River Cafe's Ruth Rogers on why British food isn't so bad

BY Rob Crossan

19th Sep 2023 Inspire

5 min read

River Cafe's Ruth Rogers on why British food isn't so bad
Ruth Rogers, co-founder of the famed River Cafe, looks back on her introduction to good food, life in a turbulent Paris and meeting Paul McCartney

Flavours of youth

One of my earliest food memories is my father taking me into New York City for an afternoon trip. He’d take me out to lunch, usually to not so fancy places. But once he did take me to the Russian Tea Rooms where I remember how gorgeous the space looked while eating borscht and blinis.
Afterwards he’d always take me to a show like West Side Story and then we’d buy the soundtrack album from a record shop called Sam Goody. To this day, I think I know the words to pretty much every single song from every single Broadway musical from that era.
"It turns out that the singer who sent that note was Bob Dylan!"
When I was a teenager in the early sixties, I worked as a waitress in a little cafe called The Bear in Woodstock, New York. I was terrible at it and only lasted a few weeks but, before I worked there, my friend and I would go there after school to do our homework.
One day, there was a band rehearsing in the back room and the singer sent a note out to our table to ask if we wanted to come inside and watch them play. We said no, because we had a test the next day. It turns out that the singer who sent that note was Bob Dylan!
I think we honestly thought that we could just go meet him anytime and the chance would come again. Obviously, it never did.
"I’ve always been impressed at the history of protest in this country"
I moved to London in 1967. I was supposed to be studying but I actually spent a lot of time with Americans who were here to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War.
I was very interested in the Free Speech movement and I was at the march on the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. I didn’t experience violence myself that day but I do remember that it definitely started peacefully.
I’ve always been impressed at the history of protest in this country, particularly the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] marches, which were very active when I first came here.

Sampling the world's cuisine

I don’t remember the food in London being that bad when I first came here. I had no money so I went to the markets in Portobello Road and cheap Greek tavernas and Indian restaurants.
I don’t like to join that chorus of "all British food was terrible." It’s very unkind as Britain had been through rationing for so long, that it was inevitable that the food culture would suffer.
"Britain had been through rationing for so long, that it was inevitable that the food culture would suffer"
My real passion for food began when I met my husband Richard who was Italian, and also Rose Gray, who was ten years older than me, but would invite me over for amazing dishes at her place in Notting Hill.
Nothing happened for a long time when I first met Richard as he was married but I still remember the first time I saw him.
It was at a friend’s house and I was wearing a dress from Biba that was brown corduroy with buttons that went into culottes and a white shirt underneath. He was wearing a bright-coloured shirt and I just thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen.
I moved to Paris in 1971 when Richard, along with Renzo Piano, won the competition to design the Pompidou Centre. The city was very tense at that time. The Situationist riots that almost toppled the de Gaulle regime had only happened three years earlier and I remember police being everywhere, busloads of them every night on Saint-Germain.
There was a feeling that, if you did anything wrong, they would pounce on you.
But there was this excitement about building the Pompidou too. People came from all over Europe to work on it with Richard and Renzo, and there was a sense of optimism about what a new, and very brave, project it was to create that building.
Richard and I moved back from Paris to London in the late seventies and we wanted the kind of long, expansive apartment with lots of light, like we had in Paris. We bought a place which was two houses.
Richard re-designed it into one place as a lateral conversion and he said for years that it was the hardest project he ever completed! He was a little tongue in cheek but it’s an important project to convert a home as it’s all about the future, about hopes and dreams and how you share and evolve a space.

Launching River Cafe and a Ruth Rogers podcast

When I asked Rose if she wanted to open a restaurant with me, she said yes instantly. We spent £28,000 and opened the River Cafe on September 15, 1987. We only had room for about 40 people and we had no chef! Rose and I did everything with just one or two other people to help.
The restaurant was really just a canteen underneath Richard’s architectural practice but he would bring a lot of people in for lunch and it just grew from there.
If you order the grilled squid, chilli and rocket or the pear and almond tart here then you’re eating two dishes which have been on the menu since the very first day!
"We only had room for about 40 people and we had no chef!"
Doing my Ruthie’s Table 4 podcast over the last couple of years has been so exciting as people just open up so much more about themselves when it’s in the context of food.
In episodes so far I’ve had Tracey Emin talk about having to eat food donated by the Salvation Army when she was young. And then I had Nancy Pelosi tell me that she’d never eaten a meal from a table that didn’t have a tablecloth on it.
Paul McCartney told me about a recipe for potatoes that his mother taught him. She died when he was just 15 and he still makes the recipe today.
My husband Richard died in 2021. He created so many wonderful buildings like the Pompidou Centre, the Millennium Dome, the Welsh Senedd and the Lloyds building, but the place I go to which takes me closest to him is the last building he ever worked on.
It’s in Provence and is an arts centre called Château La Coste. It’s a gallery for drawing and is suspended over the vineyards. I saw it just a few months ago and there is such a sense of peace and beauty there.
It’s the smallest building he ever created and it’s extremely special to me and our family.
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