How The River Cafe, One Of London’s Leading Restaurants, Changed The Lives Of Local Chefs

By Jo Elwin
The squid on the menu at The River Cafe. Photo / Supplied

A group of New Zealand chefs, past and present, discuss the indelible impacts of working at iconic London restaurant The River Cafe; how it changed the dining-out game, and their lives.

London’s iconic River Cafe is more an “if you know, you know” in New Zealand, but the restaurant and

The concept of fresh, seasonal produce cooked and served simply in a smart-casual environment with an open kitchen and woodfire oven is commonplace today, but it was not when Ruth and Rose opened their River Thames-side Italian in 1987.

Wairarapa girl Pip Wylie found her way to the restaurant’s door three years later, but she can’t recall how. The River Cafe wasn’t on her radar when she left New Zealand on her OE.

“I was happily cheffing at First Floor on Portobello Rd in Notting Hill Gate — a lot of Kiwis went through there — Carl Koppenhagen (The Engine Room) and Margot Henderson (Rochelle Canteen) were there at the time, when I think someone recommended it to me. I spent a year at The River Cafe, and it was the most incredible experience I have ever had.” High praise from someone who went from dishwasher to head chef under the tutelage of Peter Gordon at Wellington’s Sugar Club.

It was through a friend of a friend that Aucklander Celia Harvey, who cheffed at The River Cafe for five years from 1997, found her way there.

“I was working at a modern bistro on Fulham Rd that was full of the ‘it’ crowd in very hedonistic times. It was hard work, and this friend suggested The River Cafe, which was run by two ‘really nice ladies’, might suit me. I just sort of walked in, sat down for a coffee with Ruthie and Rose, said my mentor was Judith Tabron, where I had been working at Ramsays in Auckland, and I got the job. The whole process was very informal.”

The indoor and outdoor dining rooms at London’s River Cafe. Photo / Richard Bryant
The indoor and outdoor dining rooms at London’s River Cafe. Photo / Richard Bryant

When Dunedin’s Alison Lambert landed in London in 1998 looking for a chef position, her friend advised her to go for the top. Attending a recruiting day at The Ivy, Alison says as amazing as the food and traditions of the hotel were, she couldn’t see herself working there, but the hotel portfolio featured a list of the top 10 London restaurants.

“I got out my A to Z, knocked on doors and eventually took a job at Aubergine with Gordon Ramsay. On my first day I started at 7am and was still scrubbing copper pots at 1am. They thought it was funny to get the new girl — the only girl — to do it. It was a horrible environment that I didn’t want to be in. There’s no creativity, you just follow rules, and I was done working in those sorts of fine-dining restaurants. I found The River Cafe Cookbook in a bookshop and thought, ‘This is me, and it’s run by women.’ Back out came the A to Z, they gave me a job and that was a turning point. It was so beautiful.”

The cookbook also led Ginny Grant from Wellington to The River Cafe kitchen.

“I came across the book in New Zealand and fell in love with the simplicity of what they were doing. The kind of shots that we are all used to seeing now — overhead of one simple bowl of food — were interspersed with photos of chefs cleaning out extractor fans. I loved the realness of it. When I went to London in 1997, I decided I would try and get a job there. Not realising how famous they were, I just rang them up and went in for a trial. It was a pivotal moment.”

More recently, in 2013, Auckland’s Brendan Kyle and Dani Donovan also stumbled into working at The River Cafe (Brendan in the kitchen, Dani front of house).

“We were looking for work and a friend told us that there was an Italian place that was supposed to be good. We honestly thought it was a cafe and when we arrived for our interviews said, ‘This is the biggest cafe we have ever seen.’ They seemed to appreciate our naivety and gave us both a two-week paid job trial. After two weeks no one said anything, and we just kept turning up for work. We were there for a year with no formal, ‘We’d like to hire you’. Everything is a little bit crazy, and it has always been that way. There’s really nothing like River Cafe. It’s cool.”

The River Cafe's pistachio ice cream. Photo / @Therivercafelondon
The River Cafe's pistachio ice cream. Photo / @Therivercafelondon

The River Cafe’s relaxed, informal systems and procedures didn’t suit everyone. “Fine-dining chefs of that era were horrified,” says Ginny. Our Kiwi alumni thrived and talk of the understanding nature of Ruth and Rose, the happy 50-50 male-female team and the calm working environment.

“It was all very real,” says Celia. “No yelling, cross words or swearing.”

But it took some adjusting. “The River Cafe recalibrates you,” says Brendan. “You forget everything you know and retrain from the ground up.”

Alison recommends formal training, saying, “You’ve got to learn those skills, but River Cafe simplified everything, sitting down in the mornings with a coffee to talk about what we were going to cook for the two menus each day. For someone who loves food, it was amazing.”

Ginny, who has an unused history and political science degree and a journalism diploma, considers it her training ground. “It was imposter syndrome when I started there. I had no idea what I was doing, but they were happy to teach their way of doing things. Rose and Ruth were very hands-on and always trying something out.”

Brendan agrees that anyone with a passion and interest in the product thrives. “They are not big on ego.”

Pip credits Rose with teaching her how to cook eggplant and mushrooms. Alison mentions that she recently sauteed her foraged porcinis with garlic, lemon and parsley. “Very River Cafe,” she laughs. “You learn not to over-complicate great produce.”

No one who has cooked (or dined) at The River Cafe fails to mention the quality of the produce — the freshness and seasonality, and the introduction to new ingredients. Ginny had never seen a fennel bulb or a fresh artichoke. Celia cites her first experience with fresh truffle and “the amazing game and cheese!” They all mention the live langoustine and scallops that were hand dived and trained down from Scotland.

“We were breaking down whole fish and pigs, which didn’t happen in New Zealand restaurants back then,” says Ginny.

Alison remembers being tasked with writing a list of ingredients in the fridge when she first started. “I was in there crying because I didn’t know what half of the stuff was.”

Pip says she has never worked with such incredible produce. “Trucks would come in from Italy a couple of times a week with things like fresh, glossy cannellini beans. It was the quality and the simplicity of the food that stood out. The execution of everything was amazing.”

The River Cafe's tagliolini with caviar. Photo / @Therivercafelondon
The River Cafe's tagliolini with caviar. Photo / @Therivercafelondon

They also talk of the unique, inclusive environment. Everyone was involved, from the dish washers to front of house, helping the chefs prep by picking herbs, cracking pepper and podding peas.

At the end of a shift they would enjoy a staff meal together, which was always great because the menu would change for the next shift and there was too much respect for the produce to waste any leftovers.

Ruth and Rose would take the staff on trips to Italy to taste the new-season olive oils and visit restaurants, vineyards and food producers. Celia recalls bringing back a piece of sourdough starter that had been around since the early 1900s.

Alison says she offered to do extra shifts because there was always something interesting going on. “Rose encouraged my passions. She’d take me to the markets, I cooked at her house, and I did a lot of recipe testing for the cookbooks. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

The international alumni comprises many big names including Jamie Oliver during Alison, Ginny and Celia’s tenure.

Recently, on Ruth Gray’s podcast Ruthie’s Table 4, Jamie also mentioned the family environment and how untraditional it is compared to what the machine teaches; finding the creation of a new menu twice a day, based around what was coming in the door that moment, quite stressful and not what he was trained to do. He learned that what they created were thinkers, people who could adjust and react to seasons. For him, that was very exciting.

Out front, Dani says she learned to read the customers who ranged from “young people like us to oligarchs”. The River Cafe has always had a slew of celebrity diners and Dani says it became normal. “We were always friendly and professional and treated them no differently.”

Brendan recalls Ruth casually saying to him one day, ‘Make sure that one’s really nice, it’s for Oprah.’

Dani’s biggest takeaway was the front of house doing the vege prep. “You really get to know the produce, the people and what’s going on. When we came back to New Zealand, we thought we would like to make that a focus if we opened a restaurant.”

Where are they today?

Dani Donovan and Brendan Kyle in Crate Kitchen Truck. Photo / Supplied
Dani Donovan and Brendan Kyle in Crate Kitchen Truck. Photo / Supplied

Brendan Kyle and Dani Donovan

The couple haven’t made it to bricks and mortar … yet. As new parents they are enjoying the lifestyle that their Crate Kitchen food truck provides them and are bringing in the nurturing, inclusive side of The River Cafe by employing students and giving them an introduction into hospitality.

On returning from the UK they worked for Carl and Natalia at The Engine Room who, they say, had a similar approach and connection to The River Cafe, as did Dariush and Rebecca at Cazador, where Brendan was head chef before buying the food truck.

“It was great for me because I was so excited about ingredient-focused cooking and Dariush opened my eyes to wild New Zealand ingredients. It was a similar learning environment.”

With Crate Kitchen, which parks up at various locations around Auckland, Brendan is introducing people to wild foods in an approachable way through burgers and sandwiches.

“We’ll do loaded fries with wild boar chilli, and I put goat on the menu as much as possible, but there’s a good vegetarian selection as well — seasonal, of course! We don’t want to overwhelm people or be known as the meat food truck, so we’ve left it ambiguous.”

Ginny Grant. Photo / Babiche Martens
Ginny Grant. Photo / Babiche Martens

Ginny Grant

In March, for the first time in 23 years, Ginny headed to The River Cafe for lunch and says it’s definitely still got it.

“That place was such a big part of my career and it’s so special that you can go back and enjoy it and see some of the people still working there. It’s a much bigger operation these days with a bigger menu. It was spring so there were lots of broad beans and asparagus and puntarelle, which I wish someone would grow here. The chocolate nemesis cake is still there, that could never go … in fact, the desserts are all still similar, they are beautiful.”

Happy to be on the other side of the kitchen in her work as a food stylist, recipe developer and food writer and judge, Ginny says, “Never say never, but I don’t imagine I would go back into it, kitchens are hard work.”

Following her three years at The River Cafe, Ginny worked in the Wellington kitchens of Boulcott Street Bistro and Nikau (under Kelda Hains) before moving to the Auckland Kitchen of Delicious (now Lilian). A move to Catherine Bell’s Epicurean Workshop got her into writing recipes, which continues today with her role as senior food writer at Cuisine.

Coming from a family of cooks, Ginny explains that she fell into her cooking career — working for cafes and catering companies when she was studying history and political science. The River Cafe was literally life-changing.

As to her style, she says, “I have always loved Italian cuisine. I like big robust flavours, but I like things done simply, not mucked about with too much. I enjoy fine dining, but it’s not the kind of food I want to cook.”

Celia Harvey at home. Photo / Babiche Martens
Celia Harvey at home. Photo / Babiche Martens

Celia Harvey

Stepping away from the kitchen, Celia has been at Air New Zealand for 11 years looking after the onboard menus for the North American sector. It’s not cooking, but it is thinking about food, which works for Celia because she can be creative in a less physical, nine-to-five environment.

There is no time for food writing and styling, which she enjoyed when she returned from the UK in 2005, while also working at Ponsonby’s Blake Street and Magnum (now Ponsonby Road Bistro), followed by The Kosher Deli — the first kosher cafe in New Zealand.

Celia says she knew the concept of kosher cooking but had not had any experience of it. “I did my research and really enjoyed the different styles of Jewish cookery and being able to be creative in that space. They were a very welcoming community.” Celia was there for four years and mentions Sam Lewis, who runs the cafe today, and his “most amazing bagels”.

Celia dined at The River Cafe about five years ago. “It has changed a lot. They have extended the kitchen and garden. There is a private dining room, a cheese room and an online shop where you can order takeout meals presented on platters. The dining experience was very simple and extremely glamorous in an understated way. It was wonderful and has always been that way, but you don’t really notice it until you step away.”

The River Cafe influences are still there in Celia’s home cooking. “I felt like slow-cooked pork the other day — cooked in red wine vinegar and bay leaves like they do. River Cafe soups are the go-to in winter and if I make polenta I do it their way with milk, chicken stock and heaps of butter and fresh parmesan. I can never take shortcuts with that type of cookery.”

Pip Wylie. Photo / Supplied
Pip Wylie. Photo / Supplied

Pip Wylie

Pip describes herself as a bit of a hunter-gatherer and her job, as personal chef to a small family-owned company in Auckland, affords her the time to do so.

In 2017, health issues forced Pip to close her Onslow restaurant on Dominion Rd and look at doing something less stressful and physically demanding.

Following seven-odd years in the UK, which included opening her own restaurant, Tabac, after The River Cafe, Pip moved to Auckland and worked in various restaurants (Tuatara in Ponsonby, Point Five Nine in Pt Chevalier, Craft and Ripe in Grey Lynn), before opening Onslow.

She’s been at it since she left school and worked at the Sugar Club in Wellington. “That’s how I got into cooking. I washed dishes a couple of times and then I was in the kitchen. It was very male-dominated back then, but I did okay. The Sugar Club helped me through an apprenticeship at the City and Guilds at the Wellington Polytech and in the space of three years I was head chef.”

Pip obviously learnt a lot from Peter Gordon but says her time at the River Cafe evolved the way she chefs and cooks: “Simple, fresh food with lots of flavour. I even pulled out their lemon tart recipe recently.”

The lucky family that Pip cooks for welcome her style and she can be as creative as she wants.

“I have never been so appreciated in my life; they are very thankful. I think it’s a great way to look after people.”

Alison Lambert at Ebb Cafe. Photo / Jeremy Hooper
Alison Lambert at Ebb Cafe. Photo / Jeremy Hooper

Alison Lambert

Alison settled back into the New Zealand food scene teaching and serving new cooks affordable meals from a mobile kitchen at the Otago Farmers’ Market.

“I loved being at the market because I got to know the producers and it opened my eyes to the really good produce available in Dunedin.”

Eventually, she found herself juggling the Saturday market with her own cafe during the pandemic and it got too much, so she packed them in to focus on her family and food columns for the Otago Daily Times, which provide everyday recipes for abundant, seasonal produce.

When the owners of Ebb Dunedin approached her to manage the cafe in their new hotel, she knew it was her thing. Refreshingly modern and chic, Alison has combined her local knowledge with River Cafe learnings to serve Dunedin folk and hotel guests fresh, seasonal, 100 per cent made-on-site food that is simple and packed with flavour.

“The River Cafe really did change the way I operate. It taught me to be free with food, cook with the seasons and support locals, which is what I was brought up to do but my chef training was so pretentious … all that turning of mushrooms.”

The local lass forages a lot (that porcini spot is secret) and says she would be lost without the local growers she has built relationships with. “Without them I would be relying on what’s coming off the big food suppliers’ trucks and then I would lose my soul.”

Ruth Rogers. Photo / Supplied
Ruth Rogers. Photo / Supplied

Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey

Ruth, who lost Rose to cancer in 2010, continues the legacy alongside head chefs Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli who are both into their third decade in The River Cafe kitchen. The trio has recently published The River Cafe Look Book (Phaidon), a charming wee book of simple recipes.

Discover four classic recipes from The River Cafe Look Book here, including a divine spaghetti alle vongole, a jam-filled crostata, and lemon ice cream.

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