a chef shouting when you're in the dining room." A friend of hers had described seeing the chefs working at the River Café as akin to watching a ballet.
"River Café London" explains the evolution of the restaurant as well as showcases some of its most distinctive recipes. We all wanted to know more about how Ruth, Sian, and the other head chef, Joseph Trivelli, handle coming up with a new menu every day for both lunch and dinner, and about the two dishes that are pretty much always on the menu: the grilled squid and their famous chocolate nemesis. Both those recipes are in the new book. Ruth and Sian were interested to hear that brunch is ubiquitous in the U.S. because Sunday lunch is their busiest meal of the week.
Shira asked Ruth what her favorite things to cook are. "It depends on the season," Ruth said. "At the moment, there is nothing I want to cook more than peas. When they come in season, I just love the taste and the whole process of cooking them slowly. And I really like making risotto; I find it really calming." Ruth also told us that she doesn't like undercooked vegetables, preferring the Italian way of cooking them well with plenty of olive oil that the vegetables absorb. Sian laughed, "Yes, at the restaurant you are always telling people to 'cook it down, cook it more.'"
None of us have ever eaten at the River Café, but we all hope to. When Ruth said we should come and visit, Lindsay remarked that her good friend had just moved to London, and she was hoping to have Sunday lunch at the River Café soon.