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The NS Interview: Ruth Rogers, chef

“None of my staff would work for a chef who bullied and shouted”

Do you buy into the idea of male chefs v female cooks?
Our restaurant is 50-50. When we first opened in 1987, the trousers were so uncomfortable. I called up and said: "Why can't we have more comfortable chef's trousers?" And they said: "Well, 98 per cent of chefs are men and that's who we design for." It's certainly changed. The whole perception of the male chef in a big white hat, being a bully and shouting at people - none of the people I know, who work for me, would work in that atmosphere. We have a kitchen that's based on hope rather than fear: we're a family. When my partner Rose Gray died, I felt like a single parent, but I had 70 kids.

What is so special about Italian food?
Rose and I both loved Italian domestic cooking, the idea that you go to the market and you see what's there - seasonal, regional ingredients - and you go home and cook it. I couldn't live without olive oil, anchovies and parmesan.

The restaurant has a Michelin star - how important is that to you?
I'm sure there are things we could do which might win us a second Michelin star; I could get rid of the paper tablecloths. But when I have customers who come back - that's more important to me than any star.

Did you sack Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for being too messy?
He didn't get sacked for anything he did wrong; he was brilliant. He was passionate, curious, an extremely sensitive chef. We had a summer, a year after we opened, in which we had to close the restaurant or get rid of some people. He was just the most recent person to come and work for us. But it was very sad, and I would have loved it if he could have stayed.

The River Café had a reputation in the 1990s as the "New Labour canteen". Is that fair?
This is something I'd like to dispel. Obviously you can't control who eats in your restaurant and of course the Blairs came here, but we never raised money for the Blairs, or New Labour. We never did anything here which was in any way contributing to New Labour. It was open for business and Tony ate here; Peter Mandelson ate here. So do a lot of people from other parties. That link was always something that was exaggerated by the media.

But you did raise funds for Barack Obama?
No, not here - at my house. A few of us in London raised money. I gave a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in the early days and then I was so impressed when I met Obama in Chicago.

Are you still impressed with him?
I still totally support him, but I could go through the checklist of Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Wall Street - there's a long list of disappointments. I think he inherited a mess, a disastrous economy. It's the same thing here, the separation, the inequality between the rich and poor. It's devastating.

Which brings me to food: how healthy is our relationship with it, as a society?
Again it's an economic situation where you have the poor very badly fed. Obesity is not rich people eating too much good food. And I think the education system does not feed children in schools properly. It's like anything else: textbooks, painting the walls, the teacher's salary. The food we feed them is something that we should be deciding as a society.

Are you involved with any particular charity?
Refuge, the domestic violence charity. I feel we should all do charity, but I also feel that should be the message we get from our government - what it thinks about caring for our children, for pregnant woman, babies, old people, people in hospitals. It's the reason I pay my taxes and am willing to pay more tax.

So you're not a fan of the "big society"?
No, I'd have to say I'm a big-government person. I always think that when we have an earthquake, or a fire (again, I speak as an American) or a flood, we want helicopters and we need firefighters and we need policemen; we need all of those people. And it's the same with education or health.

"I'm willing to pay more tax" isn't something you hear from many business owners.
I just think that's what we need. I used to drive past the Marsden Hospital and see every day a sign that said "Our charity goals" and "We're trying to raise money for cancer machines". Why is health a charity? If anything should be a charity, it's the Ministry of Defence - and if they wanted another missile they should have to have a ball at the Grosvenor House hotel and everybody pay for it.

Do you vote - here or in the US?
Yes, both. I have two passports.

Was there a plan?
Becoming a chef wasn't something I planned . . . it just happened.

Are we all doomed?
No, the future is bright.

Defining Moments

1948 Born in New York State. Father is a doctor, mother a librarian
1968 Moves to London, where she meets her husband, the architect Richard Rogers. They have two sons, plus three sons from his first marriage and 11 grandchildren
1987 Founds River Café with Rose Gray. Rogers's youngest son, Bo, is just four
1995 Publishes first River Café Cookbook
1998 River Café wins its Michelin star
2010 Rose Gray dies of cancer

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State