Kitchen royalty doesn’t come more august and influential nor, as it turns out, more down to earth than River Cafe co-founder Ruth Rogers. Rogers and the late Rose Gray opened their produce-driven Italian restaurant in London, on the northern bank of the Thames, in 1987. The motivation, at least partly, was to feed Ruth’s ‘‘starchitect’’ husband Richard Rogers, whose offices are next door. But Rogers and Gray always cooked with rigour and a sense of abundance and the River Cafe was never just a staff canteen. Its alumni include April Bloomfield, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, closer to home, Jesse Gerner, Tobie Puttock and many more. I nabbed ‘‘Ruthie’’ Rogers during the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to ask her about her cooking musts and must-nots.
Bread is very important to us, especially Tuscan bread, because Tuscany is where our River Cafe food started. Tuscan bread doesn’t have salt. Some people say it was tax, some say it’s because the rest of the food is so salty, but because of that it goes stale very fast. We are constantly thinking about fresh bread one day and stale bread the next, perhaps in the bread soup ribollita.
How to get started as a cook
Read Marcella Hazan. She is very rigorous. [The Classic Italian Cook Book is a great place to start.]
The flavour that changed everything
One of the most exciting meals I have ever had was in the very beginning of my visits to Italy. I had a piece of bread with new olive oil and a little bit of garlic. It was so strong and so peppery that I kept looking for another ingredient. But that is what new oil is like.
If you came into my kitchen you’d be quite surprised at how little I have. Many home cooks have a lot more than I do. I think you only need three knives: a bread knife, a vegetable paring knife and a knife for butchery. I do think it’s very useful to have a cast-iron grill pan because it sets you up to grill a piece of
meat or fish.
My restaurant and home pantries are similar. You need olive oil,parmesan cheese, salted anchovies, chillies, prosciutto, pine nuts, garlic and jars of tomatoes. It can be even simpler: if you have tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and chilli you just know you can have something delicious to eat.
We always talk about the Italians having cake for breakfast, ice-cream on the street and coffee after a meal. Well, I’m a little different. My breakfast is espresso and, if I do eat, I like a salty breakfast, something with anchovies or avocado.
Sometimes my children come by for Sunday- night supper and very often I will make pasta with salted tomato sauce.
Growing your own
I would tell anyone to grow herbs and salad leaves; you can grow rocket anywhere. My late partner Rose was a fantastic gardener and the garden she created at the River Cafe is very important to us. We are continually changing and uplifting it. You’ll see herbs in it and, depending when it is, perhaps Italian borlotti beans and artichokes because it’s a way of telling our customers and our chefs about what’s in season.
Favourite food destination
At the moment I’m very keen on Liguria in Italy. It’s a coastal region bordering Tuscany so you have the hills going up to Piedmonte and the Cinque Terre coastline.
How to run a restaurant
Choosing the people you work with is one of the greatest decisions of your life because you spend so much time with them. People always ask me what kind of talent I look for in a chef and I find it a difficult question. I might be looking for a talent for working with other people, a talent for being able to hear that you are wrong, or the talent to be able to tell somebody what they’ve done is wrong. It’s not just cooking. I always say we want our customers to leave the River Cafe feeling better than when they arrived. So, we work back from there. That means our people are paid well, fed well, have holidays, are taught well and understand the reasons that we set up the River Cafe. It’s inclusive and that helps us work together.
Pappa pomodoro is one of my favourite soups. There are very few ingredients – bread, tomatoes, basil and olive oil – but you must only make it in the summer when the flavours are very strong.
I can’t go past bollito misto, boiled mixed meats from the north of Italy.
Borlotti beans and rocket are a really amazing combination. If you can get wild rocket there is nothing better, dressed simply with olive oil and red wine vinegar.
How to host
You need to feel relaxed so you don’t feel like it’s a performance and you have an audience.
Getting the kitchen band back together
Ruth Rogers’ two head chefs, Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli, have been working at the River Cafe for 15 years. When they travelled with Rogers to Melbourne the first order of business was meeting up with as many River Cafe alumni as they could find. So 16 ex-River Cafe chefs and waiters gathered at Jesse and Vanessa Gerner’s Bomba for champagne and Spanish snacks.
The Gerners both worked at River Cafe about 10 years ago; other diners included Glenn Laurie (chef/owner of Little Black Pig, Melbourne), Rob Costanzo (Nomadic Kitchen, Byron Bay), superyacht chef James Wallace and Glenn Choy (Sagra, Sydney).
‘‘The restaurant is 27 years old so we have hundreds of alumni,’’ says Trivelli. ‘‘Having said that, we don’t lose a lot of staff, most stay for five years or more.’’ Trivelli thinks there is a special Australian connection. ‘‘We like working with Australians, we look out for them,’’ he says.
Employment is based as much on personality as skill.
‘‘When employing someone we just want to get on with them,’’ says Trivelli. ‘‘We are suckers. We are always saying, ‘Oh, they are completely underqualified but they are so nice’.’’ Once they’re in, training goes back to basics.
‘‘We teach them how to boil vegetables,’’ says Wyn Owen. ‘‘You would think it’s easy to boil spinach but people do it so badly. When Rose employed me she told me she would teach me how to slice salami to the perfect thickness, how to cook a bean perfectly. She taught me a way of life and 15 years later it’s still exciting to go to work.’’
Keeping work and life in balance is key to the River Cafe philosophy. ‘‘I want our chefs to love going to work and love going home,’’ says Wyn Owen. ‘‘I want them to enjoy cooking at home still, not to be so overworked that they lose the passion.’’
Jesse Gerner was at the River Cafe for only five months but the experience left its mark. ‘‘You get spoiled,’’ he says. ‘‘The produce was amazing. I remember once Rose had found out about a forager up in Scotland who had some girolles [mushrooms]. She had him put them into a cab, then on a plane, then another taxi and we had them on for lunchtime. That’s the kind of thing that stays with you.’’
So was it nerve-racking to have his old bosses in his own restaurant? ‘‘It was fun actually,’’ he says. ‘‘Yes, I wanted the kitchen to be on their toes but it was a casual feast. And we got to chat about where to buy decent vegies.’’