Since opening the seminal Italian restaurant River Café three decades ago in a leafy borough of West London, Ruth Rogers has helped transform how a generation of British diners and cooks relate to food. From her brightly colored kitchen, the chef—known to most as Ruthie—became a doyen of using fresh seasonal ingredients to make even the most simple dishes sing. Along the way, she and the restaurant’s co-founder, the late Rose Gray, sold more than a million cook books and mentored a who’s who of leading chefs including April Bloomfield and Jamie Oliver.
Plating up some of the best Italian food outside of Italy, Ruth’s love of its cuisine extends from her childhood in upstate New York eating in American-Italian red-sauce joints to a life-changing first trip to Italy in the 1970s with her husband, architect Richard Rogers. “The first thing I remember eating there was a grilled piece of bread with the new season’s olive oil,” she recalls. “I was so impressed! It’s amazing to think that you can get so many flavors from one ingredient.”
Having recently celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of her restaurant—and authoring the recipe book River Café 30 to mark the milestone—Ruth maintains a hands-on approach in the kitchen and preparing its changing daily menus. And while she enjoys traveling to and eating in Morocco, France, and Greece, the source of her culinary inspiration and favorite destination remains, steadfastly, Italy.
What sparked your passion for Italian food?I grew up in upstate New York, so my only real knowledge of Italian food was from the many Italian restaurants serving spaghetti and meatballs and eggplant parmigiana. Most of the food in these restaurants was brought over from southern Italy. As delicious as it was, it was quite heavy. So the first time I went to Italy it was a revelation to see that Italian cuisine could be a piece of grilled seabass with just herbs on top, or it could be very fine tagliolini with some beautiful pesto from Liguria. It was light, based on seasonality, local, and regional.
You once lived near a food market in Paris. How did that influence you?Between 1971 and 1976, my husband was building the Pompidou Centre, working as the architect. So we visited the Marais where there was a local market, which really taught me about seasonality. You would walk down and where there was once asparagus the day before, yellow and red peppers would have replaced them. It’s all about actually going down to the market and seeing what the season has to offer, not like Americans do where they have a huge choice of product.
Which regions do you love to visit in Italy? On the one hand my spiritual home is Tuscany, but I love going to Venice and I’m passionate about going to Liguria. I’d love to spend more time in southern Italy to visit Naples and Puglia. Oh and Piemonte for its white truffles and polenta! There are so many!
Favorite osterias, trattorias, and restaurants in Italy?I love going to Osteria alle Testiere in Venice, as well as Harry’s Bar (it’s always good to have a Bellini when in Venice). In Liguria I go to a beautiful little town called Vernazza and we only go to one restaurant, Trattoria Gianni Franzi. In Tuscany we mostly eat at home because we have a house and a beautiful kitchen, so we cook, we grow vegetables, we keep it simple. In Rome I like Pierluigi. There are so many places I love!
What roles do color and art play at the River Café? We don’t have many walls to put art up on so it’s really more about the architecture. We have a clock projected on one wall, and we tried hanging up all the menus but they just didn’t look right. The art is more in the colors of the pizza oven, the floor, the yellow bar—the simplicity of the design is what’s important.
What’s the secret to River Café’s longevity?We’ve kept to the ethos of the way we wanted to run the kitchen, the way we wanted an open kitchen, and the way we work with our chefs. We invest in ourselves constantly, we reinvigorate the restaurant, and we educate the people who work here, which helps unite the team and maintain our standard.
—Riccardo Ambrosio is a chef who lives between New York and London.
Where was your last vacation? Marrakesh.
Where will your next vacation be? Venice.
The thing you can’t travel without? My husband, Richard Rogers.
Plane, train, or automobile? Train.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? My grandchildren.
What is your in-flight ritual? Movies, movies, movies.
The language you wish you spoke? Arabic.
When were you happiest on the road? I remember a wonderful journey I took with my husband, Richard, and our two sons, Roo, then aged 15, and Bo, aged 6. We started in Denver and went to Phoenix, through Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon on to Los Angeles. For an American mother with children who had been brought up in London, to experience this astonishing landscape together was truly memorable.
Desert island or downtown? Probably downtown.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Claridge’s Hotel in London.
What is your room service indulgence? Poached eggs on toast.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? In a room above a bar in Filicudi, an Aeolian island off Sicily.
What is your favorite market? The food market in Nice, France.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? The future.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? There are too many to mention in London!
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Week: New York City.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? The internet and phone calls.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. The Tuscan soup pappa al pomodoro.
Travel hell is? Cancelled flights and waiting in airports.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Jordan.
Three favorite stores on earth? Barneys, Dean & Deluca, and the Rizzoli Bookstore.
Most treasured travel memento? A Syrian embroidery.
Why do you travel? To expand my views.