“Open” is a word we associate with restaurants. “What year did you open the River Café?” “Are you open for breakfast?” “Open for New Year’s Eve?” “I’m stuck in traffic—if we arrive late, will the kitchen still be open?”
When Rose [Gray] and I began the River Café, we were unique in that we were only permitted to be “open” for lunch during the week, and only to the people who worked in the buildings around us. Six months later, we were open to the public. Another six months later, we were “open” in the evenings. A year later, we were open on the weekends, and only two months ago, we were given permission to open Sunday nights.
Now, we are closed and we don’t know when we will be open again.
But this is not the first time this has happened in thirty-three years. In fact, it is our third time. In April 2008, my son called from New York to say that his wife’s contractions had begun a few hours earlier. My husband, Richard, and I booked the next flight to JFK. On arrival, my phone had many messages about two subjects. While we were on the plane, a baby girl named Ruby had been born, and there had been a serious fire in the River Café. No one had been injured, but the place was covered in black smoke.
Over the following days, Rose and I discussed what to do. We could paint the place white and open in a week, or we could use the crisis to create something totally new. We chose the latter option, and spent the next six months with architects planning an entirely open kitchen with no walls between the cooks and the dining area. We expanded our space to include a private room with a glassed-in cheese store. We painted our wood oven a shocking shade of pink.
Some chefs went to southern Italy to learn how mozzarella is made; others gave cooking classes in women’s refuges; waiters created gardens in schools; some picked grapes in the vineyards of our winemaker friends. We hosted a dinner and opera in the offices of Carphone Warehouse to benefit the Royal Marsden Hospital, where Rose was having treatment. After six months, there was real excitement about reopening; to come back from this time of discovery. But there was fear, too.
We reopened in the fall of 2008, a day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, in a world that felt very uncertain. But what people wanted most of all was to come back and reunite.
The second time we closed was the day after Rose died, in 2010. She died on a Sunday night. We cancelled all the reservations that were booked for Monday. Then we contacted all of our staff, friends, customers, and colleagues. We did not know what we would do, but we wanted to be “open” only for them to be together to celebrate Rose.
People wandered in; we made coffee and toast. Chefs drifted into the kitchen and made a polenta cake or pear tart. Around midday, Rose’s favourite whiskeys were poured. Then, pastas were made. We played Bob Dylan songs, and spoke of the woman we loved so much. We watered the garden. We were closed, but we were open.
Tears and Fears
Now, we are closed for the third time in thirty-three years. It’s hard to remember exactly the point at which everything started to change. There was a moment in March when I was having dinner in the restaurant with a good friend, an actor. As usual, people came over to say hello, to catch up, but no one touched. There were no handshakes, no hugs.
The following Sunday was packed—children in the green space, tables inside and outside, like a last fling. But instead of joy, it made me uneasy and worried. By Monday, everything felt different. After conversations with my partners, we knew we had to close. We called a special meeting in the late afternoon of all 100 staff members. I Googled “how to give your staff bad news.” Thankfully, Harvard Business School set me straight. You explain first that you’ve made a decision, then you describe how you’ve made that decision, and then why it was done. The “why” was for everyone’s safety. We told our staff that they would be paid in full for the month of March, and then after that, for as long as we could. We stayed late, trying to answer questions, trying to reassure. Everyone had my mobile number. There were tears. We are now at home, but we talk and see each other online. Tonight, we are all meeting online to share the best dish we’ve cooked so far in isolation.
From the very first birthday cake you have as a child, food brings you safety, connection, hope. Yesterday, a musician friend said he was longing for some River Café tomato pasta. I played his music and made a tomato sauce. I think it might be the best I’ve ever made. I sent one jar to him, another to a friend who has the virus, and a third to our neighbour down the street. A message in a bottle.
It’s nice to think that in this small way, the River Café is open.
Ruth Rogers, Lady Rogers, M.B.E., is the chef and owner of the River Café in London