The River Cafe: the kitchen chefs never want to leave

The River Cafe: the kitchen chefs never want to leave

by Tom Shingler 30 April 2021

Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s iconic Italian restaurant is known for producing amazing food and amazing chefs in equal measure. Tom Shingler talks to Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Danny Bohan – the three co-head chefs that have made The River Cafe their home – to find out why they can’t imagine working anywhere else.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

It can be hard to keep up with chefs. A stage here, a stint there – they’ll happily up sticks and move to another country at the drop of a hat for the chance to work in a famed kitchen or experience a new style of cooking. Whether it’s driven by career progression, a desire to see the world or just a change of pace, chefs often have a lengthy list of restaurants they’ve worked at by the time they reach head chef level.

For some restaurants, however, retaining staff isn’t a struggle at all. The River Cafe is just such a place. Good working hours (a rarity in the industry, although this has improved slightly in recent years), combined with the chance to work with incredible ingredients and the fact that no two days are ever the same mean the chefs who get a job at Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s Michelin-starred restaurant tend to stay put. That’s certainly the case for its three head chefs, who between them have racked up an impressive fifty-seven years cooking super-seasonal Italian fare for legions of fans.

Ruth continues to be a core part of the team, having originally opened the place back in 1987 with Rose Gray (who sadly passed away in 2010), but as I visit the restaurant to talk to her, it’s clear she wants her close-knit team to be championed more than anyone else. During a surprisingly busy service for a closed restaurant (the kitchen was preparing seventy-five orders they’d had via The River Cafe’s online shop that day), I sat down with Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Danny Bohan – the three chefs who have felt no desire to cook anywhere else since they joined.

Working in a kitchen can be an intense experience, which often comes through in a chef's personality. But there was a calm serenity in Sian, Joseph and Danny that you rarely come across. Perhaps it was the particularly bright sun shining through the open kitchen’s huge windows that day, or the fact they were excited about getting the terrace ready to welcome back guests for outdoor dining, but I don’t think I’ve ever met such a relaxed, content bunch of chefs before. Especially when they’re cooking at a Michelin star level in one of the most famous restaurants in London.

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At first I wanted to know which regions of Italy they liked the most, what the future of The River Cafe looked like and the reasons why Italian cuisine is so popular in the UK. After finding out how long they’d been at the restaurant, however, that changed – what had kept them here for so long? What was it about the workplace that they enjoyed so much? Why – for want of a better phrase – were they so chilled out?

Sian Wyn Owen

Joined The River Cafe in 2000

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‘After working at Harvey Nichols and then Sartoria [another Italian restaurant in London, now run by Francesco Mazzei], I came here twenty-one years ago and was made head chef about six years later. I think I’ve stayed here so long because the menu always changes twice a day, every day. In other kitchens you can end up cooking the exact same menu for months, which becomes pretty mundane. Here, you get into work in the morning, open the fridge and take a look what’s there – only then do you start to put the menu together.

‘Having fresh challenges and new things to do are key to keeping things interesting. That’s why no one has their own section in the kitchen – everyone cooks on different ones each day. That way, by the end of your first year, you’ve had a chance to give everything a go, rather than focusing on one element of a few select dishes. I think that, combined with our great working hours and all the amazing people, is why chefs stick around when they start here.

‘The produce is at the heart of everything we do, and we use a mix of British and European ingredients. Around this time of year we start to put peas on the menu, but they’re not ready in the UK yet, so we get them from Italy. Asparagus, however, is definitely better in the UK, so we use that. All our fish comes from the South Coast, our lamb comes from Wales (of course!) and our scallops and langoustines from Celtic Seafood in Scotland, who’ve been supplying the restaurant since before I started here. I think we were Natoora’s first wholesale customer over fifteen years ago – Rose even went to the Milan markets with the owner Franco to show him what she wanted him to bring back to the UK in his van. Of course they're a huge supplier now and they suggest things to us – but we always feel very loyal to them.

‘You never tire of cooking at home; for me, it’s the same when I’m here at The River Cafe, just on a bigger scale. Of course, it helps that we have some of the best ingredients in the world to play around with!’

Joseph Trivelli

Joined The River Cafe in 2001

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‘I started off in Whitstable, where I grew up, before heading to Australia to work for a chef called Darren Simpson, who was actually the head chef of Sartoria when Sian was there. When I came back to the UK I joined The River Cafe and decided to never leave! It’s always ticked every box for me as a chef.

‘One of the best things about being a head chef here is that you still get to cook in the kitchen every day. We write the menu every morning, and then we cook it. I’ve got friends and colleagues who end up entrenched in admin as they get further on in their careers; here, I’m still in the kitchen working with amazing chefs in an incredible kitchen with great big windows and the best produce.

‘Being an Italian restaurant in London gives us a little more freedom when it comes to regional cooking. If you were in Rome, you’d want to try the local wine and the local dishes; here, that doesn’t really apply. That means we can have dishes from all over Italy on the menu at the same time – bagna cauda from Piedmont can sit alongside a puntarelle salad with anchovies from Rome. We don’t talk at length about the regionality of dishes, but we let the produce and seasons dictate what we do. When the new season olive oil comes in, the menu will naturally become quite Tuscan; then when we get white truffles it will sway towards Piedmont.

‘I think we’ve got our own identity too – we’ve put things like grouse with figs on the menu which you wouldn’t really see in Italy. A very well-travelled Italian winemaker was eating here once and said he could close his eyes and eat our food anywhere in the world, and know he was at The River Cafe. I think it takes years of experience cooking regional Italian cuisine before you can get to that stage.'

Danny Bohan

Joined The River Cafe in 2005

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‘I started at The Savoy, then went to Kensington Place to work for Rowley Leigh, then I managed to get a job here about sixteen years ago working with Rose and Ruthie. Now I’m part of the family.

‘I’d always heard of the restaurant and knew how progressive it was when it opened – back then you could either go to a very posh restaurant to eat classical food, or somewhere more friendly and laidback but with nothing good to eat. The River Cafe showed you could have both good food and a good time, inventing a whole new style of dining in the process.

‘Rose and Ruthie were real pioneers – Rose even brought over some cavolo nero seeds from a trip to Tuscany to give to a grower called Sunnyfields in Southampton so it could be used in the kitchen. Before that, you just couldn’t find cavolo nero growing in the UK. That’s real commitment!

‘I feel so privileged to work here. Every day is new, we all get excited when the seasons change and we all get to sit down and eat good food together. You’re never disinterested or bored at work, and Italian food is so inspiring to cook. Why would I ever want to work somewhere else?’

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There are of course many chefs who have come through the kitchen at The River Cafe to go on to make a name for themselves in their own right – the likes of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, April Bloomfield and Theo Randall have all rattled the pans here – but in interviews and pieces, they all credit The River Cafe as one of the nicest and most influential places they’ve ever worked. Whether you’re joyfully cooking artichokes alla Romana in Hammersmith like Sian, Joseph and Danny, splashing olive oil over pretty much everything on TV like Jamie or continuing your Italian food odyssey at your own restaurant like Theo, one thing’s for sure – The River Cafe remains one of the happiest, most significant kitchens a chef can cook in.

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