There was soot covering saucepans and ladles – it was unrecognisable from a working kitchen. But after a seven-month refit, the restaurant that made peasant food chic is back. And River Café co-owners Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have a new desire – another Michelin star. Tom Vaughan reports
To watch a video interview with River Café co-owners Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers scroll down
Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers are hopping and jumping over each other’s sentences, perched in their new open-plan River Café kitchen. Behind them a chef lobs a flaming paper napkin into the kitchen’s large domed wood-burning stove and stares in with the befuddlement of a caveman grappling a gas barbecue. Soon, a second and third chef materialise, each poking and prodding the logs speculatively. Eventually, the fire sparks and smoke lightly billows past their heads, hazing the kitchen and framing the two women. One thinks back to how six months ago their restaurant, the iconic River Café, survived a serious fire by the skin of its teeth.
It happened on a packed Saturday evening in April – Gray was supping cocktails in San Tropez and Rogers was in New York for the birth of a grandchild. Oily vapours in the extraction system caught light, and two hours and an emergency evacuation later, the firemen were eating the remains of evening service in the smoke-black, water-logged interior of the enduring riverside haunt.
Gray dashed back from France the next day, and was greeted with the smoke-ravished spectacle. “It was sad because everything was so black, even the windows,” she says.
“And there were the remnants of service still lying around because it was stopped mid-stream – saucepans with ladles coming out of them covered in soot. It was shocking, but at that point we didn’t think it was that bad, so I phoned Ruthy and told her it’d just be a clean-up job.”
The next few days became a sequence of arduous questions and red tape. Firemen, insurance company officials, landlords and occupants of the adjacent offices all gathered at the restaurant to ask and answer questions. “Hundreds of people we didn’t know were just gathered around,” Gray says. “Every member of staff who witnessed the fire had to leave their own statement for the files. It was days-on-end of not really knowing what was going on.”
When the red tape was eventually cleared, Gray and Rogers had the dilemma of what to do with the restaurant. Permanent closure was never an option. “We weren’t going to stop doing what we had been doing because of a fire,” Gray says. “It’s the immediate challenge of the future. But of course we had no experience of a fire in our lives.”
Initially they planned to be open again in three weeks, but as the plans burgeoned from a quick fix to a redesign, three weeks became three months then six months. The restaurant finally reopened with its sleek redesign by Stuart Forbes Associates in mid-October. There’s a new bar and private dining room, the kitchen has been opened up so the whole restaurant, back-to-front, is now open plan, with brand new equipment and that large, domed wood-burning oven, at a total cost of £2m, partially covered by their insurance.
“Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined we’d have a restaurant as good looking as this,” Gray says.
Staff on full pay
Then there was the dilemma of what to do with the staff, all of whom were on full pay during the restaurant’s closure. “There was no jubilation when the staff learnt they would be effectively on paid leave – these are people that get up and want to use their skills and work with their friends,” Rogers says.
Luckily, suppliers were jumping over each other to help out. So Gray and Rogers organised educational trips for their 75 staff, sending them across the Continent to learn about River Café produce. Some trips were closer to home, finding out about meat and cheese at their London suppliers, HG Walter and La Fromagerie. Some were further afield in the UK, catching prawns in Poole, Dorset.
Most, though, got a chance to visit Il Bel Paese, learning about the provenance of the restaurant’s much-fêted produce – Chianti and olive oil from Tuscany, pasta and focaccia from Liguria, prosciutto from Veneto – every ingredient that made its way over from Italian shores to the Hammersmith site.
As for Gray and Rogers, it was task enough just organising the various study trips, but they also raised £50,000 for the Royal Marsden Hospital after a dinner for 200 Carphone warehouse employees in Acton.
Unfortunately the restaurant remained closed for its official birthday, 10 September. It was 21 years to the day since two first-time restaurateurs opened a work canteen in Thames Wharf.
Planning restrictions limited them to lunch service for Thames Wharf customers, but, Gray says, “Even when we were newly open, we said to ourselves that we were going to do a restaurant that was going to become internationally renowned.”
Adds Rogers: “We weren’t just going to settle for serving locals in Hammersmith. We were determined we were going to reach the world.”
Behind the married-couple patter of the duo – interrupting each other, finishing each other’s sentences – there’s no sign of a dimming of that early ambition. Despite the growing years – Rogers is in her mid-50s and Gray her mid-60s (and has had two bouts of breast cancer) – both still work a full week on the restaurant floor.
Back in 1987, Gray had returned to Britain after a spell as a designer in New York while Rogers had followed a career in publishing. Both were keen home cooks and decided they wanted to make a go of it in the kitchen. When Rogers learnt that her husband, architect Lord Rogers, had acquired new offices with planning permission for a restaurant, she invited friend Gray along to take a look and they both fell in love with the gentle serenity of riverside Hammersmith and the chance to make use of gardening space out front.
In those early days the restaurant was a quarter of the size – they’ve slowly expanded as neighbouring tenants have moved out – with only three other staff and an open-plan kitchen that customers had to walk through to get to the restaurant, a design feature influenced by an American trend. “Kitchens in America in the 1980s were just beginning to open up. It was all happening out there,” Gray says.
The ethos was to cook the food they both loved and enjoyed on various trips and stints in Italy. “It was the kind of food you couldn’t get in restaurants in London,” Gray says. “Back then it was spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisù. We wanted to do lots of grilled meat and bread soup and pasta – very rustic food. And it took off because people longed to eat that.”
The simple, seasonal and excellently sourced cuisine made waves in a city still caught up in the fussiness of nouvelle cuisine, and has since become a whole new movement, led in the media by River Cottage protégés Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The pair’s stringent belief in the validity of what they do is key to their role as restaurateurs. “We stuck by our principles. Even if no one had come and eaten here we wouldn’t have changed our food,” Rogers says.
Thanks in part to this ethos, the restaurant has built its reputation over the years, all the time Gray and Rogers admitting they’ve grown and developed as the restaurant has, employing more staff and expanding the floor size. Along the way they’ve sold cookbooks by the millions, trained some of the nation’s most famous cooks and even been swept up in political movements, becoming the restaurant of choice for New Labour’s nascent government in the mid-1990s.
Despite all of this, Gray and Rogers insist they have remained aloof from the politics of it all, and are, first and foremost, restaurateurs. “What Rose and I both say is we keep our politics separate from our work. Did Tony Blair eat here? Yes. Has David Cameron been in? Yes. Lots of people come and eat here,” Rogers says. “Despite all of that we still get most excited when a chef comes and eats here.”
Are they still in touch with their most notorious protégé, Jamie Oliver? “Oh yes, all our old chefs,” Rogers says. “Jamie cooked us a meal in Wales for our 21st birthday,” Gray adds. The pair describe the River Café as an extended family. Most of the alumni who have gone on to open their own restaurants – Oliver, Fearnley-Whittingstall, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, Arthur Potts Dawson at Acorn House – talk of their former employees with fondness, and are ingrained with the seasonal, rustic cuisine of the River Café.
Despite the popularity of the restaurant, though, the pair have never been tempted by a second site. “We’ve thought about it. People have asked us to open them all over the world Miami, Dubai and so on,” Gray says. “But we want to be here and we need to be here in this restaurant. If you have numerous sites you have to spend half your time in Dubai and half your time in London. You can’t give one the right amount of attention.”
“And it’s also because we love writing our books,” Rogers adds. “Each time we start to think about opening another restaurant we write a book instead. Our chefs love to work on new books. It’s a great way to communicate, and they’re like textbooks by our new chefs.”
“Having a restaurant, believing that you are the best we’re still feeling that drive,” Gray says. So what does the future hold for the River Café? “The garden will have grown bigger. We might have a River Café café,” says Gray. “We’d like extra Michelin stars. We’ve had one now since 1998 and wouldn’t mind having two more.”
It seems like it’ll take more than a flaming extractor fan to halt Rogers and Gray. Maybe it’s because they started cheffing later in life that they appear so strong and confident in their business. Whatever the reasons, it’s a formula that has worked. But what would they really have said if someone had told them back in 1987 that in 21 years’ time they’d be major figures in the hospitality industry, with a Michelin starred-restaurant and million-plus-selling cookbooks? “Why,” answers Gray. “I’d have said ‘of course’.”
What To do if you’ve had a fire
Rob Dakin, risk control manager, property, at Axa Insurance, gives advice to restaurateurs over claiming, post-blaze.
“On the off-chance that you have a serious fire, you are going to kick yourself if you are under-insured. Make sure you regularly readdress insurance amounts in down times when you’re running the restaurant, too. For example, costs of stainless steel have risen sharply recently.
“If you have a fire, the first thing you need to do is contact your insurer or broker as soon as possible. They will then likely appoint a loss adjusting firm who will co-ordinate loss and interim payments.
“You will need to present documents to prove the restaurant is a healthy, trading company. Delay in this may delay any payments from the insurance company.
“Everything will go through the loss adjuster. If payments need to be made they can be paid up front and reclaimed from your insurers, or if there is a cash-flow problem, invoices can be passed on to the insurers.
“Finally, remember that the better equipped you are against fire, the less likely it is to happen and the lower your premiums will be.”
• For more advice on risk management visit www.axa-insurance.co.uk/businessinsurance/risk-management.htm.
What do the critics think?
Jasper Gerrard, the Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2008
“The menu simmers and sizzles with earthily fresh, though often imported, seasonal ingredients. But it always did. Shouldn’t change have been more radical? Don’t restaurants require constant reinvention? This was as self-consciously modish as New Labour and everyone has been crying out for that party to rebrand, so why not the River Café? After all, if the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, the River Café was new Labour at dinner. Well, occasionally inventors come up with something so right it transcends fashion: Land Rovers, red telephone boxes, Le Caprice. And now, I think, I’d add the River Café.”e_SClBAA Gill, the Sunday Times, 16 November 2008
“Depending on the delicacy of your own social digestion, the River Caff either fills you with syrupy feelings of excitement, warmth and nameless intellectual superiority, or it makes you want to join a nihilist terror cell and buy a length of rope. It represents everything you hate: peasant food made absurdly chic and expensive, served to smug, parasitic liberals. Well, I know where I stand. I’m on the inside, smirking out. On the way there, as we ignored the tramps and junkies sleeping rough, the Blonde said that it was just about the last restaurant that gives her a real sense of occasion: ‘I’ve been excited since lunch.’ And, let me tell you, that is a considerable commendation.”
Fay Maschler, the Evening Standard, 15 October 2008
“A faithful clientele returns for the same sort of food at the same prices. Why, and indeed how, could it be changed? Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, fresh herbs, chillies, citrus, seasonal vegetables, pulses, polenta and rustic bread are the building blocks that provide the foundations of the various savoury dishes. Deconstructing them reveals a simple but pleasing premise: the cooking is not very different from home cooking except that 20 years’ experience, superior supply lines and equipment not in the gift of most domestic kitchens makes it not actually comparable.”
Upstairs at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, 2008
A fire in May this year at Upstairs at the Bluecoat, the restaurant in Liverpool’s cultural centre the Bluecoat, saw the restaurant closed for six months. Caused by an electrical fault, the fire came just two months after a £12.5m refurbishment had been completed on the building, which is one of Liverpool city centre’s oldest.
The Buttery, Glasgow, 2006
A severe kitchen fire at the famous Glasgow restaurant in December 2006 saw it close down for a large refurbishment before reopening in August 2007 under new owners the Two Fat Ladies Group.
Pied à Terre, London, 2004
A severe fire in November 2004 destroyed the third floor and roof of the two-Michelin-starred London restaurant, as well as causing bad water damage. It was closed for nearly a year to refurbish, incorporating a new bar and a private dining room.
Belgo, London, 1999
Covent Garden mussels-and-chips restaurant Belgo closed for six weeks in 1999 after a large fire broke out in the multiple-use building of which it occupies the basement. Although the restaurant suffered only minimal water damage, it had to wait for the structure of the building above to be repaired.