Rose Gray: a tribute | Life and style | guardian.co.uk

Rose Gray

Matthew Fort: Rose Gray was a formidable yet delightfully warm woman who managed to bring a taste of Italy to British kitchens. She has left a legacy that few cooks achieve

Chefs’ tributes: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others remember Rose Gray

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Rose Gray at the River Café when it reopened following a fire in 2008. Photograph: Martin Godwin

My copy of the first River Café Cook Book is signed by both Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, with the subscript ‘Was that an interview?’ We had sat in the sun outside the River Café, yattering on about Italian food and life at large and this and that and back to food again. I was supposed to be interviewing them, but had been quite undone by lunch, and their redoubtable combination of charm, intelligence and passion for Italian cooking. I think they were both used to a rather higher order of media probing than I was able to muster, but still I came away with everything I needed by way of quotes and more, and with, above all, an abiding respect and affection for these two remarkable people.

My first impression of Rose was that she was a formidable woman, and she was. She would have had to be, considering what she and her long-time friend and business partner Ruth achieved over two decades. You don’t create one of the country’s landmark restaurants and drive it to that level of celebrity and achievement without a powerful will and steely resolve. But beneath the ostensibly reserved manner, fierce intelligence, short-trimmed hair and steel-rimmed spectacles and was a woman of delightful warmth and passion, and when she smiled, the smile lit up her face with a rare radiance. Luckily for us all, Rose’s very English reserve found a perfect counterpoint in Ruth’s more extrovert exuberance, and between them they created a restaurant unlike any other in London.

Perhaps it’s difficult to reconcile the River Café of shimmering beauty that you eat in today with the Café’s early history as the canteen for the architectural practice of Ruth Rogers’ husband, Richard. But as soon as it opened its doors to the paying public (much to the irritation of the people living in the neighbourhood), it became the hottest place to eat for anyone seriously interested in food. I can remember the shock when I first went there. It was as if the somewhat austere fixtures and fittings highlighted the splendour and vividness of the food.

I had my views on the authenticity of the Italian food at the River Café, views that I’m not sure where always appreciated by Rose – the restaurant always seemed to me Italian-inspired rather than producing the identifiable food of a particular region. If its food owed its allegiance to anywhere, it would be to Tuscany, but I would not question that the restaurant’s heart, soul and tenor were Italian because, if the River Café did nothing else, it re-established the ingredient as king in the kitchen, and that is what marked every plate Rose ever sent out. The celebration of the ingredient, by season and place, is the foundation on which all Italian dishes are built, and on that basis alone there was no more Italian restaurant than the River Café in London at the time.

Although Rose and Ruth presented a 12-part series, The Italian Kitchen, for Channel 4, in truth neither of them seemed entirely comfortable in the format. Their rigour and intelligence was a world away from the casual, easy-does-it style that was beginning to sweep through television food programmes on the coat tails of the Keith Floyd revolution. That reached its apotheosis in the programmes of their River Café graduate, Jamie Oliver.

If they seemed not quite at ease on television, the sequence of River Café cook books served them rather better. It’s rare for cook books to achieve the sales that the River Café books did, without benefit of television. It’s easy to see why. They were produced with the same eye for visual detail, a sense of style, a vividness of photography and a simplicity of recipe that characterised the dishes at the River Café itself. Indeed, through sheer style, they gave the impression of bringing the River Café into your home – sea kale with lemon and bottarga; borlotti bean with langoustines and rocket; loin of venison wrapped in coppa; and the unforgettable Chocolate Nemesis.

There might be a temptation to dismiss the River Café as merely the playground for a metropolitan elite, but that would be a mistake. Through that combination of style, passion, rigour and charm, Rose and the River Café have had a profound influence on other chefs, on cooks and writers, and on the way we experience and appreciate Italian food. Rose has left a legacy that few cooks achieve.

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Posted by
Matthew Fort

Monday 1 March 2010

10.35 GMT


guardian.co.uk

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Rose Gray: a tribute

This article was published on
guardian.co.uk
at 10.35 GMT on Monday 1 March 2010.
It was last modified at 12.00 GMT on Monday 1 March 2010.

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Comments in chronological order (Total 13 comments)

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    MorganaLeFay

    1 March 2010 11:25AM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.

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    Swoop

    1 March 2010 12:16PM

    Such sad news, the loss of one of the food industry’s greatest and most inspiring.

    What a shame the first commenton here (now removed) was so insensitive and irrelevant.

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    MorganaLeFay

    1 March 2010 4:12PM

    Goodness gracious! All that would have had to be removed was the picture which was a very unfortunate choice. I’ve never seen Delia do such things, and unfortunately it’s what you see that affects you, not what you don’t see.

    Btw, the picture featured now is a lot nicer.

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    modsloveme

    1 March 2010 4:59PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.

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    Saltycdogg

    1 March 2010 5:56PM

    @MorganaLeFay I’m assuming you’re talking about the picture seen here ,she appears to be smelling something. Get a grip and show some respect. People are writing about the death of their friend and colleague.

    @modsloveme

    I know I am an old cynic

    Not the word I’d use, though it does start with the same letter.

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    nationwide

    1 March 2010 9:37PM

    @modsloveme

    I resisted the temptation to write anything because I only ate in the restaurants, didn’t know the woman, but your comment provokes a response.

    What a tasteless, ill-informed, pointless and nasty little thing to write.

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    91203max

    2 March 2010 1:47AM

    my wife and i went to the restaurant. getting there was an ordeal. we spent about $200 for lunch and a book that got autographed. BEST $200 we spent all week. a great experience. a great loss for all who love food that is original and tastes like it just came from the farm.

    p. bloomberg

    old man

    glendale, ca

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    MorganaLeFay

    2 March 2010 12:32PM

    Get a grip and show some respect.

    Saltycdogg,

    it stands to reason who displays less piety, myself or the Guardian who put up the picture in the first place. She might be smelling, but that’s an assumption. I don’t understand why people so quickly become so argumentative and pedantic, after all I didn’t attack the person, only the choice of picture. 🙂

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    Lowl

    2 March 2010 8:52PM

    We ate lunch at the River Cafe one very hot summer when we were doing the tourist bit around London. I asked the waiter if my daughter, then 8, could have pasta with a tomato sauce rather than the set lunch menu. Rose came out to us to tell us that the sauce they had was a little spicy and to ask if that would be ok. She was utterly charming.

    It was a great lunch. The food, the surroundings the people were terrific. From the books, from the TV series and from my personal experience I say she was a great lady and she will be sorely missed.

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    claree111

    4 March 2010 4:16PM

    I remember my first visit to the River Cafe many years ago, I was amazed at how elegance, complex and simplicity could all happen at the same time. I have visited many times since! and I have longed to understand food the way that Rose and Ruth did/do. Rose was a great determined yet warm character who was a great inspiration to professional and amateur cooks alike. She lived such a full and varied life. I hope her family find the awful mourning of her loss in time turns to happy memories so that they can remember her with smiles rather than with tears. I will cook on using her recipes so she will always be with us!

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