Christopher Hirst pays tribute to one of Britain's most important chefs ...
With the death of Rose Gray at the age of 71 on February 28th, British gastronomy has lost one of its most influential figures. An expert on Italian food since living in rural Tuscany in the early 1980s, she preached a gospel of simple, authentic cooking. From 1987, she ran the River Café in Hammersmith with her friend Ruth Rogers. It is hard to imagine many male chefs maintaining such a close and harmonious partnership as these two dedicated and energetic women.
Though the sun-lit, minimalist premises are adjacent to Richard Rogers Partnership, the architecture offices of Lord Rogers, Mrs Rogers's husband, the River Café was never intended, as many believe, to be an upmarket staff canteen. It was a restaurant from the start—and an ambitiously different one at that. If you were ever lucky enough to dine there, chances are that you will have seen a tall, slender blonde scrutinising activities in the gleaming open-plan kitchen. Occasionally she would dart forward to adjust a frond of rocket or check the liquidity of a risotto.
Rose Gray was like a heron surveying a lake for its breakfast carp, a picture of calm, elegance and total concentration. She insisted on the highest standards of excellence in often simple Italian dishes. As a result, the River Café emerged as the leading training ground for many of Britain’s most accomplished chefs. Its most famous alumni are Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but the list includes Samuel and Samantha Clark of Moro, Theo Randall of the InterContinental Park Lane, Arthur Potts Dawson of Acorn House and Allegra McEvedy of Leon.
Simon Hopkinson, a food writer and former chef at Bibendum, describes Rose as "A rare cook amongst chefs." He first met her at the River Café in 1988: “I was still chef at Bibendum. She said hello, which was then swiftly followed by words to this effect: 'We came to Bibendum the other night and your risotto was quite incorrect.' And she was right, of course—and then we got it right."
Despite its hard-to-find location among the terraces of riverside Hammersmith, the restaurant was a success from the start. A well-heeled clientele ranging from politicians to pop stars eagerly ordered ribollita(a soup thickened by “reboiling”), bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) and other mainstays of Italian domestic cuisine. The calamari ai ferri con peperonci (squid with chillies grilled in a wood-fired oven) proved to be a particular favourite and took up residence on the menu. It was all very different from the general run of Italian food in London at that time, characterised by Rose as “spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisu”. The lone meat-sauce dish she and Ruth served was the Tuscan pappardelle with hare. In 1996 Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker called the River Cafe “the best Italian restaurant in Europe.”
The proprietors’ insistence on the finest, freshest-possible produce resulted in eye-watering prices. A simple dish of roast tomatoes and basil was £9. But annual trips to Italy by Ruth and Rose produced transcendental mouthfuls. The construction of a large herb garden when the restaurant expanded in 1992 helped maintain the dazzling quality. Outstanding ingredients were magnetically drawn to the kitchen. During one interview, Rose recalled the arrival of a scruffy individual who was carrying a cardboard box filled with white truffles worth thousands. A deal was done for the lot.
“It is something extraordinary when a 50-year old woman opens a restaurant that becomes one of the most important kitchen establishments in Britain," observes Jeremy Lee, head chef at Blue Print Café. "Rose was an exemplary cook—without the least bit of that TV nonsense of treating food as entertainment. She took it seriously and wanted to make eating good food a part of everyday life."
If only a wealthy few could enjoy the clean, precise flavours at the River Café, many more were able to sample them through Rose and Ruth's books. Published in 1995, "The River Café Cook Book" sold over half a million copies. It bore the women’s stamp on every page in both its uncluttered design (both had art-school backgrounds) and precise instruction. The magisterial assertion that “cavolo nerois essential for an authentic rebollita” is pure Rose Gray.
Soon after the book appeared, so did cavolo nero on the shelves of the more ambitious supermarkets. Armed with these recipes, I had gratifying results when cooking char-grilled peppers with anchovy and capers, and broccoli with anchovy and risotto made with Valpolicella. Some dishes such as panzanella (bread and tomato salad with basil) and pumpkin soup spiked with chillies have made a monthly (sometimes weekly) appearance on our table ever since the book appeared.
Not everyone adored the glamorous, bulky volumes that emerged from the River Café kitchen. In "Culinary Pleasures", a study of cookbooks, Nicola Humble insisted:
The River Café recipes are often oddly unimaginable, even for those who usually find they can ‘taste’ dishes when reading recipes. It is partly because they use curiously few ingredients and partly because the quantities are so large, suited for a restaurant rather than a home. Or maybe (whisper it) they’re just not very good at writing recipes.
Certainly the books maintained the restaurant’s reliance on excellent ingredients to produce pure and brilliant flavours. A recipe for zucchini soup in "The River Café Cook Book" pointed out that the restaurant used ridged zucchini specially grown in Suffolk. “The flavour...is so good that we make it with water instead of chicken stock.” When "River Café Cook Book Two" was published in 1997, one critic complained that the kilo of rocket required for the rocket-and-potato soup recipe would cost almost £30, since rocket was only sold in herb packets at that time. A more telling criticism of this book is that many of the recipes, including a whole chapter on vegetables, demanded the use of the wood-fired stove known in Italy as a forno. For those fortunate enough to possess such an item, however, the results were sensational. A recipe for shoulder of pork, rubbed with chillies, fennel seeds and lemon juice, and cooked overnight in the cooling heat of a wood oven, produces meat that is unctuous in texture and profound in flavour. Pork does not come much better than this.
Their third book, "River Café Cook Book Green" (2000) maintained the twin themes of simplicity and authenticity. Peas braised with spring onions or asparagus with anchovy and milk sauce are uncomplicated dishes that reflect Rose’s devotion to seasonality, though she didn't put it that way. Indeed, she insisted on even greater timeliness, calling the River Café not "a seasonal restaurant but a month-by-month" one. Like the other books, this one gently edged readers towards culinary adventure. My great discovery was nespole (a Italian form of medlar) available from continental greengrocers. Baked with vanilla sugar, the result looked great on the plate (golden oval hemispheres singed by the heat) and delivered a memorable bittersweet tang to the palate.
The bare-bones approach of "River Café Cook Book Easy" (2003) did not affect the recipes much—they were always admirably lucid—but the quantities were scaled down to something more domestic. The infamous flour-free cake called chocolate nemesis, which was problematic when it appeared in the first River Café book, was halved in size so it became an “easy small nemesis”.
The most recent book from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, "The River Café Classic Cook Book", was possibly their best. “It’s got our voice in it,” Rose told Daisy Garnett of the Times. “Certainly, the voice of our ideals; our way of cooking; our relationship with all the Italians who have been so generous to both of us and The River Café.” I have been cooking from this book almost constantly since it came out last year. Insalata di polpo (boiled octopus with potatoes) was a tender triumph, by far my best rendition of this tricky cephalopod. Schiacciata, a sweet grape-laden focaccia from Tuscany, was equally successful, despite my inability to locate the Sangiovese grapes that appear in the tempting illustration. It worked so well with black table grapes that I have made it over and over again. These and other recipes will nourish discriminating palates for years to come. Rose Gray will be sorely missed, but she left a feast behind.