Why You Should Rediscover the Pleasure of Food

By Elizabeth Day
Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe believes there’s more to life than “clean eating”. Picture / Supplied.

Ruth Rogers wants me to eat and, given the circumstances, it seems rude to refuse. “You’ll have something, won’t you?” she says, electric-blue eyes fixing on mine.

We are sitting at a table in the River Cafe, the London restaurant she founded in 1987 with her friend, the late Rose Gray. It went on to redefine Italian food in Britain, with its emphasis on simple, seasonal, delicious fare, while the eponymous cookbooks made the duo household names and sent us all rushing out to find borlotti beans and aged pecorino.

“We’ve got lemon tart, strawberry and almond ... ” Ruth is saying, even though I’ve told her I’ve already had lunch. A lemon tart duly arrives. Rogers, 67, doesn’t have much time for people who don’t eat. She’s increasingly concerned about the trend for “clean eating” epitomised by glossy-haired food bloggers and self-proclaimed lifestyle experts who advocate banning processed foods, spiralising courgettes and supping on bone broth.

“Suddenly, it’s anti-gluten, anti-carb, anti-dairy. It’s a way of living: if you reject these foods, they sell it on being healthier. You’ll be thinner but you’ll be happier, you’ll be a better mother, you’ll be a more energetic person, and I think that puts a kind of pressure on women to achieve something through saying no, rather than saying go and study the subject you love, or live in a place that makes you happy, or learn a language.”

The clean-eating movement popularised by proponents such as the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa has recently come under fire for setting impossible ideals and encouraging disordered eating.

This month the Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh criticised the Hemsleys for giving advice based on "bad science"; while Dr Norelle Reilly, a paediatric gastroenterologist at Columbia University Medical Centre, warned that people without coeliac disease who cut out gluten could be damaging their health

Part of Ruth’s worry is that food is being thought of as something to be fearful of. There have been times in Ruth’s life when food has been a necessary source of comfort. And there have been other times when she has been unable to cook at all. Her son Bo died of a seizure at the age of 27 in 2011. “Normally [cooking] makes me feel better, but I found I couldn’t cook it was the slowness of it ... ” she breaks off.

When her stepson Ab visited (her husband, the architect Lord Rogers, has three children from his first marriage), she asked him to make tomato sauce: “I said, ‘Ab, I need to smell tomato sauce being cooked’. So there was this kind of grief, shock [in the] family and it was: ‘Make something we can smell that makes this house feel like a home’.”

By contrast, when Rose Gray died of a brain tumour at the age of 71, six years ago, one of the first things that the River Cafe staff did was to cook a breakfast of fried eggs and anchovies. “We were so determined to make this restaurant a tribute to her,” says Ruth.

To this day, a venture that started out with two women at the helm still has a 50 per cent female workforce and a female head chef, Sian Wyn Owen a notable achievement in a field dominated by men. Ruth has three grandchildren and nine step-grandchildren, 10 of whom are girls. She worries about women growing up in a world where they might feel “a sense of failure” for not looking like the lean, glowing lifestyle bloggers on Instagram.

“One of the things that does concern me is young women promoting a way of eating as a way of making yourself better without any degree of nutrition or without having studied nutrition as a science,” she says. “I don’t know what you have to do to call yourself a nutritionist. It’s a bit like calling yourself ‘a therapist’. I mean, could you be a nutritionist?” My mouth is too full of lemon tart to answer, so probably not.

The key to healthy eating, she says, is lots of vegetables and seasonality, but she’s aware that all this comes at a cost. Not everyone can afford the money or the time it requires to whip up an artichoke risotto. “There’s no doubt that people who are less well off are heavier because they’re not eating the right vegetables,” Rogers says. “This could be a class issue.”

She grew up in New York, the daughter of second-generation immigrants her father was a doctor whose family emigrated from Hungary; her mother the child of Russian emigres and says her parents “didn’t have a clue” about food. Mealtimes were chances for discussion about politics and the food was secondary. It wasn’t until she met Richard Rogers in 1969 and travelled to France and Italy with him in the 70s that she discovered the importance of seasonal, local produce and a good quality olive oil.

A few years later, River Cafe was born, originally as a staff canteen for her husband’s architectural practice on the embankment at Hammersmith.

Throughout the 90s it was the place to be seen: all light-filled ambience and boldly coloured feature walls. Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started their careers here. It’s still difficult to get a table.

Has Ruth ever used a spiraliser? She looks at me vaguely. “No. Do you know, I’ve never had it. Have you?” Ruth shouts over to a group of bright young things getting ready for tonight’s service.

“Have any of you tried spiralising things?” she asks. Joseph, the other head chef, is summoned over to share his views. “If I had a spiraliser, would you be upset with me?” he asks Rogers. He then admits to owning an apple corer.

“How interesting,” Ruth murmurs, in much the same way one might say an ugly baby has character. Somehow, I don’t think spiralised zucchini will be on the River Cafe menu any time soon.

The Daily Telegraph

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