Ruth Rogers is the co-founder of the River Cafe, the pioneering and multi-award-winning restaurant in Hammersmith, London, which opened in 1987. Born in New York, she moved to the UK in 1967 and married the late architect Richard Rogers. Awarded an MBE in 2010 and a CBE in 2020, she now also hosts a podcast called Ruthie’s Table 4 where she chats about food with guests, who have so far included Austin Butler, Stanley Tucci and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Best childhood memory?
A trip my parents took me on to Cuba when I was 12. It was the year after Castro became leader and there was such a sense of optimism in the air. We got in by the skin of our teeth, as Americans were banned just a couple of months later. My father was a doctor who had worked there, so he knew that this would be the trip of a lifetime and we had to do it while we still could.
I remember seeing these great mansions that belonged to families like the Rockefellers that were being turned into orphanages and schools. It gave me a meaningful sense of risk in travel, having an adventure and experiencing a place that was so full of hope.
Best subject at school?
English, definitely. I had an amazing teacher called Miss Smith when I was 13, growing up in Woodstock, New York, and she opened me up to literature. I was always the kid with my nose in a book, but she expanded my mind to take in writers like F Scott Fitzgerald and James Agee.
She took me away from the likes of J D Salinger and into early American novelists like Steinbeck, Dreiser and Thoreau. I still think Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with its photographs of farmers during the American Depression by Walker Evans, is one of the most powerful books ever written.
Best advice you’ve ever been given?
To never follow advice! I do seek it all the time and I do tend to assume that everyone else knows more than I do – I don’t know if that’s a weakness or a superpower. So I do ask people for direction, but I always reserve the right to completely ignore it.
Best meal you’ve ever eaten?
On one of my first trips to Italy with my late husband Richard, back in the 1970s, I had a piece of bruschetta in Florence. It was November, so some new oil had just come in. The bread was rubbed with garlic and I remember the waiter pouring the olive oil on to the bread. Just three ingredients. It’s so simple, but it was just an absolutely defining moment for me. If you have great ingredients and a good cook and let them both sing, then the experience can be unforgettable.
Best region of Italy for food and drink?
My roots are in Tuscany, but my heart is in Rome. I must say, I’m becoming more and more infatuated with Southern Italy, particularly Naples and Amalfi. I naturally gravitate towards the sun, so I suppose my ideal Italian trip would be to start in Rome and then head south from there, all the way to Calabria.
Best city in the world?
I adore Mexico City. I lived there for four months with Richard and I’ve been going there for 20 years. It’s such a city of life, energy and culture, which can extend to anything from archaeology to the way the street markets are so precise and clean and vibrant. The gallery scene is just wonderful and I find the people to be so polite.
Worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’m definitely on the “hate” side when it comes to Marmite. I hated it so much that, when I first came to London to study at the London College of Printing, I had an idea that I could make a project where I just gave Marmite to American tourists on the street and took a photograph of their reactions! I don’t like the smell and I don’t like the taste, though Richard absolutely loved the stuff. He’d spread it on his toast almost daily.
Worst customer you ever had?
I remember once hearing a customer insult a waiter within earshot of me, and I always take things like that personally. I quietly told this person not to come back to the River Cafe ever again. There’s no gray area there for me at all when it comes to abusing staff. Luckily, I think on the whole, customer behavior has got better over the years. I think, since Covid, people are more grateful than ever before for a good dining experience.
Worst thing about the restaurant industry in the UK?
Brexit, by far. We used to have such a fantastic ebb and flow here, where our kitchen staff would go back to Italy and return with their friends. We had one suddenly arrive from Piedmont who showed us how to make pasta exactly how it was done in his home village. I love stories like that.
There’s a lot more cost and bureaucracy now and there is a view among many talented young chefs that they’re not wanted in this country. Luckily, we’re currently OK with staff, but these are some of the toughest times for restaurants that I’ve experienced since we opened in 1987.
Worst job you ever had?
I was a waiter in Bearsville, Woodstock, when I was about 16 and I really wasn’t good at it. It was a summer tourist café called the Bear and the owner wasn’t very kind to me at all. There was no training and I only lasted about three weeks. I was totally out of my depth.
Worst holiday you’ve ever had?
I remember going skiing with Richard, Norman Foster and his first wife Wendy in Arosa, Switzerland. The weather was bad, the ski school was terrible, the hotel wasn’t great.
We all discussed whether we should stay. Richard and Wendy thought we should, but Norman and I just went upstairs, packed the bags and booked a train for all four of us. It was a lesson I’ve learned to this day: if you can afford to, just get out early from a bad holiday. Just admit that it isn’t working and try again another time.
The absolute worst
I have a real aversion to truffle oil. Anything that has truffle oil in it just turns me off as it’s not a real product. It’s all done by chemicals. I love white truffles more than anything in the world, but I can’t stand the oil. Truffle oil is something that you’ll never find on the menu at the River Cafe!
Rob Crossan is a London-based journalist and radio host