Story by Monisha Saldanha
Last night Rose Gray, chef and cookery writer, passed away after a lengthy fight against cancer, at the age of 71. Rose opened the River Café in Hammersmith, west London with Ruth Rogers in 1987. These two women were pioneers in creating a menu featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients as the heroes. They interpreted Italian food for an appreciative and loyal British public, who bought their cooking books and watched the TV shows based on their restaurant menus.
Jamie Oliver worked at the River Café for 3 and a half years, and it was at the River Café where Jamie was first filmed for TV as part of a documentary about the restaurant. Jamie says, “I'm so saddened by the death of Rose. She really was one of life's very, very special, natural, genius chefs – a true pioneer of delicious simple cooking. It was my honour to have worked with her – a really great boss, a wonderful person who gave me some of my fondest cooking memories and great funny times.
“The quality of food and chefs that have left the River Cafe over the last 20 years speaks for itself and is all credit to the partnership, love and values of Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers. Without question the world has lost one of the most important chefs of our times, she will be sorely missed.”
Rose inspired cooks and chefs across Britain and the world. Her vision for fresh, seasonal food was revolutionary when introduced in 1987, and has now become core to the menus of most of the top restaurants in the UK. She was one of the few, who influence the many.
My first encounter with the River Café was while I was a student at St. Anne's College, Oxford. I suffered through some terrible food in the dining hall. One fine morning I was served a fried egg with a green yolk for breakfast, and was told by a fellow diner not to complain, it's just what I should expect. We used to improvise our own meals in the tiny kitchen in the dormitory for first year students, where we cooked from a stained and torn River Café cookbook that was a shared resource for all of us. The simple recipes starring lovely ingredients introduced us to a whole new world of food, sending us down to the market to look for what was fresh, and encouraged us to create meals of which we could be proud.
Many years later, when I could (more or less) afford it, I enjoyed a meal at the fabled River Café restaurant itself as a treat to celebrate a new job I was starting. What an incredible experience, to enjoy first-hand the recipes that had inspired me to learn how to cook a decade ago. Unlike many well regarded restaurants, the River Café décor was totally unpretentious, clean, and slick. The staff was well trained, but nearly invisible. There when you needed them, but not overly intrusive. The staff, the restaurant, was the canvas and the focus remained on the great quality ingredients treated with care in the kitchen. The food was the star, the heart of this restaurant, in a city where many of the restaurants choose style over substance. I personally never had the honour of meeting Rose, but from reading her books and watching her on TV, I could see why her values and vision have created a movement in food that will influence many of us for years to come.
About the Author: Monisha Saldanha works on Jamie Oliver's online team.