What do Paul McCartney, Glenn Close and Al Gore have in common? The restaurant owner Ruth Rogers smiles as she considers the answer. They are all regulars at The River Café, the Italian restaurant by the Thames in London that she founded with her friend Rose Gray and where Jamie Oliver launched his career. Many of the starry customers have become friends of Rogers's, so when she decided to launch a podcast there was no shortage of willing guests.
We're sitting at a sunny table at lunchtime — the blue-carpeted dining room is teeming. Rogers, 73, darts about, checking over menus for dinner and insisting I have a slice of pear and almond tart (Jude Law's favourite). The podcast is called Table 4, the most sought-after spot in the restaurant (don't try to make a booking; Michael Caine will have got in before you).
With her soft New York accent and natural curiosity, Rogers is a beguiling interviewer — there's no Paxman-style grilling; rather she asks guests to pick their favourite comfort food and conversation flows. McCartney tells her about the first time he tried wine, when he hitch-hiked to Paris with John Lennon. "We had one sip and thought, 'This is terrible. It tastes like vinegar.' "
The idea for Table 4 came from Ian McKellen. He read a recipe for ribollita soup from the River Café Cook Book at a charity event at Rogers's house. "The cliché is that Ian could read the phone book and it would be beautiful, but there was something special about it. I told my friend Graydon Carter, the magazine editor, and we came up with the idea of a podcast that was about recipes, but also stories and interviews."
"I had no idea what I was doing at first," she continues. "It felt like I'd been thrown into a pool and didn't know how to swim." She called another friend for advice, the former Desert Island Discs presenter Kirsty Young, who gave her two tips; always prepare questions in advance so you are free to focus on what your guest is saying and have one question you ask everybody. She went for what is their comfort food.
Table 4 has also been a source of comfort for Rogers. Her husband, Richard, died in December last year, aged 88. He was the architect behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyd's of London building and many other places that changed how we think about where we live and work.
His presence is felt throughout the podcast. They met in 1969, when she was studying at the London College of Printing. He was married at the time with three sons. Rogers doesn't like the word "stepson"; she thinks of them as "all one family". She talks about how when she and Richard started going out she took him to a vegetarian restaurant. "I was so happy to see him that I was kissing him and kept putting my arms around him. A woman said it was appalling behaviour and that we should be doing it in a vegetarian restaurant made it worse. The idea that you couldn't be sexy and have vegetables!"
The River Café, which was founded in 1987, was originally the canteen for Richard's architect firm, and their son Roo says the whole family loved food because he was a great eater — they spent their spare time tracking down restaurants that Richard had read about. Rogers describes their many memorable meals together, speaking about Richard in the present tense; in tiny restaurants in Paris when he was building the Pompidou, bowls of polenta and mushrooms on skiing holidays and a state banquet at the Élysée Palace, "where a footman stood behind each diner".
The first meal she cooked for him was coq au vin. "I was a student living in a small apartment in Little Venice and was very influenced by Julia Child," she says. "I loved making that sort of food, soufflés and things. Richard always talks about the fantastic coq au vin I made."
Another place they went to often was Puerto Escondido in Mexico, and she has just come back from an extended three month stay there. "We've been going for 25 years, it's kind of home," she says. "We spent three months in Mexico City before the pandemic when Richard had a fall and was in hospital. I can't think of a better place to be stuck."
However, she came back to London "for friends and family and energy and excitement", with a bottle of tequila stashed in her luggage because "you should never have a party without margaritas, whether it's a funeral or a birthday". Roo picked her up at the airport and when they got home he had filled the fridge with food. She has also started playing cards on Sunday night, "which I've never done in my life before. It started when my husband wasn't well and some of my friends were over making movies — we were all orphans in the storm so they came round on Sunday nights to play cards. Sunday nights aren't great anyway in life, but this became a thing."
It's reassuring that even Rogers, a chef, doesn't always cook when friends come round. She orders food from the River Café shop — often braised spinach to go with a steak. It allows her to focus on the company, because for Rogers meals are about more than food. What is her comfort food? She can't limit herself to just one. "Probably risotto or pasta . . . but then again I love ice cream."
At home they made a lot of Italian food. Richard grew up in Florence and his mother was Italian. What was it like cooking for her? "She decided that butter was the worst thing you could have because of the cholesterol, so she would say, 'That was a delicious meal, Ruthie, but everyone can cook with butter.' "
Rogers is about to write another cookbook, to celebrate the River Café's 35th birthday in September. She is aware, having written 12, "that the world maybe doesn't need another cookbook — Nora Ephron once said, 'Have you ever cooked a recipe from a magazine?' " Originally she was going to write for children. "I was thinking of step-by-step recipes, but then I thought that would be patronising, so instead I just chose recipes that are easy enough for someone young to cook, with beautiful photography."
In the meantime she is doing one podcast a week until the end of the year and already thinking about the next series — considering branching out to interview the scientists who worked on Covid vaccines or politicians. It's a new world for her, she says, laughing — so much so that when the podcast was launched she tried to give herself five stars and clicked one star by mistake.
As we talk, chefs and waiters come over to say hello. The kitchen seems like a friendly place — but has she seen Boiling Point, the film about a restaurant on the brink of disaster? It's on her list to watch. "Ah, the drama. You do get stressed, but it's hard being a lawyer, a doctor ... Being a chef is hard because it is immediate, but it is collaborative."
One of the reasons the River Café is so popular is that it offers respite from the world. Rogers tells her waiters to look after guests "because you don't know what has brought them here, they might be sad, they might have saved up for months".
"I'm always surprised when I see people in the public eye who I know have had a hard time come to the restaurant. You might want to go to bed, close the door, be with family, but people seem to want to come here. And after lockdown people came in and cried with joy at being back. It was a form of contact. That's comfort food."
Written by: Susannah Butter
© The Times of London