ISSUE 96  |  Garden to Table

Restaurant Visit: The River Café, London

November 04, 2013 4:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

In 1987 Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray started something amazing. They opened a canteen, mainly for the architect practice of Richard Rogers, Ruth’s half-Italian husband. The birth of The River Café was the moment when London began to lose its culinary shame. Good Italian food, prepared with love and understanding by an American and a Brit, was what it took.

Immune to the remodel, The River Cafe hasn’t changed much since it became a proper restaurant. Customers are local celebrities and international bon viveurs, yet The River Café has never been a fashion victim. How does it continue to inspire? A clue is in the garden and what’s growing there: “You won’t see a tomato on the menu until next June,” says head chef Joanne Holland. “We refuse to use produce which is not in its absolute prime.” The garden is a barometer of seasonal eating.

Photographs by Clive Nichols.

Above: Separated from the river Thames in west London by a large lawn, tables at The River Café are nestled between oversized containers. “The idea behind the garden is that on a sunny day there should be no better place to eat,” says the gardener Simon Hewitt. “Pretty” is part of his remit but the ratio of useful to decorative varies. This year the garden has favored the edible.

Above: Cosmos and nasturtium growing through hazel wigwams at the River Café. Everything in the garden is grown in a container, whether zinc, wood, or a raised bed of brick.

Containerized trees are root-pruned every two years. They include greengage, mulberry, and fig. Whole branches of myrtle are cut down and tucked inside large cuts of meat.

Above: Artichoke violetto, an Italian variety. Grown from seed via Franchi seeds: £1.99.

The produce grown in this garden would not be able to keep the restaurant in supply for even two days, but it is a source of inspiration: what’s looking good right now. Some unbuyable ingredients also come from the garden: for example nasturtium flowers, still going strong before the frost.

Above: Bell peppers basking in the sun. The low wall separating outdoor diners from the lawn is always put to good use.

The menu is re-written every day and is always ingredient-led. What’s looking good today? Lobster. Its sweetness will be partnered by cima di rapa, the bitter Italian green leaf. “When you’re excited by what you’re using,” says chef Joanne Holland, “you never get bored.” Ingredients are not only sourced from the traditional route of established suppliers; they can come from allotments, or from a waiter’s back garden.

Above: Simon the gardener is a strong believer that winter is just as important a growing season as summer. There is plenty to choose from with woody herbs, brassicas like cavolo nero (Shown), and the Italian ciccorias.

Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray wrote a series of very popular cookbooks based on recipes at the River Café, including two extra user-friendly volumes, Simple 1 and 2. The third River Café cookbook, called Green (used copies are available for $14.22 and up via Bookfinder), was a seminal collection of food ideas based not only on seasonal food but also Italian seasonal food. It’s hard to believe now but there was nothing like it at the beginning of the 21st century.

Above: The garden is not a free-for-all. Simon adds discreet red labels to plants he’d like to be left alone. Communication between the kitchen and the garden is good.

There is a low turnover of staff at the River Café. A disproportionate number of alumni have gone on to make waves, in the image of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are both chef-compaigners. Sam and Sam Clark have been interpreting the food traditions of Andalucia and North Africa at Moro, a continually inspiring restaurant which is also getting a bit long in the tooth. Gardener and cook Sarah Raven waited tables at The River Café. Edible flowers are her thing; or are they?

Above: “We don’t claim to be an authentic Italian restaurant,” says chef Jo Holland. Regions can be specialized and too prescriptive in their approach to what is “correct.” The chefs at The River Café re-interpret Italian ideas, and use oil- and wine-buying trips as an excuse to immerse themselves in the food of Italy, in Italy. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

For more Italian seeds see Sow Now for Winter Salad.