Ruth Rogers on Food, Cooking and Painting

Ahead of bringing the Michelin-starred restaurant to Frieze London – the River Cafe co-founder discusses why artists make good cooks

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I sometimes say that working in a restaurant is like working in theatre. When the restaurant opens, or at showtime, everything has to be ready. If there is not collaboration, it won’t happen. The person writing the menu relies on the person prepping the fish who relies on the person making the pasta. And you can’t have the pasta sauce if no-one’s bought the basil or tomatoes. Just like the actor knowing his lines, the scenery being built correctly, the orchestra ready to play. If one link breaks, the whole thing falls apart.

Rose [Gray, the River Cafe co-founder who died in 2010], and I shared all the roles. We were both in our kitchen cooking and were both involved in what went on in front of house whether that was writing the menu, choosing the flowers or being a sympathetic ear to a waiter who was having a hard time. We started small. In the beginning it was just Rose and me, a dishwasher and two waiters. One day I would make the sandwiches and she’d make the pasta, the next day we might swap. In the end we were pretty much one mind in two bodies. We’d even shop together and end up buying the same dress. 

After Rose died in 2010, the restaurant had to change. But if anything, it became even more collaborative. We – Sian, joseph, Vashti, Charles and me – took it forward. We knew: we’re in this together now. A couple of months in we had an offer to open another restaurant, and we decided not to, because it would have meant having to separate the team and it was just too soon. 

Coming to Frieze is the first time we’ll be taking the restaurant off site. We are excited to be with great chefs – Giorgio Locatelli, Sam and Sam Clarke from Moro and the team from Petersham. Someone described doing Frieze as almost like doing an event where you get to invite 300 of your friends. And to be surrounded by art, what could be better? We launched the River Cafe 30 cookbook at the fair bookstore last year, so we spent the day there. There’s a real excitement in the atmosphere.

At the River Cafe, we see the energy that Frieze Week brings – people coming to London from all over the world. It’s the event of the year. I think art and food, cooking and painting have so much in common. You find that a lot of artists are really good cooks. Often, they had to learn to cook when they didn’t have much money. They also know about the aesthetics of food. Artists have always come to the River Cafe and still do. I’ve been lucky to eat with some of them. Richard and I loved going to see Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear in Spencertown and he and Jack would cook for us. It was very simple: all about the ripeness of a peach, or the freshness of a tomato or corn which had been recently picked. Philip Guston was a great friend of my parents and a great eater. He loved my mother’s food. My strongest memories of him are sitting at the table.

Still life drawn by Ellsworth Kelly on the back of a River Cafe menu, 1991. Courtesy: The River Cafe, London

In the River Cafe we write the menu twice every day based on the season and the ingredients available. We are excited about the challenge of Frieze - it will be something new for us. We are thinking now about what pastas and risottos to serve, which cheese to include, whether there will there be porcini. We want it to be a place where you can have a pannini in a hurry or a three-course meal. 

We’re working with Richard and Steven Spence to design a space that is evocative of the actual River Cafe. There is a relationship between food and architecture too. Richard is speaking at the Art & Architecture conference on Tuesday of Frieze Week. I’ll definitely be there. When Richard was designing our house, somebody asked him ‘Did you design and discuss everything together?’ Richard said ‘Yes, Ruthie and I discussed everything – and then she made the decisions’. Which is not true! But it’s very generous of him. For 30 years, Richard worked next door to the River Cafe, so sometimes he’d call and say ‘Would you come over and look at a drawing?’ and sometimes I’d call him and say ‘could you come over and taste this soup?’ We’ve loved working together. Neither of us have ever had this sense of this is life and this is work. Even designing our house, we found a way to balance quiet spaces for work with a desire for open living spaces for a family full of children. 

Richard’s mother, an Italian who moved from Florence to London just before the war, was a huge influence on me. Her food was very much based on Italian tradition. She taught me how to make a tomato sauce, in a very shallow frying pan so it doesn’t stew, slow cooked with olive oil and garlic. It’s still Richard’s favourite pasta. 

Another great influence was the time we spent in Paris, where Richard and I moved for the Pompidou. We lived in the Marais. It was just a revelation, with the market downstairs. It taught me what I wanted to do was cook. 

Sometimes people ask: ‘Which is your favourite of Richard’s buildings?’ and I have to say ‘That’s like asking “which is your favourite child?”’. I love Lloyds, the airport in Madrid and his most recent building in Ground Zero in NYC.  

But maybe my favourite is our house in London. I turn the key in the door and walk up the beautiful staircase that Richard designed and I think: I am the luckiest person in the world. 

Main image: Ruth Rogers in the kitchen at The River Cafe, London, 2018. Photograph: Kuba Ryniewic

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Issue 4

First published in Issue 4

October 2018

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