Iconic chef and entrepreneur Ruth Rogers talks team-building, staying true to brand values and how organic growth is the best growth
Ask any foodie about The River Cafe in London and they’ll start to swoon, whether they’ve eaten there or it’s high on their bucket list. Established in the late ’80s by friends Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, it has evolved into one of the most famous restaurants in the world, earning the coveted Michelin star in 1997. In addition to authoring two best-selling cookbooks, Rogers and Gray have created a strong community at The River Cafe, serving as mentors for now-famous chefs like Jamie Oliver and April Bloomfield. Since Gray’s death in 2010, Rogers has been the sole owner of the restaurant, maintaining the vision that she and Gray have had since the beginning: creating fresh Italian cuisine in a bright, welcoming and undeniably creative space. Her story is one of dedication and perseverance, something we can all learn from—even if you can’t boil an egg.
You and Rose Gray had an admirable partnership in The River Cafe. Today, you have a new set of partners. In your experience, what does it take for a partnership to succeed?
Ruth Rogers: Rose and I were friends before we were partners. We lived different lives, but shared similar experiences and a common ethos in the way we brought up our children, in the way our houses were designed, how we voted and how we lived our lives. We believed that the best growth was organic, and in setting up the partnership, we were coming from the same shared vision and ethos. We both came from the modernist tradition, and with the help of my husband, architect Sir Richard Rogers, we established the look and feel of the restaurant. Rose was an artist and designer, and created our vision of a transparent open kitchen where chefs in the kitchen could see the guests eating their meals and the guests could see it being prepared. We chose white walls and happy colors. We only had $40K for the first River Cafe. We bought second-hand furniture for the kitchen and the restaurant.
“My leadership style is a combo of rigor, understanding and treating people as individuals.”
Your restaurant has been the incubator for some of the most important names in food. This speaks volumes to your ability to lead and inspire. What was your evolution as a leader? Can you give examples of your leadership style?
RR: My leadership style is a combo of rigor, understanding and treating people as individuals. Expectations for the team need to be there, and you need to constantly invest in them, otherwise they will be rude and grumpy about not getting enough sleep, thinking we aren't paying them properly, etc.—attitudes that don’t work in the culture we have created. We’ve really grown over time; we went from 10 employees to over 100. The main test of my leadership was when Rose died, and my partnership was suddenly gone. Eventually leadership has evolved into a team of five: two managers, two chefs and me. While this new partnership had a tragic beginning, it has become very exciting. And the amazing thing is that we have no general manager and still have over 100 employees and 7.5 million pound turnover. I believe that this is because a strong ethic of togetherness exists where everyone is responsible for the team. It is this dynamic energy and momentum that drives us forward.
Art and food have a symbiotic relationship at your space. It’s not just the food that defines River Cafe, you also tell your story through logo design, the architecture of the restaurant, the colorful tops your staff wears. How important is the look and feel of the space to you? How has it evolved over the years?
RR: A collaborative environment is one that goes beyond just the kitchen and the front of house. Aesthetics of a restaurant are also hugely important, and artists are part of our brand ethos. The River Cafe logo font was by Josef Albers, and Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly, Peter Doig, Jonas Wood have made their marks here. The restaurant has an important relationship with light and color, including what the staff wears. We don't have a uniform, but we ask the staff to wear brightly colored t-shirts.
“It takes a huge amount of discipline to stay true to your values.”
This year is the 30th anniversary of River Cafe. What kind of discipline does it take to be an entrepreneur and run a successful brand for three decades? In addition, can you let us know how you maintain a sense of balance in your life?
RR: It takes a huge amount of discipline to stay true to your values. We are in a business where there is immediate judgment—for example, if food is served cold or a customer is not welcomed properly—so we need to be constantly high-performing. We strive to create a happy atmosphere where the customer feels cared for and listened to. It's like a theater, and we’re always performing. Just think what would happen if someone didn't practice their lines! We need to work together. It also takes a sense of balance to work here. My children and grandchildren eat here often and my husband Richard's office (until recently) was 5 feet away. Also, I spend time away from here, but always take the time to check in.
As a woman in a predominantly male-dominated industry, how does it feel to see a rise in the number of female chefs?
RR: The best thing to come out of the kitchen is that we are now 50% women at River Cafe. This was always a priority for Rose and I. There is so much more to be done for women in any profession: salary equality, respect by colleagues, representation on boards, childcare, the list goes on. But we are getting there. In the River Cafe, in every area—wine, chefs, administration—women are up there.
Your morning routine:
Google Trump and sees what he has done overnight. Then recover with a morning espresso. I’m usually at River Cafe by 9:30 am, but it depends if I’m cooking or in the office. Really, every day is different because the routine is constantly changing when you run a restaurant.
Favorite day-off activity:
Picking my grandchildren up from school.
All-time favorite musicians:
So HARD to choose one. The Temptations were a big part of my early development. The Stones. Bob Dylan. Talking Heads. Pet Shop Boys. Tom Waits.
Last film or TV show you enjoyed:
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Fauda.
The most requested dish at River Cafe:
Some many favorites: Chocolate Nemesis Cake. Tagliatelle with Tomatoes. Grilled Squid.