The River Cafe’s Rose Gray: My Brief Encounter

100301-rose-grey-river-cafeI was living in London in 2007 and staging at St. John Restaurant.  Tom, one of the cooks there and a kitchen mentor of sorts said that he had friends at River Cafe and could maybe get me a day or two stage there.  I jumped at the chance.  After a phone call and a couple emails I found myself early one morning walking down the long footpath along the Thames from the Hammersmith Tube stop to the River Cafe.  After some brief introductions with various staff and a change into a chef’s jacket I was put to work. 

The sous chef had one of the cooks get me started on gutting, cleaning and filleting sardines.  A huge Styrofoam box of sardines.  One of the staples of the River Cafe menu at the time was a dish called a ‘Sardine Sandwich’, (the recipe is here) a layering of sardine fillets, toasted pine nuts, bread crumbs, parsley and lemon juice.  The guy showed me how to prep each fillet by lining them up in rows of three on olive oil brushed parchment paper.  After gutting and filleting about 100 sardines I had finished and moved on to something else.  But then a silver haired woman walked into the kitchen and started greeting the cooks, looking over what they were each up to.  Evidently this was Rose Gray.  I had never met her.  But for some reason I was immediately nervous.  I just kept my head down and my eyes to the task at hand, not wanting to call any undue attention to myself.  She walked by me.  Phew!  Crisis averted.  But wait!  She stopped at the sheet trays filled with my prepped sardines.  I tensed.  She stooped closer.  I pretended not to notice her scrutiny.  She poked a couple fillets.  I started to sweat.

“There are bones in these fillets!” she yelled.

Urp!!!  What?!  Bones?!  No one said anything about bones to me!  Aren’t sardine bones too small to matter?  The cook that showed me the ropes left bones in the fillet he did!  … I think.  What do I do now?

“Who did these?” she yelled again.

“Um, I did chef” I said.

“We can’t have bones in these fillets.  Customers could choke!” she said.  No introduction needed.

“Sorry chef.  I will recheck them all.” I said.

“Good.”  She walked away.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the other cooks in the kitchen, all with heads down diligently at their morning’s tasks, cracking slight smiles on their faces.  Another trial-by-fire in the River Cafe kitchen.  Witnessed by everyone.  I couldn’t help but smile too.  Better stay on my toes.

The next time that I worked in the River Cafe kitchen and Rose was there she walked by, smiled and said hello.  Either forgetting our previous encounter or remembering but graciously ignoring my nervous sweatiness, I was not sure.  But I was grateful either way.

The thing I love about the River Cafe is its utter honesty.  A few ingredients prepared in a straightforward manner.  But how does it taste so good?!  I think the food at The River Cafe is like one of those paintings you see at MoMA that you look at and think “I could have painted that”.  But you stay standing there and can’t seem to look away.  Why?  Because regardless of how simple it looks, the fact remains that you didn’t paint that painting.  And you are kidding yourself if you think that you could.  The few components of it are so well chosen and so well technically executed that only an expert could pull it off.  And make it look so easy. 

And therein is The River Cafe’s trick.  Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers make very honest, very exacting, very delicious food.  And they make it look easy.  But that is only because they are experts at it.  And extremely passionate about it.  To the point of personally examining over one hundred sardine fillets.  The food at River Cafe is great because of the obsession held by these two women for seeking out the best ingredients and most transcendent preparation possible.  And their expertise shows. 

I only crossed her path a hadnful of times but I know that Rose Gray led a great kitchen.  And that she will be missed by many.