Ruth Rogers: 'Retire, me? No, no, no — I’ll die at the stove'

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

It is the first Saturday morning service at the new River Cafe Cafe, which last week opened across the courtyard from the River Cafe proper. My attention, however, isn’t focused on what’s on the paper-clothed table in front of me — crescent moons of orange-scented cornetti; French cherries the size of gobstoppers — but the huge Damien Hirst painting of cherry blossom hanging opposite. I am trying to gauge what difference four inches might make to something that already takes up half the wall.

“When Damien’s people hung it, I said it was too high,” Ruth Rogers tells me a week earlier, three days before opening the River Cafe Cafe — a name she insists was always the intention and not something silly that stuck around from an early brainstorm. “And they told me, well, Damien gave us instructions. So I asked if they could take a photograph and send it to Damien to see what he thought. Eventually he came back and agreed that it was too high. And he lowered it by four inches.” Rogers was right.

Of course; details are how she made her name. A perfectly sliced lemon or an exquisitely filleted turbot. The taut balance of sweetness and acidity in a white peach Bellini or the al dente bite of a handmade pasta. Such attention to detail comes at a price — say, £35 for a small plate of ricotta ravioli — which is where the River Cafe Cafe comes in.

Bruschetta oozing olive oil or brioche piled with prosciutto cost less than a tenner; veg-forward plates of Sorrento tomatoes or zucchini trifolati not much more; and cornetti breakfast pastries are half that. The restaurant’s famous chocolate nemesis might be enjoyed by itself on the new terrace with no need for two courses beforehand.

What’s more, the River Cafe Cafe is no bookings and open all day. My breakfast clocks in at £33: not exactly greasy spoon, but around what one might pay at somewhere like Granger & Co. Charles Pullan, the River Cafe’s suave manager, says that “the very nature of what we’re doing means that it will be priced more accessibly than the restaurant”. Rogers herself is more prickly regarding money. “I’ve never had anybody say ‘I was ripped off’, or ‘how dare they charge that?’ Maybe people do say that and they don’t tell me.” Or perhaps, like Hirst, they dare not contradict her.

 (Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)
(Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)

Yet who would say no to Rogers? She expresses surprise that her podcast, Ruthie’s Table 4, has attracted such stellar guests, yet admits that many are customers of the restaurant. The idea for the podcast germinated in lockdown when the River Cafe was closed. The original concept was for guests to read out a favourite recipe from a River Cafe cookbook — “recipes have their own poetry” — until Graydon Carter, the former Vanity Fair editor, suggested it would be better to hear the story behind the food. The first three pilot episodes featured Rogers’s friends Michael Caine and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Wes Anderson; the series was picked up by podcast giant iHeartMedia. Jimmy Fallon has said he’s envious of the guest list.

Why does Rogers think the podcast has been such a hit? “I realised that food is only the beginning of the story. If I’d asked David Beckham to talk about football or Paul McCartney to talk about the Beatles, they would probably have said no. But McCartney spoke about the recipe his mother taught him a month before she died, and he makes when he wants to think about her. Nancy Pelosi said that until she left home she’d never sat down to a meal that didn’t have a tablecloth. What does that tell you about her life?”

An equally pertinent question might be what does such a rollcall of illustrious names tell us about Rogers’ own life? Celebrity connections came early. She grew up in Woodstock in upstate New York, to a doctor father and librarian mother. As a teenager she turned down a handwritten invite from Bob Dylan asking her to watch him rehearse. There is still something of the Sixties hippy to Rogers, sky-blue eyes staring out from under a Jane Birkin-esque fringe, even if the Birkenstock sandals these days are lined with sheepskin for comfort.

 (Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)
(Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)

She arrived in London in 1967, studying design at the London College of Printing. She met Richard Rogers two years later; the architect was already married with three young sons. When he wed Rogers, his Italian mother Dada became a big influence on his new wife. “She was a phenomenal cook. She cooked in a very northern Italian way — slow-cooked meats, great risottos — and made her own ice creams.”

The other formative influence was chef Rose Gray, who knew Richard from art college and lived in Tuscany at around the time he was in Paris with Ruth while working on the Pompidou Centre. When Richard needed a staff canteen for his new offices in a converted warehouse by the Thames in 1987, the River Cafe was born.

“You never remember where you made a decision to marry someone or to have a baby or buy a house,” Rogers says. “But I remember we were skiing in Arosa in Switzerland and I said to Richard the only thing worse than not having a restaurant would be to have a mediocre one. I thought, maybe I’ll do it. I was ready for a change. And so I called up Rose and asked, how about it?”

When my son Bo died, I remember going up to my bedroom and telling one of my sons to put tomato sauce on the stove because I needed to smell something cooking

Before the podcasts began, TV presenter Kirsty Young gave Rogers tips on interview technique, one of which was to have a question that she asks all her guests. Rogers felt that a last meal was too boring; instead she asks guests what their favourite comfort food is. What is hers? “Pasta with tomato sauce. I speak from experience. When my son Bo died, we were given the news at home. I remember going up to my bedroom and telling one of my sons to put tomato sauce on the stove because I needed to smell something cooking.”

Bo drowned in his bath after a seizure when he was 28, in 2011. Richard passed away 10 years later, after suffering two years of brain damage following a fall. Rogers says her husband would have been her dream podcast guest. Gray died from cancer in 2010; Rogers thinks of her friend when she is scoring the flesh for chargrilled squid with chili and rocket, one of the River Cafe’s signatures. “I’ve lost very important people in my life. Everybody deals with grief in their own way and there is no right way.”

 (Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)
(Matthew Donaldson for the River Cafe Cafe)

Rogers says her own way of coping has been to stay active. Does she ever consider retiring? “No, no, no — I’ll die at the stove,” she laughs. “I love the challenges of working with designers and architects but if I’m out of the kitchen for too long, I get crotchety.”

Recently she worked the River Cafe’s Saturday night shift, though she admits it is no longer down to her to make 60 portions of tomato sauce. “But I know how much basil and salt it should have.”

Rogers wants to use her kitchen as a force for good; she has campaigned for Refuge, the domestic violence charity, and is proud of promoting women within the River Cafe. She was appointed a CBE in the 2020 Birthday Honours list for services to the culinary arts and charity. What does she hope for from the next government? “I would ask them to do something for children in schools. The way we feed our children is a reflection of society. We found out during the pandemic that kids were missing their school lunch. Tonight 400,000 children will have the same thing for dinner, which is nothing.”

Though London is home, Rogers feels both British and American. A lifelong Democrat, she raised money for the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. “And I will work every second of my time to make sure that we have another term of President Biden. It’s such a crucial time for the United States and I feel very, very engaged politically.”

One thing people often ask Rogers is what would she have done had she not opened the River Cafe. Her answer? “Prime minister, or president of the United States. Overall, I’d go for president.” With connections like hers, it could still happen.

The River Cafe Cafe is open now, Rainville Road, W6 9HA,