The Moment of Ruth
Ruth Rogers, chef and owner of London's iconic River Café, crossed the pond this week for the Edible Schoolyard Spring Benefit. It was her second time cooking among peers, friends and former employees for the organization, which she not only supports but wishes could be replicated in her home city.
The icon, as so many benefit-goers described her on social media Tuesday night, was kind enough to carve out time to let us in on some of the secrets to her success.
Since it opened in 1987, The River Café has been a leader in what is now the widely embraced movement of seasonal cooking. Locally sourced, daily-changing menus and wood-burning ovens may be buzzwords today, but they have been the cornerstones of The River Café for years.
When asked about cooking seasonally long before it was a thing, Rogers says humbly and matter-of-factly that she was only "cooking in the Italian way: We go to the market and see what's there."
Beyond Rogers's straightforward cooking philosophy, another key ingredient at The River Café is its communal nature. From day one, the mission at The River Café was to create an accessible and communal place "where everyone could participate," Rogers says. She and founding partner Rose Gray, who passed away in 2010, were both used to cooking for large families at home, and brought that experience and attitude to their restaurant. It was to be a family affair, no matter whose family you were a part of.
The waiters don't show up after the cooks—they come in at the same time and help prep for service, with tasks like peeling garlic, grating cheese and chopping parsley. Because the chefs make everything in-house, they receive everything whole, which requires a lot of prep.
"We're all there together. It works very well that way," Rogers says.
Waiters know more about the dishes this way, and the whole restaurant feels more like one, big family. This feeling is palpable for diners, too. The emblematic wood-burning oven, which was built in 1995 and has been painted various colors since then "just for fun," Rogers says, sits in plain view. Diners watch chefs roasting fish, vegetables and even lemon tarts in the hearth. (Surprisingly, pizza is the one thing they don't actually cook in the oven.)
In addition to seasonal cooking and a communal environment, another secret to The River Café's long held success is a 50-50 ratio of men to women in the kitchen.
"We never have less than 50 percent of women in the kitchen. It really makes for a great team," she says. "There are so many great women chefs, and the women who work for me, nobody would put up with any form of discrimination or oppression."
Her commitment to a balanced staff echoes beyond the empowered chefs in her own kitchen; it's a shining example for chefs everywhere.
The chefs who have come out her kitchen—the likes of April Bloomfield and Jamie Oliver, for starters—are one testament to Rogers's measured and participatory approach. The fact that the restaurant was ahead of its time and is still going strong after almost 30 years, another. The oven's colors may change, but the heart of The River Café stays the same.
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