An Italian lesson to remember: Rose Gray's obsession with la cucina Italiana was something she was eager to share

I first met Rose Gray 13 years ago, when she and Ruth Rogers were celebrating 10 years of the River Café's existence. Rose was lean-faced and wore rimless glasses like a Nazi camp commandant, but her conversation was warm and her eyes sparkled. Alternately friendly and firm, she reminded me of a sexy convent headmistress. I liked the way she joshingly ordered the waiters around ("Out of the way, you lot. I saw you trying to sneak into the photograph...") and I discovered, inside half an hour, that she was the most knowledgeable, most discriminating and perfectionist chef I'd ever met. Thirteen years later, I'd say the same. Rose Gray, who died on Sunday, was the foodie's foodie.

Today, every restaurant from Penzance to Perth makes a song and dance of how it "sources" its "produce" – how it gets its meat, fish and vegetables from respectable, organic farms a few miles from the kitchen, rather than in plastic bags from the local Tesco Metro. In the late Nineties, nobody was more scrupulous about ingredients than Rose and Ruth. The point of their restaurant was "to cook Italian food to a sublime degree" and boy, did they take it seriously. Not only did they travel to Italy all the time in search of menu ideas, they went right back to basics. They looked around the markets, then went to the shops that sold the seeds that produced the vegetables that appeared in the market, bearing them home in triumph, to be planted and coaxed into growth by English suppliers. Rose selected an army of growers from all over: a chap in Southampton for the herbs, and a Sicilian farmer called Mario ("just off the M25" she'd say vaguely, as if unwilling to share him) who grew piles of rocket and trevisano, broad beans and winter leaves, just for her.

She was, she admitted, terribly selective: only this pumpkin would do, or that cabbage. She was doctrinaire to an obsessive degree. No EU food commissar, laying down the law about straight bananas, was as strict as Rose. "Of course there's such a thing as a perfect zucchini," she'd say. "It has to be organically grown and hand-picked when it tastes best – which is when it's slightly longer than your first finger and before the seeds have developed inside. After that, the flesh gets softer and watery and you don't get the intense flavour." This tone informed the River Café Cook Book, where aspirant cooks would read that beetroots must be "the size of golf balls," and the only salt you should use was Maldon sea crystals.

Her fascination with food, and the lovely predictability of growing things, derived from her childhood. Her father was a designer of hot-air balloons who was killed just before Rose was born (she was christened Clemency Anne Rose Swann) in 1939. It was a freak accident in the house beside the balloon shed. When she and I first met, in 1997, Rose had only just learned about the accident. She had visited her father's grave for the first time three weeks earlier. "Nobody spoke about it," she told me. "My mother used to pretend he died in the war. Perhaps because of having a secretive mother, I've always been very enquiring about my origins, about food and gardening."

She grew up in Surrey, where life was frugal but her mother was a good cook and everything was home-made. Her early memories weren't of tastes and smells, however, but of "being sent out to pick Brussels sprouts in the garden" at Christmas. "They would be frozen, and I still remember that wintry feeling in my fingers".

She studied fine art at Guildford, taught art at Shoreditch Comprehensive, then raised four children and learned cooking at home. For a while she made French crêpes in Portobello Road and at rock concerts at Birmingham's Rainbow music venue, before leaving for the US where a friend asked her to be head chef in a new restaurant.

I met up with her several times, at the Café and at literary festivals, where she and Ruth would give master classes in cucina rustica, or Italian peasant cuisine. Lunching with Rose was always an education. She loved talking about food, naming names, tasting everything at the table; she and I would swap plates to try each other's mozzarella di bufala with chargrilled aubergines, or wood-roasted asparagus with gull's eggs. Her knowledge of unfamiliar verdure was phenomenal: if you sat down knowing nothing of crookneck squash, Belgian endive or punterelles, you'd get up fully briefed. She and Ruth loved describing their discoveries in Italian cuisine – its little surprises and regional variants. Finding a region where they used cinnamon in tomato paste, or a salad which featured boiled lemons and artichoke, would delight Rose.

She was much more than a culinary tourist, however. In the early Eighties, she and her partner (later her second husband) David McIlwaine went to live in Lucca, where he painted and exhibited his work. Rose haunted local food shops. She thought nothing of walking into a butcher's in Montepulciano and buying a whole pig, which she roasted in the garden, turning it on a spit resting on two crosses, over an open fire. Typically, the butcher asked her how she intended to cook it. "In the Tuscan way, with fennel seeds and salt," she replied. The other customers volunteered their opinions, insisting there were much better methods. "You can't do it with fennel," one man shouted at her. "That's how they do it in Siena!" – as if the ancient Tuscan town, 50 kms away, were some unspeakably alien turf.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her several times over the years, and once was allowed to hang out in the River Café kitchen, watching the grandes dames at their morning's work. At 8.45am they were inspecting the piles of vegetables, just delivered: three types of artichoke, carrots, red potatoes, slender asparagus, freakishly thin leeks like spring onions, broad beans, rocket, spinach.

Rose was enthusing about a pasta dish with zucchini flowers she'd just had in Naples and was putting on the menu. "And this hot olive sauce thing, which is just fackin' mayyja..." she added, in a perfect, off-the-cuff impersonation of Jamie Oliver, the River Café's sainted alumnus. Then the shelled peas appeared. "Oh God no, those are brutes," she said. "Get someone to pick out the small ones."

In her chef's whites, with her shoulders hunched in concentration, Rose parcelled out the work, assigned tasks to the seven chefs as if each constituted a sacred trust ("Who's good at blanching broad beans?") and, amid the frenzy of prepping, remembered to send someone to fix her car alarm, which had been going off randomly in the mornings. I saw close-up how scarily she attacked the utensils, banging down pots like a chef from central casting, glaring into the pans while making pasta with mussels, as if daring the shellfish to behave themselves and not to open.

When a bottle of white wine was poured, she inserted her nose into the glass like an albino vulture toying with a water jug. Her expression hardened. Her brows knitted. Something was not right. You could practically hear the wine quaking with fear beneath the scrutiny of this exacting dominatrix...

The depth of her concentration, whether stoning an olive or dismembering a halibut, was awesome. She poked, and sniffed, and prodded, and tasted, like a witch casting spells, while simultaneously directing operations, hectoring waiters and dispensing random bits of information: "These tomatoes, John, are called Vesuvio because the pointy bit at the bottom looks like a volcano..."

And when it was all over, in the calm after the storm and before the lunchers arrived, when the vegetables were all cooked, the spinach wilted, the lemon-and-chard artfully combined, the meat and guinea fowl all trimmed and ready to be slammed into the wood-roasting oven, Rose Gray would become the calm, contented queen of the revels – talking the waiters through the menu, explaining how every dish was done, what's meant by pagnotta bruschetta, what zucchini flowers were doing in the tomato sauce; instructing them in all the lunchtime mysteries, and the secret alchemy of meat, heat and greenery, of which she was the consummate mistress.

River Café recipes: Steak, salad and soup

Bistecca di manzo con rucola

Steak with rocket

Steak hiding a rocket salad can be served the other way round, with the rocket hiding the steak!

Serves 1

1 x 225g entrecôte steak, all fat and sinews removed
A handful of rocket leaves, washed and dried
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon quarter

For the dressing:

5 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Combine the oil, lemon juice, vinegar and some salt and pepper for the dressing. Pull out a piece of cling film six times the width of the steak. Place the steak in the centre of one half of the cling film and fold the other half over it. Now, gently, using either a wooden mallet or a rolling pin, beat the steak out evenly until paper-thin and the size of a plate. Season on both sides.

Preheat a grill to very hot. Place the steak on the grill, brush with olive oil, and sear on both sides, then remove. Dress the rocket leaves and place on a warm plate. Cover completely with the steak.

From 'The River Café Cook Book' by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Ebury Press)

Broad bean soup

This very thick soup of broad beans and potatoes requires very little stock, as the flavour is in the beans and basil. It is fine to use a quality, ready-made chicken stock in this recipe.

300g podded broad beans
200g podded peas
2 garlic cloves
400g waxy potatoes
4 tablespoons basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
300ml chicken stock
One quarter of a sourdough loaf

Peel and chop the garlic. Peel and cut the potatoes into 2cm cubes. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan and fry the garlic until soft. Add the potato, stir and season, then add the broad beans, peas and stock.

Cook for 15 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Place half the soup in a food processor and roughly pulse, then return to the same pan.

Add the basil. The soup should be thick.

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.

Thickly slice the bread, trim the crusts and tear into pieces. Drizzle with olive oil. Season and bake until lightly toasted.

Put the bread in the bowls. Spoon the soup over, and drizzle with olive oil.

Zucchini fritti

This is a recipe where you can make good use of large zucchini.

500g zucchini (courgettes)
1 litre sunflower oil

For the batter:

150g plain flour
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons warm water
3 egg whites, organic

Cut the zucchini into 5mm-thick ovals, then cut these into thick matchsticks.

Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and leave for half an hour.

For the batter, sieve the flour into a bowl, make a well in the centre, pour in the olive oil and stir to combine. Loosen this paste by slowly adding enough warm water to make a batter the consistency of double cream.

Leave for half an hour. Season.

Heat the oil in a high-sided pan to 190C.

Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Pat the zucchini dry, dip them in the batter, then fry in batches in the hot oil until golden and crisp. Serve immediately.

From 'River Café Cook Book Easy' by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Ebury Press)

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