Like many great chefs, Ruth Rogers wanted to cook the sort of food she made at home. Shrouded in secrecy, with a menu appositional to London’s soggy culinary scene, River Café opened 30 years ago to a small fanfare. “I’m going to tell you about a restaurant you can’t go to,” were the opening lines to its first review, which Ruth fondly recited to us with the air of a cabaret emcee. It’s this theatricality which has, in part, tied Ruth to the River Café for so long; overseeing a dozen cookbooks, visits from Michelin, and the upheaval of the restaurant scene around it. This space – its clean lines, shock pink oven, hand-written menus – has many imitators, but few rivals. But at 30, if the walls of the River Café could speak, what would we hear?
To answer, Ruth stepped Semaine through her daily rituals at work—poking about the fridge, to see if the borlotti beans have been cooked, or mulling over tales from the night before. In 1987, Ruth and Rose Gray, fresh from stints in Paris and Italy, brought their shared passion for food to River Café’s nine tables: “We were only allowed to open for the people who worked in this community, and people kind of sneaked in!” Décor and clientele may have changed (Cy Twombly once scrawled on their paper menu “I love lunch with Ruthie”), but the grilled squid, almond tart, and caramel ice cream have remained the precise, delicious same: “We went quite slow, and I would say that we grew with the restaurant.” Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers, the Pompidou’s Pritzker-winning architect, had his practice next door—the restaurant was a staff canteen of sorts. Now, the blue carpet is well-trod by the country’s establishment, artists and politicians alike making merry by the crackle of that iconic fireplace.
Rogers has the buffered, melodic vowels of a New Yorker long away from home, ringing true when she says: “I’ve got the best job in the world.” Having never professionally trained, Ruth and Rose simply wanted fresh, seasonal Italian cuisine in London—the likes of which they’d seen on their trips together. Shunning her prior roles as a graphic designer, or working in an architect’s office, Ruth seems tailor-made for the rhythms of a chef. The daily rituals at River (“the waiters peel the garlic, the porters are cleaning the clams, then we change the menu every service”) paint the picture of a culinary Snow White – one half expects the riverside birds to start helping lay the tables. This same zest has kept it in the conversation (there’s still mileage in telling how Rogers once had a pumpkin sent business class from Italy, while she sat in economy), due in no small part to the fact Ruth, well, shows up every day: “I think if people know that I love coming to work they want to come to work.”
Photography by Bonny Peter
Three decades hasn’t dented Ruth’s fondness for pappa al pomodoro or spaghetti al vongole, but it’s helped bend the arc of the industry towards equality. In 1977, Ruth rang her laundry, detailing how ill-fitting her pants were, only for them to say: “Get real, Ruthy, these are made for men!”” Now, in her restaurant, at least 50% of chefs are women, whose pilgrimages to Italy blend new tricks with old-fashioned recipes. Ruth describes the menu as “a language that we’ve cooked in for 30 years”; in language as in cooking, simple is sometimes the most effective. Ruth welcomed Semaine inside, giving us a glimpse of the day-to-day, and a taste of that trademark, simple, tomato sauce.
Photography by Bonny Peter
What’s on Ruth’s digital fingertips?
Want to source and eat fantastic quality sea-food while being kind to our planet? This app provides you with eco-friendly restaurant choices. And if you want to start making home-made sushi, have a look at their fish market suggestions.
Every chef needs a timer, especially when they are just starting, and it is most definitely needed to make sure those lockdown bakes don’t burn! The Apple timer is a must, and don’t worry, you can still listen to Ruth’s Semaine cooking playlist, as the timer overrides the music.
Tired of having to pay for extra weight at the airport because once again you have put your whole library in your suitcase? The Kindle App is your solution. Have an endless library, so that you never run out of literary tales, or indeed cooking recipes, and have the added bonus that you won’t break your back trawling your bag around!
Delete your Deliveroo, and use these for wooing instead. Ruth’s essentials will help you simmer like nonna does; just add pasta.
Set of Steak Knives
River Cafe 30
Glass Gelato Spoons
Colourful Linen Napkins
Cast Iron Grill Pan
"A trip around Italy"
Take the return leg of Ruth’s legendary pumpkin, and discover her Italy. Ruth has brought the flavours of many regions and cities in a single spot; but her old haunts may still hold some secrets…
The restaurant is located in the Piazza Marconi, where you can sit outside and enjoy the sea views while surrounded by the typical cuisine of Cinque Terre. Ruth suggests that you order the famous “Vernazze tegame”, a pasta dish with pesto, and the minestrone!
La Bandita Townhouse
111 Corso il Rossellino
La Bandita Townhouse is situated in the historic centre of Pienza in Southern Tuscany. The building is a renaissance-era palazzo which previously housed nuns for over 500 years. Ruth describes the hotel to have “Contemporary architecture in a classic Tuscan town”.
La Posta Vecchia
“Rome and the sea!” is Ruth’s description of this beautiful Roman retreat that is built on top of Roman ruins that date back to the 1960s. Previously owned by millionaire Paul Getty, you will find treasures from his personal collection in each of the suites.”.
Catania Fish Market
The market is open Monday through to Saturday, attracting huge crowds who come to buy the fresh catch, which is a staple to Sicilian cuisine. Ruth was so taken by the market that she immediately wanted to buy an apartment after her first visit.
3698 Campiello de la Pescaria
Al Covo has been serving traditional Venetian cuisine since 1987, with all of their food locally sourced in a quest to maintain the best quality. Ruth describes the restaurant to be “small”, but they still manage to have an expansive wine list, with 240 wines, many of which are from biodynamic producers.
Ruth knows a thing or two about books: her restaurant has sold over 700,000. In the 22 years since her first, Ruth has amassed quite the library, which she shares here with Semaine.
by Elisabeth David
Elizabeth David’s acclaimed writings are often cited as an inspiration by many of today’s leading chefs, as well as home cooks, and are essential to any serious cookery book collection.
In the words of A.A. Gill, ‘This isn’t just any cookery book. It is Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, and it’s a book that is a statement, not of culinary intent, but of aspiration, a commitment to a certain sort of good life, a certain sort of world-view.
What does the word “taste” mean to you? Ruth: Speaking as a chef, when I think of taste I think of salty, sweet, spicy, and comforting.
Do you have a life motto that you live by? Ruth: The future is bright.
What was the last thing that made you laugh? Ruth: Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.
What are your favourite qualities in a human being? Ruth: There are so many! I can’t possibly say.
Who is your hero? Ruth: Richard Rogers.
What is your biggest flaw? Ruth: Filling out questionnaires!
What is your best quality? Ruth: Choosing the best people to work with.
What would your last meal on earth be? Ruth: Chocolate.
What does success mean to you? Ruth: Working with the best people.
If you had the power to change anything you wanted in the world, what would you change? Ruth: Inequality and climate change.
"Ruth's Tomato Sauce"
Ruth's Tomato Sauce
The simplest and best. Ruth’s menus at The River Café offer an abundance of riches; hand-rolled pastas, turbot on the bone, first-of-the-season asparagus—but little can surpass a supremely made pasta al pomodoro. When we asked Ruth to share just one recipe, this is what she chose. Learn the secret inside.