It’s 9am exactly as I arrive for my shift at the River Café in Hammersmith. I feel really privileged to be here and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. I’ve been once before for a birthday dinner and I’ve never forgotten it. The restaurant itself is beautiful; open, light, intimate, spacious, modern, classic, smart but not formal with a huge projected clock on the far wall of the open plan kitchen.
I see Ruthie Rogers, co-founder of the restaurant some 25 years ago, sitting at a table by the open plan kitchen and make my way over to her. She’s starting to write the lunch menu for the day. Ruthie does this, every day that she is here, from scratch, in about an hour. The evening head chef will later do the same in the afternoon, for dinner. Every day. From scratch. Ruthie’s not sighing or shouting, she’s not stressed out or complaining; in fact she’s making it look like a rather relaxing and enjoyable way to start the day. As I observe her, I realise that truly great people make what they do look almost effortless. Truly great people wear their success lightly.
Ruthie introduces me to one of the chefs who takes me into the changing rooms. I get into my chef whites; jacket, apron and checked trousers. Already the kitchen is crackling with energy. I set about helping, preparing the freshest and most succulent vegetables; ripping basil leaves, snapping the ends off fresh asparagus, deseeding cherry tomatoes. I’m loving it. Gradually the waiters arrive and join in the preparation.
Ruthie runs through the menu with everyone. As the guests start to arrive, on the dot of midday, it’s interesting to see them from this side of the counter. They have an almost tangible sense of anticipation and expectation; they are enjoying the whole experience from the moment they set foot inside the restaurant. It’s a hot day so most people chose to sit on the beautiful terrace. The orders start appearing. The system of course works like clockwork. Nothing is weighed, measured or timed and yet every single item on every plate arrives to the second when it should. Ruthie stands behind a curved desk and checks every plate before it goes out. Every single plate has to be perfect every single time. And it is. It’s magical. No wonder that there is only one River café. There are no outposts, no hotel restaurants carrying this mighty and entirely undiluted name; Ruthie can only be on one restaurant floor at a time.
It’s frenetic, but calm in the kitchen. I slope around; it’s an honour to watch the chefs work. They all have great professional passion, joy in what they do, meticulous attention to detail and they make it look easy. Ruthie says it’s like putting on a play in a theatre, with everybody’s job being interconnected. For me it’s like seeing a human body working, every job that everyone does is vital and every job that everyone does is linked to everyone else’s job. Nobody cuts corners, nobody says, ‘Oh that’ll do, don’t worry’. Some chefs here have come from the best hotels and restaurants in London, others are apprentices and I wonder if I’ve been standing beside the next Jamie Oliver, who started his career here.
It’s such a happy ship. And in the middle of it all is Ruthie; incredibly skilled, really loved and respected, and the epitome of warm and calm grace under pressure. Throughout the day, different chefs come up to me with a mouthful of what they’re making and say conspiratorially, ‘Try this!’ I wish I had such pride in my work. I have a mini bowl of summer minestrone. I have a mouthful of the pinkest most perfect lamb. I have home-made ice-cream. I have a taste of the famous chocolate nemesis. I try the scallops. And then I have lunch. We sit at a table at the water’s edge and eat all the same food that the customers have enjoyed. It is of course perfectly delicious. I leave at about 6pm, having made a squealingly girly attempt to prep langoustine. I feel pleasingly tired, realising that this is a full day’s work. Not like my usual office-style full day’s work, the majority of which is spent gossiping in a swivel chair, stocking up on post-it notes and complaining about how busy and tired I am. It’s really thrilling to see the best people doing what they do best. It’s like Roger Federer saying, ‘Why don’t you spend the day with me, and watch me up close, doing what only I can do?’
Everyone that I tell about my day at the River Cafe has said ‘Noooooo!’ and then told me an anecdote about their favourite recipe from their favourite River Cafe cookery book, or about dinner (including exactly what they ordered) they had there to celebrate a special occasion.