Rose Gray: Chef and restaurateur who co-founded the River Café

Rose Gray was the co-founder, chef and owner of the celebrated London restaurant, the River Café.

With its Italian home-cooking, served in the most stylish premises of any London restaurant – they were designed, after all, by Richard Rogers – the restaurant was an instant success, and despite its difficult location on the river in Hammersmith, it has always had a waiting list to book a table.

Moreover, because Rose and her partner Ruthie Rogers' books were all best-sellers, and because they had enormous audiences for their television programmes, and trained many of the younger generation of star chefs and front-of-house people, they had a great influence on the way Britain eats. They did much to popularise the view of Italian cuisine as comprising simple techniques coupled to the use of good ingredients, both because they caught the receptive Foodie moment of the late-1980s, and because they reached a considerably larger audience than several, excellent predecessors who preached the same Italian food gospel.

Clemency Anne Rose Swann was born on 28 January 1939 in Bedford. Just before her birth her father, Clement Nelson Swann, and a sibling were killed in a domestic fire, and Rose was brought up in Scotland and Surrey. Her mother, Elizabeth Anne Lawrence, settled in Guildford, and Rose studied at Guildford College of Art, where she gained a BA in Fine Art, and became friends with Richard Rogers and his first wife, Su Rogers Miller.

Moving to London, Rose taught fine art at a girls' school in Shoreditch from 1960-63; during these years she married Mickey Gray, started a family (her first son, Ossian, or Ossie, and daughters, Hester and Lucy) and began to take a serious interest in cooking. The couple designed self-assembly paper lampshades and furniture, and with a friend started a company that sold into Habitat, Liberty and Heal's.

At around the same time they bought for £20 each three successful mobile units for making French crêpes at a stall in Portobello Road, and at parties and gigs. Rose had to go to markets in Paris to source the crêpe flour, and during one of these trips she discovered a supplier of beautiful, ornate French stoves, which soon became another business, this time with an artist, David Robin MacIlwaine, who became her second husband in 2004 (her first marriage had ended in the late 1960s).

The growing family – their son Dante MacIlwaine Gray was born in 1973 – fell on slightly hard times and moved to Camaiore in the Carrara mountains north of Lucca in Tuscany in 1981, so that David could paint, sculpt and put together an exhibition. They stayed for some time in the house that had belonged to Henry Moore and then to his daughter, Mary.

They moved to New York in 1985 for the exhibition, and while it was on Rose worked as a cook at the smartest spot in Manhattan, Nell's Nightclub on 14th Street (which closed in 2004); her friend Nell Campbell asked her to work for her with the two British brothers, Keith and Brian McNally, who have each owned a clutch of fashionable restaurants in the city. Gray said that in her three or four months there, "the Chinese guys in the kitchen taught me how a restaurant really runs."

Back in London in 1986, Gray and Janie Longman began running a dinner-party catering business for customers like Antonio Carluccio and Christina Smith. Later that year, when Ruthie Rogers had the idea for a restaurant in the Thames Wharf space where Richard Rogers' architectural practice was going to be located, "I immediately thought of Rose," she says. "We had coffee in the King's Road, went to look at the site, and decided to do it." They had a budget of £28,000, which they used to buy furniture and crockery from the Reject shop and second-hand stoves, and opened in June, 1987.

Their common ground was Italy. Both women knew, were influenced by and had cooked with Richard Rogers' mother, Dada. "Rose, for her part," wrote Michael Bateman in a 1995 feature about the restaurant, "came from an intensely food-conscious family. Her grandfather, a former president of the Royal Horticultural Society, had been a serious gourmand. 'He was one of the greediest of people,' she says. 'My mother was traumatised by this. She reacted against her parents' self-indulgence and became a minimalist cook. She might eat only one egg, but it would be cooked in the best way'."

Ruthie and Rose agreed that "we wanted to cook the kind of food we ate in people's homes in Italy, which you couldn't find in London – the bread soups of Tuscany, such as pappa al pomodoro, or ribollita; or slow-cooked meats such as pork cooked in milk; or the bollito mistos with their essential sauces like salsa verde, salsa di dragoncello; vegetables served at room temperature with extra virgin olive oil; and strong-flavoured ice creams."

"We intended," Rogers said, "to run our restaurant along the same social and political lines as our families – so, for example, everyone helped 'prep' the food on his own level of ability, from waiters to kitchen porters. Rose had more training than me; but one day one of us made sandwiches, the other made pasta, and then we switched. We started small, but contrary to the story, we never actually saw the River Café as a staff canteen for the architectural practice – it was always meant to be a restaurant."

However, at first they could only get planning permission to serve people connected with Thames Wharf, and could only open at lunch. Then on they were allowed to open for dinner from Monday to Friday, providing all guests were off the premises by 11pm, a restriction under which they still labour. A year later they got permission to do weekends and Sunday lunches. In 1988 they were awarded a Michelin star and have kept it ever since.

In 1996 Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker praised the Riverside as the best Italian restaurant in the world, to a mixed reaction of outrage and glee. Jamie Oliver was "discovered" there when Channel 4 was filming its 12-part series with Rose and Ruthie; and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall trained with them. Gray once said, with more than a touch of irony, "the River Café is not really a business; it's a finishing school for the children of our friends." And it's certainly true that it's the only restaurant in London where high-up BBC executives, heads of publishing houses and leading politicians of the day were regularly served by the son of a famous novelist, by the daughter and son of a celebrated poet, or by the present writers' daughter.

Rogers gives their joint influences (besides her mother-in-law) as Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Ada Boni and Richard Olney. The first of their 10 jointly-authored books, The River Café Cook Book (1995, River Café Blue) won the Glenfiddich book of the year award the next year, was a huge bestseller, and has caused trouble ever since for those who simply cannot follow its recipe for "Chocolate Nemesis" (it's correctly scaled down for the domestic kitchen in the 1998 River Café Italian Kitchen). In a 1995 column James Fenton remarked about the Blue book: "I've been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can't say I've actually cooked anything from it. More, what I'm doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards." Their recipes are particularly demanding when it comes to ingredients – they exert an almost moral pressure to use only the best, most authentic foodstuffs.

In 2001 Gray was diagnosed with breast cancer; in 2004 she became a "Breast Cancer Ambassador" and was also co-founder of the Cooks in Schools charity. In recent years she and David MacIlwaine lived in what Ruthie called "a sort of urban garden in the sky," a light-filled loft space with views over Paddington, entered through a large terrace crammed with pots of herbs and flowering plants. She had an open kitchen, as at the River Café, as she liked to cook with others around her – often her four children and their partners, and some of her 10 grandchildren. Gray and Ruthie Rogers and were both awarded MBEs in the last New Year's Honours List.

Clemency Anne Rose Swann, chef, restaurateur and cookery book writer: born Bedford 28 January 1939; MBE 2010; married 1961 Michael Selby Gray (marriage dissolved; one son, two daughters,), 2004 David Robin MacIlwaine (one son); died London 28 February 2010.

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