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.
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