During her week at the GSD with husband Richard Rogers, Senior Loeb Scholar Ruth Rogers, cofounder with Rose Gray of the Michelin-starred River Cafe in London, spoke about her Italian-inspired restaurant housed in a former oil storage warehouse on the River Thames. For her public conversation with Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, Rogers had to move into Piper Auditorium to accommodate an overflow crowd excited by her commonsense approach to extraordinary food.
The River Cafe’s focus on simple quality food began in 1987 and continues to be relevant today, as interest in local and seasonal cooking experiences resurgence. All the restaurant’s meat and fish comes from within the United Kingdom. Rogers noted, “If you have a great ingredient and it’s fresh and it’s seasonal, you don’t need to mask it.” She quipped that, at the end of her Italian mother-in-law’s life, her last words to Ruth were, “Put more cream on your face and less herbs on your fish.”
Speaking about the relationship between architecture and food, Rogers observed that her restaurant began with architecture and site. The River Cafe initially was intended for the workers in the complex of buildings that her husband Richard and his partners renovated on the North bank of the Thames in London. “We didn’t want to start an office, we wanted to start a community,” said Rogers, and in the beginning, the River Cafe was open only to the designers, model makers, and craftsmen working in these buildings. “Our greatest competition was the woman who would come by on a bicycle selling sandwiches.”
The importance of being part of a community is carried through the design of the restaurant and its operating principles. Each morning at the River café, waiters join kitchen porters to participate in prepping the vegetables and shellfish on the menu that day. “Every single person at the River Cafe is very involved with the food, and that creates an environment where the waiters are very interested in the food,” Rogers said. “If a customer asks how the salsa verde is made, the waiters will know because they made it.” Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall have passed through this working environment.
Outside the restaurant there is a small green garden. While too small to supply all the restaurant’s produce, it brings an awareness of how food grows and introduces customers to what can be grown and when. This transparency carries into the interior layout: a 2008 fire gave Rogers the opportunity to redo the restaurant with a completely open kitchen. This openness puts pressure on everyone to behave but also allows the cooks to see if customers are enjoying their food and enables customers to engage the cooking staff in conversation.
“Customers come and talk to me, they look at the food being cooked and say ‘I’d like to try that, I’d like to try that,’” Rogers said. “We all go to restaurants for different reasons. There’s a lot of drama in a restaurant: between the chefs and the waiters, between the chefs and the other chefs, between the waiters and the customers, and between the people eating there. People go to restaurants to do very private things in very public space. People get divorced in restaurants, people get proposed to in restaurants, they get fired in restaurants. So we see all this drama and all the drama in the kitchen.”
“I think I have the best job in the world, I work with brilliant people, it’s challenging, it’s interesting, and it’s exciting.”