The River Café owner talks to James Stagg about how the 30-year-old Hammersmith business is weathering its third closure and why she's appreciating the public's newfound love of home cooking
How are you keeping yourself occupied at the moment?
My foremost concern, and something I think about every day, is how hard it is for all those people who are worried for their jobs and how they will feed themselves. That's worldwide. I'm an American and everywhere people are queueing for food. Not to mention the people who have lost family members to the disease too.
What's the situation at the restaurant right now? What are you focusing on in the business?
We closed the River Café on 17 March and started a delivery service called the River Delivers. It is based on Italian vegetables and it was started very quickly and it was very exciting. But after a few days we decided it was untenable to have the people who work for me to be in any sense of danger coming to work. We started just before the lockdown, so when lockdown happened our primary concern was looking after our people.
What has occupied you since then?
Since then we've had many conversations with other restaurateurs and our team on how restaurants will survive. None of us know how long this will go on for. It's all so counter-intuitive: usually in a crisis you stick together, but in this situation it's other people that are the danger.
Very soon after the lockdown we also launched Shop the River Café. In the first few weeks it was olive oil, wine, cheese, salamis, jars of tomatoes, beans and chickpeas, which we just sent out to our database. But it has since expanded slowly (I always grow slowly) with pesto and our own tomato sauce (which we are very careful about preparing), Dover sole, butterflied leg of lamb and spatchcock chicken – the idea being that we take the hard work out for customers, so they don't have to take the bones out or marinate it themselves. We have the ambition to do more, but we need to control the product. The nice thing is that it keeps us in touch with our base and supports our suppliers.
"I've been touched by the support we've had from customers but also other restaurateurs and chefs. I think we all feel that we're all in this together and we'll help each other"
It's been good to focus on one thing. Usually, when we do something at the River Café, whether it's a book, party or event, we're running the restaurant as well. But in this case we're just focused on the shop. But now we may be approaching a situation where we might be able to open in July. The next step is to think how to prepare for that.
This is the third time the River Café has had to stop serving. Does this feel different to those other occasions? It closed when we had the fire [it was closed for a refit for seven months after a fire in 2008] and then when Rose Grey died [in 2010], and now. This is very different though, as there is such uncertainty. We just don't know when we'll open and whether we'll have to close again. It's a tricky time.
What shape will the restaurant take when you can reopen?
As soon as we're told we can open, we will. At the River Café we're very fortunate because we're ideally suited – we have more open space outside than inside and can get tables all the way down to the river. We're also looking at putting tables on the grass and doing whatever we can do to maximise the space.
Do you envisage service in a socially distant manner?
That's what we're looking at next. We'll be considering how we can do that with masks, gloves and any necessary safety precautions. Nobody is putting a gun to people's head and telling them they have to go out and eat – people have to make that decision for themselves. But if they do, we have to protect both our people and our customers.
The restaurant opened in 1987, so you must have a loyal customer base keen to return when the time comes. I think we do and I've been touched by the support we've had from customers but also other restaurateurs and chefs. I think we all feel that we're all in this together and we'll help each other.
In terms of guests returning, I think that some people might have discovered that they love being in their house and eating at home, while others will be desperate to go out.
Will you be changing anything menu-wise when it comes to reopening?
We just don't know yet. We'll just make the food better than it's ever been. I think we all need to eat really well.
Are there any positives you take from the current crisis?
I take many, though I don't want to call them positives because of the incredible suffering going on at the moment. Personally I've enjoyed cooking in my own house, which I don't do much usually. My husband isn't well – he had an accident last year – so for me it's a privilege to have time to be with him.
The other positive will be if this is all good for climate change. When I look up in the sky it seems extremely clear and you can hear birds chirping as they now don't have to compete with the other sounds in the city.
Does it give you some hope that people are embracing bread- and pasta-making once again?
So many friends of mine are cooking – it's really exciting. People are cooking and sharing recipes. The number of times I've taken someone through a recipe over the phone has been fantastic. It's great to see how happy people are when they are cooking.
What are your hopes for the restaurant sector post-crisis, given that it will have to remodel itself?
I just want all my colleagues in all restaurants to be able to open again, cook again and do the job they do. We all do this because we love it and to lose that would be terrible. I just want everyone to be able to create the way they did pre-crisis.
As chefs we love to cook for people and serve them. All of our chefs love to cook and love to work – which is a culture we've always sought. My senior team, Joe Trivelli, Sian Wyn Owen, Vashti Armit and Charles Pullan, are all raring to go.
Surviving the River Café fire
On a packed Saturday evening in April 2010, oily vapours in the River Café 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 riverside haunt.
When the red tape was eventually cleared, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers had the dilemma of what to do with the restaurant.
Gray told The Caterer in December 2010: "We weren't going to stop doing what we had been doing because of a fire. It's the immediate challenge of the future. But of course we had no experience of a fire in our lives."
The restaurant ended up being closed for seven months while a refit took place. Staff were kept on full pay, and many went on educational trips with suppliers. Though that's clearly not an option in the current situation, the sentiment among the teams was similar. Rogers told us back then: "There was no jubilation when the staff learned they would be effectively on paid leave – these are people that get up and want to use their skills and work with their friends."
The restaurant finally reopened with a sleek redesign in mid-October 2010.
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