A tribute to Rose Gray and the River Café

Last Monday morning, half a day after she had died from cancer, aged 71, Rose Gray’s staff at the River Café turned up at work, although they had been told to take the day off. They sat around and talked, cooked some breakfast and drank whisky, which was Rose’s tipple of choice.

They then came up to my restaurant and I fed them rib of beef with chimichurri, a dish that I cooked for Rose in my garden some years before and one that had escaped censure. That was gratifying, as she found it difficult to eat anything I gave her without giving tips on how I could have improved it or without suggesting some alternative I didn’t know about that was even better.

You got used to Rose’s chidings. There was no “side” to her direct, bossy approach and she was easy to tease in return. For all her high-minded and passionate approach to cooking, she knew the food was there in the service of conviviality, to be shared and enjoyed. It was also quite easy to tease her by just affecting a mock seriousness and letting her lecture on for a second or two longer than she intended. The penny would drop and that extraordinarily radiant smile would break out and you knew you had got away with it.

I first met Rose Gray the week we opened my previous restaurant Kensington Place in November 1987. She was disappointed not to get any salsa verde with her bollito misto and, of course, she told me so. The River Café had not yet opened to the public. “We have our own private restaurant in Hammersmith,” she said airily. “You must come for lunch.”

It took me a while to get to the River Café, which specialises in Italian cuisine. By then, it had made a bit of a splash. I looked at the menu and my eyes watered at the prices. Then the world of milky mozzarella, luscious green olive oil, baby artichokes and capers, charred squid with chilli, milk roast pork, Castellucio lentils and a host of other ingredients loomed into view. I went back a week later and have been going back, like thousands of others, for the past 22 years. With my love for the restaurant came a love for Rose.

It was not all plain sailing. One winced sometimes. She had no compunction in dismissing the meretricious and she could be startlingly blunt, simply because she cared so passionately about what she did. Her courage in the face of cancer surprised none of us who had watched her see off other misfortunes. When Rose was just hitting 70, there was a disastrous fire at the River Café. They paid their staff to do nothing for three months while they rebuilt the restaurant with a new open kitchen. She could not wait to show me her new cheese room, the cheeses on display behind glass in a humidified atmosphere on slate shelves. One often thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” when you were around Rose, while marvelling at her extraordinary energy.

However, it was the books that Rose and her fellow River Café chef Ruth Rogers produced that really took the gospel to a wider audience. Her first, The River Café Cook Book, came out in 1995 and became not just a publishing sensation but revolutionised the middle class diet. Bruschetta and panzanella became staples for many, who also attempted to do grilled squid and lamb over hot coals and tried and failed to make the notorious Chocolate Nemesis. Just when we had built cast-iron barbecues in our gardens and sourced polenta and 00 flour, we were told we had to build a wood-burning oven: it was not easy to keep up with the River Café, either as a professional competitor or as a home cook.

Whatever the message of the books, each one came with a freshness and vitality that was the essence of Rose. You opened the book and the food would leap out, demanding to be cooked and eaten. I remember picking up River Café Easy, their fifth book, and thinking they must be beginning to lose their sparkle. However, the book fell open at a double-page spread of 10 bruschettas, each one spilling over with beans, crab, fennel, tomatoes, peppers with no repetition and, clearly, no dulling of the creative flame.

Rose leaves a husband, four children, 11 grandchildren, a devoted partner – and a team of young cooks and restaurant staff – for whom Rose’s sure-footed and graceful presence was a lodestar.

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