Although I've always liked cooking from The River Cafe Cookbook I never would have dreamed I'd be working here. I gave up my job in the bond markets at my husband's insistence and was living in the country with him when we split up. I was feeling pretty low until a friend of mine rang up, out of the blue, to ask whether I fancied a complete change in life working at the River Cafe. All I know was that I needed to get back to London so I came up for the interview. It was a funny affair. I was used to rows of men in pinstripes firing questions at me from across a conference table, whereas here we were sitting round a dinner table chatting about what the job might entail since there was no precedent. I immediately grasped that Rose and Ruth were great characters and it just felt right, so I agreed to start the following week. That was four months ago.
Of course, I am in a very different world from brokering, but the one skill both jobs require is to be pleasant to people even when under pressure. I lay awake the night before I started and worried about whether I would know what to do. When I arrived I headed for the in-tray, which looked like it needed a good sorting. I still haven't quite cleared it, but it was a good start. Then I set to work acquainting myself with the office. I am sure that to begin with I was more of a hindrance than a help, but to Rose and Ruth's credit they took time out from cooking to explain as much as they could. After my marriage break-up I was still going through tremendous mood swings and whereas bringing your problems to work is a no-no in the macho world of the bond markets, here people were really supportive. Ruth even had me to stay with her for a while when I was at a particularly low ebb and she thought I needed looking after.
Around the time I was taken on, a whole lot of work suddenly struck us, including Rose and Ruth's tour of Australia. I found the variety fascinating, so I guess I just slipped in to getting them organised, but my mind boggles when I think of how much Ossie - Ruth's son who works as general manager - gets done. Although it's probably hard for him to delegate I try to encourage him to hand over some of the less esoteric stuff, like servicing the fridges. I was recently given another title of "office manager", which makes me laugh because I don't think I actually manage it at all.
We get a lot of letters from customers. There is the odd "I found a skin on my broad bean and I'm not happy about it" type letter but it's very rare. One of the first steps in my re-education was to make my letters less formal. Rose and Ruth want me to help them rather than shielding them from the world. I'm not the kind of PA who would say that they are in a meeting when they aren't. They wander in and out of the office throughout the day in their tomato-stained chef's outfits, taking calls and writing letters, but I know that they would always prefer to be in the kitchen. The restaurant has developed in a very organic way. I think it makes a real difference that it's run by women because they just get on with it. Male master chefs can be very egocentric and rather precious about things, whereas everyone is on the same level here. If a celebrity tried to book a table through me I would just refer them back to reservations.
I love arriving at the restaurant because I'm greeted by the sight of all the waiters lined up behind the bar, chopping herbs. Passing through three very different environments throughout the day - the office, restaurant and kitchen - keeps life interesting. For example, I might pop into the kitchen via the restaurant to get ingredients to send to Ruth or Rose if they are trying something new at home. The other day I was standing on a ladder in the kitchen reaching for some pine nuts, and slipped on the ladder. It was during the action stations stage before lunch and I managed to cause chaos, spilling the pine nuts all over the place. Most chefs would probably scream and shout but this lot were very understanding, although I'm still teased about it. I had expected the kitchen to be huge but it is almost as small as mine; apparently it's a more efficient way to cook. I get to eat the food - we can't eat lunch until four - but I prefer it that way.
Ruth and Rose both have very strong personalities. Both are so tuned in to each other that they can even speak for each other. I've never seen anything like it before. Mind you, there was a time when they both went to New York and Ruth rang in to the office in a panic because she had lost Rose. Ruth is very American, she has a very open-minded approach, seeing possibilities in all things whereas Rose has more of an artistic personality. They really make me laugh because they are so idiosyncratic while remaining completely on the ball.
Being a PA to two women does require a bit of juggling, and I have to be able to give them an equal amount of attention, but I'm used to it now. I think it would have been harder if I had previous experience of working for just one person.
Interview by Katie SampsonReuse content