The holding power of Ruth Rogers
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Talk of food and hands, and most people imagine some kind of culinary fornication: fingers kneading lumps of dough or squeezing ripened vegetables. One thinks of the lascivious domestic goddess and her multisensory pleasures, and people, having eaten, wiping their fingers over plates.
Ruthie Rogers is here to dispel that nonsense: at The River Café, such an approach would likely get you sacked. “The discipline of a professional kitchen means that you’re not supposed to touch the food,” says the co-founder of The River Café, which, though based in London, is considered by many to be the greatest Italian restaurant in the world. “I would never touch a piece of meat,” she shudders. “Or pick up a piece of fish while I was in the kitchen. Unless someone is making a panzanella, which requires the tomatoes to be hand-squeezed, or a certain kind of dressing, or if they’re making bread – which I’ve never really done because it doesn’t interest me – they would only move food around the kitchen using tools.”
The River Café, co-founded by Rogers and Rose Gray in 1987, has been serving dishes from its Thames-side wharf in Hammersmith for more than 30 years. Rogers has spent a career overseeing a dining room that serves up to 180 covers on an average night – “that means lifting around 600 plates”. When asked what she does most often with her hands on duty, she says: “Lifting, arranging, jiggling tables. I’m constantly cleaning surfaces. And I’m always using my hands to wipe.”
“Idle hands make devil’s work,” says Rogers, who enjoys a proverb, and her hands are always busy. Today, however, finds her unusually sedate as she is currently recovering from a fall. Following the doctor’s orders somewhat reluctantly, she is seeing visitors from her bed. I find her at the top of several staircases in the loft space of her Georgian townhouse near Sloane Square. A tiny, diminutive figure stretched out on spotless white linen, Rogers is smoothing a new scarf over her legs. A gift from Heather Ive – a good friend and Jony’s wife – the chunky knit in pink and neon yellow was inspired, according to Heather, by a bowl in The River Café shop.
Despite any physical discomfort, Rogers is still her effervescent, social self. In addition to the daily happenings at the restaurant, she is planning who to put on her next podcast (River Cafe Table 4) and finessing edits on an upcoming book. Ruthie’s energy to make things happen is second only to her drive to connect. The podcast, for example, has featured everyone from David Beckham and Jeff Goldblum to Paul McCartney and Nancy Pelosi, and all of them are Rogers’ friends. Most of that comes down to her warmth and humour – not to mention that she’ll keep you fed. And, while she may be a stickler for health and safety in the workplace, watch her for any length of time and you’ll soon see she’s the queen of hugs.
“I like a hand as a comfort and a connection,” says Rogers, who describes herself as a “tactile” sort. “I like the safety of hands. I like crossing the street and holding a child’s hand. I like when a baby grips your hand so tight you can hold them up with only the power of their grasp.” She’s probably a bit too handsy, point of fact. “I had to give a talk to The River Café in the wake of #MeToo,” she remembers. “I said that what you think of as a hug might be someone else’s private space.” She pulls a face. “I then told them they’d probably all have to take me to a tribunal, because I’m always hugging everyone.”
On the bookcase beside her are several portraits of her and her late husband, architect Richard Rogers, who died in December 2021. They were married for nearly 50 years and he was a constant presence at the restaurant; the couple sat at the centre of an expansive, intellectual and inclusive social scene. In one image, the couple are pictured at either end of a sofa. They are, very sweetly, holding hands. “Richard and I, whenever we walked, we always walked holding hands,” says Rogers.
Rogers’ own hands are quite unusual: she has extraordinarily long fingers, and impeccable short, clear-polished nails. Although she has had plenty of burns over the decades, she says she has rarely, if ever, accidentally cut herself at work. “I remember being told as a child that I should play the piano because I have long fingers.” She holds them up for me to inspect. She did play the piano for a spell, “but in high school I was made to play bassoon. Every American high school was like Soviet Russia, in those days, and we all had to learn an instrument. My first choice – the French horn – was taken, so I had to play bassoon.”
Recently, however, those piano ambitions have been rekindled, and she’s taking lessons once again. “The teacher is a great American guy,” says Rogers. “But he’s very strict about the positioning of the hands and how you touch the keys. Everything is in the wrist.”
Another popular idiom, and one just as easily applicable to everything, from wiping surfaces or squeezing lemons to mastering the scales.