When Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray released The River Cafe Cook Book in the mid 1990s, the first from their beloved restaurant in London, it became such a classic that it was simply referred to as “the blue book.” It captured a moment at one of London’s—and arguably Europe’s—most seminal restaurants. Rogers and Gray were embracing Italian ingredients and simplicity, writing new menus twice daily. “Both the restaurant and the book are an expression of a renaissance of the London Modern sensibility,” the New Yorker wrote the year it debuted in the U.S.
The book sparked a movement. And, while it spread far beyond the boundaries of London, River Cafe’s deepest impact is felt locally. Chefs like celebrity Jamie Oliver; Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who left London to farm and share his story through a popular TV show; and Sam and Sam Clark, the duo behind the pioneering restaurant Moro, all worked in Rogers’ and Grays’ kitchen before going on to help define modern cooking in London in their own ways.
Thirty years after opening the restaurant, Rogers, who goes by Ruthie, wanted to look back at where it all started in River Cafe London 30, a new book out this spring. “We wanted to do a book that told the story of the restaurant,” she explains. Though, this time, she would have to do it without Gray, who passed away in 2010. Rogers and her chefs Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli reissued 30 of the original recipes (with some helpful clarifications) from the blue book and added 30 new ones, along with menus painted over by a handful of the many artists who have frequented the restaurant over the years, like Damien Hirst and Scottish painter Peter Doig.
We asked Rogers which cookbooks she feels define the food of her adopted hometown of London. From those that present meals at institutions like The Wolseley to the nose-to-tail approach of Fergus Henderson, her collection is a mix of books from cooks who have inspired her, as well as a few she has inspired.
Italian Food , by Elizabeth David
While Rogers crew up in America influenced by Julia Child, her late partner Gray came of age in the era of Elizabeth David, the great British food writer. ‘Elizabeth David…influenced a huge generation of cooks,’ Rogers says; her 1954 book on the foods of Italy helped introduce the breadth and depth of regional Italian cooking to English cooks. Her recipe style is to be ‘a bit more vague about her cooking method,’ says Rogers. Some instructions read as simply as ‘take the ripest tomato and squeeze it,’ which is something Rogers never minds. Amazon
The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating , by Fergus Henderson
When Fergus Henderson first opened his now iconic St. John restaurant in London, ‘he was radical,’ says Rogers, and was scoffed at for his argument that British food was a great cuisine worth celebrating. Henderson served parts of the animal long forgotten about in much of western cooking: cheeks, hearts, livers, and gizzards. In his book he offers home cooks recipes for every inch of the animal, like pig trotters stuffed with potato, and grilled marinated calf’s heart. To put it simply, Rogers says: ‘St. Johns changed the way people thought about [British cooking].’ Amazon
Sally Clarke’s Book: Recipes from a Restaurant, Shop and Bakery , by Sally Clarke
Heavily influenced by her time with friend and mentor Alice Waters, Sally Clarke was one of the first chefs in London to focus intensely on farm-to-table cooking when she opened Clarke’s in the mid-1980’s with her ‘no-choice menu,’ as Rogers says. Her first book, which offers recipes to serve each season, ‘celebrates her incredible integrity about food,’ Rogers adds. Amazon
The River Cottage Cookbook , by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Now a celebrity chef in the U.K., Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall worked at River Cafe very early in his career. ‘It was probably the first restaurant he came to work at,’ Rogers says. But Fearnley-Whittingstall ultimately decided to leave the city and live on a farm, cooking what he grows and catches. ‘He’s a passionate fisherman,’ Rogers adds. Fittingly, his book is organized in four parts—gardening, livestock, fish, and hedgerow—and offers guidance on both buying and growing vegetables and curing ham at home. ‘He has a way of celebrating food through his exceptional writing and concern for produce,’ she says. Amazon
The Naked Chef , by Jamie Oliver
Rogers credits the television cooking icon Jamie Oliver with getting a generation of men to cook. ‘It was always considered kind of women’s work,’ she says. But his show helped change that. ‘If you could see Jamie cooking on TV, you would think this is a cool thing to do,’ she adds. His book of 120 straightforward recipes is focused on empowering home cooks. Amazon
No Place Like Home: Seasonal English Cooking , by Rowley Leigh
Rowley Leigh is ‘one of the people who opened Kensington Place’ nearly 30 years ago, says Rogers of the now famed restaurant in Notting Hill. ‘He’s a real classic cook, but always exploring.’ He’s also a ‘rigorous cook,’ she says. That thoroughness comes alive in his this book of over 250 recipes organized by season and then by cheekily named menus like ‘still courting: a foursome’ and a ‘club dinner for the rich uncle.’ Amazon
Roast Chicken and Other Stories: A Recipe Book , by Simon Hopkinson
‘Simon is a superb teacher with a subtle sense of humor. His cooking is comforting, simple and no-fuss,’ writes Rogers. His book, beloved in the U.K. for its approachability and wit, starts with a simple philosophy: ‘Good cooking, in the final analysis, depends on two things: common sense and good taste.’ Hopkinson carries this idea through entries that double as meditations on ingredients like anchovies and eggplant, each with a handful of reliable recipes that highlight the ingredient. Amazon
A Year In My Kitchen: Recipes Inspired by the Seasons and Based on a Culinary Toolbox of Inventive Flavorings , by Skye Gyngell
Skye Gyngell is ‘our generation,’ says Rogers. ‘A woman who was always cooking in London and went to Petersham Nurseries, grew vegetables, [and] opened a restaurant called Spring. She’s just someone passionate about ingredients and simplicity.’ That carries through to her book, which walks readers through the seasons with recipes for fava beans with mint and ricotta, and spicy meatballs with cilantro and sour cherries. Amazon
Moro: The Cookbook , by Samuel and Samantha Clark
Sam and Sam Clark, as they’re known, were set up by friends because of their identical names. (Samantha’s maiden name was also Clark.) The pair worked together with Rogers and Gray before setting off to explore and document the food of southern Spain and Morocco, ultimately opening Moro in 1997. ‘I think they did for Spanish [and North African] food what we were trying to do with Italian food,’ Rogers says, focusing on accessibility and the pure ingredients. In their first book, they capture some of those recipes, like chicken with pine nuts, saffron, and fino sherry, and hummus with ground lamb. Amazon
‘The Wolsey is an institution,’ explains Rogers. ‘London without it, would be a different city.’ Famed British journalist A.A. Gill captures the morning ritual at the restaurant, writing ‘Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to the new day.’ Woven through the book are approximately 30 recipes for classics like an English breakfast, a double chocolate brioche, and waffles with caramelized bananas. Amazon