Ruth Rogers opened Italian restaurant the River Café on the north bank of the Thames with friend Rose Gray in 1987. Having initially opened as a staff canteen, the restaurant slowly emerged as one of the standout restaurants in London, earning its Michelin star in 1997.
Rogers and Gray were both named on the 2010 New Year’s Honours List, but in February 2010 Gray died of cancer, aged 71. Rogers continues to work every day at The River Café and earlier this year was shortlisted for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award 2012. Rogers is married to architect Lord Richard Rogers, best known for his work on the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Millennium Dome.
I’m very flattered by the nomination for the Business Woman Award, it was fantastic - especially when you think about all the women out there who are consistently doing some amazing things. But I thought the nomination alone was great for the profession; it was a really great recognition on behalf of chefs, restaurateurs and all the people who work in this industry, so I was very proud.
I've never really measured my achievement by stars, or by being on a list or being nominated for an award. I take my achievements on a day-to-day basis; we had a great lunch today at The River Café and the chefs were working so well and I’m really pleased with a new ice cream that we made - I really just look at my achievement on that scale, rather than looking back on my achievements over months or years.
Rose and I were passionate folks. Neither of us had cooked professionally, but we knew very much the kind of restaurant that we wanted to have and the place that we wanted to be. My husband (Richard) found his warehouses on the Thames and there was a space for a restaurant designated in the warehouses when they bought the site.
And so Rose and I decided to do it, but we didn’t just want it to be the staff canteen. We were initially restricted by planning issues; only allowed to be open for lunch for the first eight months and only available to the people who worked in the warehouses. Then we got planning permission to open in the evening, so it gave us the chance to figure out what we wanted to do quite gradually.
Although we knew our roots were in Italy – my husband’s family’s Italian and Rose had lived in Italy - we knew that we wanted to be market-led, using seasonal food that was available at the time. So we wanted everybody who worked in the restaurant to be involved in the restaurant, whether it’s the waiter or the manager or a kitchen porter - everybody participated.
We started very small and so I have grown with the restaurant and the restaurant is constantly evolving and changing in that way. I have a great team of people and so we’re all inspiring each other and thinking of different projects and different food, without necessarily looking at what’s new or what’s fashionable.
The industry has changed radically over the years. When Rose and I opened The River Café back in 1987, the kind of Italian restaurants that you had here in the UK were totally different; the food they were serving, the architecture and design of the restaurants – everything. Nowadays, people will come with their children and people are generally much more curious about different kinds of dishes.
When Rose became ill and then died, that was obviously the biggest challenge for me. I lost my partner and friend and we all lost a wonderful woman. But Rose’s death never cast any doubts in my mind as to whether I wanted to continue with the restaurant; in fact it had the opposite effect.
Since her death, The River Café has not only been ok but actually more than that - we’ve had the best years in a way and the restaurant has grown – and that’s a tribute to her and a tribute to everybody who worked here.
I love to cook, I love to be in the kitchen with my chefs, but also the atmosphere here; the way we greet people every day, the way people enjoy their evenings here. We have an open kitchen, so it’s always been a hugely important thing to have a rapport between the people eating and the people cooking.
I don’t want to be negative about this industry but I’d like to see more women in the kitchen, which is happening and that’s great. When I first started working here, Rose and I always wanted to have more women in the industry. Now there are some brilliant female chefs around and I think it’s also brilliant that we have more international people working here. I have Australians, French and Italians in my kitchen; it’s great to have that mix.
I do think more can always be done to help women break through. I don’t think that’s exclusive to this profession, it’s a problem in every profession, whether it be politics, law or journalism.
For me, the most important thing is to love what you do because you have to work so hard, and if you don’t love it, it’s a chore.
The second thing is to have the right people around you. When it came to hiring the right people, some of it is instinct, some of it is trial and error, and some of it is just knowledge. Everybody is different but for me it’s crucial to have the right people working for me and that’s what makes this such an exciting job for me. I love to come into work every day and I can’t wait to see my chefs.