Ruth Rogers interview

Ruth Rogers interview

Image: Richard Bryant

River Café chef and co-founder Ruth Rogers talks to Ellie Holmes about her ongoing passion for the restaurant, her love for Italian food and her podcast…

Ruth Rogers, Lady Ruth Rogers CBE, or simply ‘Ruthie’ is one of the most influential people associated with Italian food in the UK. She opened The River Café in Hammersmith with Rose Gray in 1987 – it was simply a canteen integrated with her husband’s (the architect Richard Rogers) offices. Rose had little experience in the restaurant industry, Ruth had none. But it went on to become one of London’s busiest and bestloved restaurants, showcasing the best in seasonal Italian cooking.

Third image: Matthew Donaldson

She is still passionate about the River Café and all it stands for. We caught up with her, as she was heading off for a summer break. “My love of cooking began at an early age and my love of good food was nurtured by my husband. My mother-in-law was Italian and it was her knowledge and heritage of cooking and Italian food that had a huge effect on me in my 20s.”

Ruth had moved from America to England to study design in London. She met Richard in 1969, and they married in 1973. When Richard was tasked with building the Pompidou Centre in Paris, they moved to the city and it was here that she fell in love with seasonal cooking.

With the Italian background of Richard’s family and trips to Italy, she was perfectly placed to go on to develop typical seasonal Italian cuisine.

After Richard had finished the Pompidou Centre, their paths took them back to London. Richard was planning his firm’s offices in Hammersmith and as part of the development, there was a space ready to be turned into a canteen for the firm’s employees. Friends Ruth and Rose took the running of the cafe on themselves, and it is still motivating and inspiring her today. Rose sadly passed away in 2010.

Ruth still loves what she does: “I remain inspired every day because of new chefs, new events, new people, new ingredients. Some days are troublesome and sometimes you’re putting out fires. But there is a structure around the day. We write the menus, we give everyone their jobs, we have meetings and then the curtain comes up at 12pm. There is a rigour, excitement and flow to the day.”

Ruthie’s Table 4, a podcast Ruth has recently started, has added another direction and angle to her work.

“The way we think about food is very evocative, and when we think of food and meals, it can trigger memories and emotions. Mel Brookes is 97 and when I interviewed him recently, he was able to recall the name of the first woman that made him pasta when he was seven. Food is very entwined with our childhood, our holidays and our experiences. I have interviewed Michael Caine, David Beckham and Nancy Pelossi: they are all people that love our food and eat in the restaurant. They have been so generous.”

Of course Ruthie has her own personal favourite dishes that she could eat over and over again. “I love the freshness of our panzanella, a Tuscan vegetable salad, with vinegar, tomatoes, anchovies and basil.”

When I ask her about how The River Café has changed since it started in 1987, she says: “Ingredients and travel have changed everything. In 1987 a broad range of vegetables was hard to come by. Italian cheese was difficult to get. But then when you could start importing foods, we had so much more choice and opportunity.

“The success of our restaurant came through Richard’s and my love of food and working together.” Richard passed away in 2021. “He really cared about food, and we loved eating there and we were passionate about creating a restaurant that made people feel relaxed and comfortable.”

She adds, when people ask her what diners want: “I find it very simple… diners want to be well placed, well cared for and happy. I just think about how I want to feel when I go out to eat and I try and replicate that experience and set of values.”

Her taxi pulls up and it’s clear we are short of time, I ask her where she’s going on holiday. She replies, “Italy… of course.”