“When we hire people,” says Joe Trivelli, executive head chef at the River Cafe, “I’m thinking, ‘Will they be good, and stay for a long time?’ I’m not thinking about what they’re going to do afterwards.” The restaurant, which celebrates its 35th anniversary next month, is not, stresses its other executive head chef, Sian Wyn Owen, a “fancy cooking school”.
The River Cafe’s kitchen needs team players willing to work hard while absorbing knowledge, not chefs in a rush to tick a box on their CV and move on to their own head chef roles. “Often that desire to be important overpowers the desire to learn,” says Wyn Owen.
Famous for its rigorously seasonal Italian cooking, the restaurant is also renowned as an incubator of highly influential talent. Its founders, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, fostered the development of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Theo Randall, Stevie Parle, and Sam and Sam Clark of Moro, creating a lineage now in its second or third generation. Today, it is Tomos Parry of Brat, Max Rocha at Café Cecilia or Yohei Furuhashi at Toklas who are carrying elements of its ethos out into the world.
That conveyor belt of talent may be described as an unforeseen byproduct of the environment Gray, who died in 2010, and Rogers, still very much in charge, created together. The kitchen currently has a roughly 50:50 male-female split, and each week chefs work four single shifts (9am to 5pm or 3pm to 11pm) and at most one double shift. Wyn Owen is trying to eradicate double shifts as they’re “the worst thing about hospitality”. Working parents are offered flexible hours, and the 150 staff can apply for bursaries from the Rose Gray Foundation for their personal and professional development. These have been used to learn languages, research cookbooks or take courses in charcuterie.
Wyn Owen is wary of portraying the River Cafe as a “sickly, happy family”, saying: “it’s a stressful working environment meeting two non-negotiable deadlines a day – lunch and dinner.” In summer, the kitchen can do 200 covers at lunch on a Monday, but its chefs tend to stay for several years. Wyn Owen, 50, and Trivelli, 48, have both been there for more than 20 years. Stay long enough, explains Wyn Owen, and, “by osmosis, in real time”, chefs learn to “properly cook”.
Trivelli and Wyn Owen are disappointed when, instead of staying in restaurants, talented alumni leave the industry, often to become private chefs. “It’s sad they’ve vanished inside someone’s house to make scrambled eggs,” says Wyn Owen. “We’re restaurant chefs and you want them to carry on the mantle.”
But a notable number of ex-River Cafe chefs do exactly that: go on to lead highly rated kitchens.
Chef-owner, Cafe Deco, London; she worked at the River Cafe from 2010 to 2013
“When I joined the River Cafe I was 23 and had only been cooking for 18 months. I was very fresh and not entirely sure I wanted to cook any more. I was in a personally difficult moment and my life could have gone another way. But I thought I’d try one more place: I only applied to the River Cafe, got the job and luckily stayed on the cooking path. It was the River Cafe or rethink.
From an employee perspective, there was a level of glamour that felt enticing – big team, huge open kitchen, everyone knew the books, Jamie Oliver had come out of there.
In the morning, everyone does raw prep, filleting fish and butchery. That was a learning curve. Scaling eight sea bass each day is grim, but you get really good at it. More established chefs teach the newcomers with energy, enthusiasm and in detail. After that, I felt confident in my skills to tutor people. At Cafe Deco, that’s a large part of my job. I love teaching.
The cooking processes behind food described as ‘simple’ – in essence, enjoying ingredients without mucking about with them – aren’t necessarily simple, and those processes must be perfect. That’s the point of going to a restaurant. You get to enjoy a peeled plum cherry tomato that you would never bother peeling at home.
Rose had died two or three weeks before I joined and, when learning dishes from other chefs, instructions would often be prefaced with, ‘Rose used to say’, ‘Rose would do this’, or ‘Rose would hate that’. She was very much there. There was real togetherness and an atmosphere of cooking well, for Ruthie, but keeping Rose’s standards, too.
Cooking simply and seasonally requires great care in produce quality. At the River Cafe, tasting the first summer basil, porcini or cherries together, these were are all incredibly exciting moments. I work with tiny farms who can only deliver certain amounts at Cafe Deco, particularly on the veg side. If the produce isn’t incredible the food will, at best, be average to good-ish.
Early on, I remember the first borlotti beans coming in. Ruthie cooked them in the oven and put on a dish of borlotti, good oil and chopped parsley. That was it. That’s bold cooking with strong belief in a delicious product. It requires way more confidence than cooking with a million flourishes on a plate.
The beauty of the River Cafe is that people stay a long time. As an ambitious chef, that’s also a problem. You hit a glass ceiling where you’re banking on someone leaving to get more responsibility. I wanted to learn new skills: write menus, how to cost, have more of a creative voice. I went to Rochelle Canteen and, after a year, was made head chef.
I think of Cafe Deco’s menu as a brainchild of all my former bosses and my own style. My gnudi with good, new season olive oil or my pappa al pomodoro soup aren’t carbon copies, but I take inspiration from the River Cafe. Why wouldn’t I bring some of that learning into my own cooking?”
Head chef, Pahli Hill Bandra Bhai, London; he worked at the River Cafe from 2008 to 2018
“In Bangalore, I worked at Italia, where Antonio Carluccio was a consultant. He and Priya Paul [the chair of Park Hotels India, where Shashidhara trained as a chef] would bring in cookbooks, including the blue River Cafe and Easy, and say, ‘This is the kind of food we want.’ I’d look at them thinking, ‘This place must be amazing,’ but I never thought I’d work there.
In 2005, I moved to the UK (there was a huge chef shortage in Britain and agencies were recruiting in India) and in 2006 got a job at the Old Bridge Hotel in Huntingdon. The owner, John Hoskins, was friends with Rose Gray’s son, Ossie [a former River Cafe general manager], and John sent us for lunch at the River Cafe. I loved it.
Walking along the banks of the Thames and seeing the Harrod’s Furniture Depository in Barnes was like walking through the cookbooks. The food was so simple, so seasonal, nothing like I’d cooked or eaten. My palate wasn’t complex and I remember the olive oil tasted slightly unpleasant to me, bitter and peppery. Having tried the recipe, I had the chocolate nemesis for dessert and the quality was completely different.
I arrived at the restaurant in 2008 as a junior chef, starting at the bottom on cold starters and desserts, as everybody does. I trained in French fine dining and had to unlearn everything. The River Cafe way meant elegant but rustic. Sian [Wyn Owen] would say, ‘Babes, imagine you’re at home, helping yourself, that’s how I want you to plate food.’ It was a huge change in how I looked at food.
It works in a fascinating way which is never repetitive. One head chef starts at 9am, another at 3pm, and each writes that day’s lunch and dinner menu. Chefs get a section to work on each service, which changes daily, and over months you move around to, say, hot starters, pasta, the wood-fired oven.
At 10.30am, you also get a jobs list where you’re making risotto or roasting veal for different sections. So every day you’re learning about new dishes and ingredients. Training is intense. Even making salsa verde, somebody would show me start to finish. Next time, you do it with another chef. Third time on your own, but with senior chefs checking it. There is no scope for inconsistency.
Rose and Ruthie were like mothers to me. They could be harsh critics but if you messed up you didn’t get shouted at. You didn’t feel personally attacked. They were always willing to show you what you’d done wrong. This created high standards. People wanted to do their best but they weren’t scared to make mistakes.
I came out of the River Cafe a calmer chef. Now I’m heading a kitchen, managing 10 chefs, some in their 50s. If something isn’t good enough, I tell people on a professional basis and, importantly, show them how to do it. The River Cafe changed the way I handle people.
I had a good work-life balance there. The annual wine and olive oil trips to Italy are a massive perk. I went on 10. You’re taken to hidden restaurants in Tuscany or feasts with producers’ families to understand the River Cafe ethos. You’re in the bubble, part of the family. Why would we leave?
Eventually, I needed my own identity. After 10 years, you’re certainly confident you can set up your own restaurant. The River Cafe’s approach of letting ingredients shine is visible at Pahli Hill. I don’t change my menu daily, but I’m in constant touch with my suppliers and use exciting seasonal produce as it comes in: nettles, spring lamb, girolles. I see similarities in Italian and Indian food culture – everything revolves around family and seasonality.”
Chef-owner, Sonny Stores, Bristol; he worked at the River Cafe from 2014 to 2018
“I’d applied for jobs at three places in London: Moro, Barrafina and the River Cafe. The first interview I got was at the River Cafe. I started my trial week the next day and then got the job.
I was nervous going in. I hadn’t eaten there but the restaurant was always talked about in other kitchens because of the cookbooks and its influence. It’s a Michelin-starred restaurant serving relaxed food, and there aren’t loads of those. Plus, it’s a big restaurant: 10 chefs on a busy shift, the biggest kitchen I’ve worked in.
The amount of time you’re in the kitchen was really manageable. There was space and time for the staff to teach you in depth, while I was dealing with the best produce I’ve ever seen. A senior or head chef would always be around to show you a specific dish. You might get the cookbook out and read the recipe while working together, so you understood how and why it’s cooked that way.
Joe [Trivelli] taught me how to make tomato sauce; Sian [Wyn Owen] is a wizard with artichokes; I learned how to cook sweetbreads with Danny [Bohan, the restaurant’s head chef]. We do that now at Sonny Stores. I’ve sent staff on stages to the River Cafe or to Anna [Tobias] at Cafe Deco. We break lambs down with our local butcher – learning from people who know.
We say Sonny Stores is Italian-inspired. We’re not as strict as the River Cafe and we have a much smaller team of three chefs. Within that, we work with the same ethos. It’s a changing, seasonal menu, using the best produce we can get, cooking in a simple way and not cutting corners. There aren’t exact translations of River Cafe dishes on the menu, but there are similarities in flavour combinations or River Cafe-inspired dishes made with different cuts. There’s regularly a pork tonnato dish on, which is done with veal at the River Cafe.
Keeping staff happy and maintaining a constant team is something I’ve taken from the River Cafe. They run a civilised kitchen. No swearing. No shouting. What Sian, Joe and Ruthie do, getting brilliant food out without it being a place where people get berated, there’s a skill in that.
Everybody sits down together around 4pm for a staff meal at the River Cafe, outside if the weather is good. That time-out is massively important and the staff food was mindblowing: sea bass or monkfish that hadn’t been used in the restaurant, fresh pastas and raviolis. We eat together at Sonny Stores. If you’ve not had that meal and sit down before service, you’re not going to make good choices later on.
Today, there are chefs working on seasonal, changing menus who haven’t been near the River Cafe. Its relaxed, confident simplicity bled into the wider restaurant community. You see its chocolate nemesis everywhere.
I once did a shift with Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis and, if not exactly word for word, he put it, ‘Well, it’s all River Cafe now, isn’t it?’”