LONDON – Michael Caine has been a regular at the River Cafe for decades, dining with his family, usually Wednesday or Thursday, and always at Table 4, the most coveted seat at this famous Hammersmith Italian restaurant.
So when Ruth Rogers, the US-born owner of the River Cafe, started creating a new podcast in which she interviews famous guests about what food means to them, she naturally turned to Mr. Caine. For Mrs. Rogers, known to everyone as Ruthie, it was a comfort food for a newbie podcaster.
Mr. Caine spoke vividly of the memorable meals he had had, his other favorite restaurants – Chasen’s in West Hollywood; Elaine is in New York – and most importantly, about her childhood in Cockney London, where fish was always on the menu because her father, a porter at a fish market, “nibbled” on it on the way home.
What, she asked the 88-year-old actor, was his comfort food? âYears ago it was sausage and mash,â he replied. “Now it’s caviar.”
A good line up, and one that could serve as a metaphor for the “River Cafe Table 4” series, which debuts Tuesday on iHeartMedia, Apple Podcasts and other sites. Ms. Rogers put together a tremendous array of top names for the first 38 episodes: Paul McCartney, Al Gore, David Beckham, Glenn Close, Tracey Ullman, Salman Rushdie, Pete Davidson, Ralph Fiennes and so on.
What at least some of them have in common are humble roots and a dizzying rise to fame and fortune: in Mr Caine’s case, from a South London apartment building to a weekly booking at the River Cafe, where the entrance to mozzarella di bufala is 23 pounds. (around $ 31) and the Scottish Wild Salmon with Salsa Verde costs Â£ 43 ($ 59).
Despite all the glamor of her restaurant, Ms. Rogers has managed to cultivate a family spirit there. Most of the customers on a given night are regulars, and those she interviewed seemed to really like the place. By persuading them to talk about the role food has played in their lives, she aims to make even the most rarefied celebrities appear a little more human. During the pandemic, she stressed, even the stars had to eat at home.
âPeople talked a lot about what they ate and cooked when they were with their families all day,â said Ms. Rogers, 73, over antipasti, dumplings and gelati at the recently reopened River Cafe. âEven though a lot of these people look very glitzy,â she added, âthe kitchen is a great equalizer.â
The idea for an audio series first came to Ms Rogers, she said, during a visit to Roberta’s, the famous Brooklyn pizzeria that has a radio station in its backyard. (She’s already transformed the River Cafe into a branded extension empire, complete with cookbooks, a TV series, and an online store.) She was further inspired after hosting a charitable fundraiser at her home in London in 2009, to which actor Ian McKellen recited a ribollita soup recipe from one of his cookbooks.
âIt stuck in my mind as a time when the food and the recipes could be dramatic,â Ms. Rogers said. âThe food in your life, the food in your childhood, the food you cook for your children, the sustainable food, the political food. “
Each episode of “River Cafe Table 4” begins with the guest reading the recipe for one of the restaurant’s dishes. Mr. McCartney read one for roasted eggplants. Football star David Beckham made chanterelles tagliatelle, while CNN host Christiane Amanpour recited a cocktail recipe for a Negroni Caldo.
What follows is a fluid conversation between Ms. Rogers and her guests, with food as the starting point for meditations on health, work, success and childhood. Gentle inquisitor, Mrs. Rogers avoids the predictable. (She didn’t ask Mr. McCartney about The Beatles or Mr. Gore about climate change.) But these topics have a way of being broached anyway.
Mr McCartney recalled the first time he had drunk wine, after hitchhiking in Paris with John Lennon, who had inherited Â£ 100 from a relative. âWe took a sip and thought, ‘My God, this is terrible. It’s like vinegar. ‘ Mr. Gore spoke about the soil he put in place on his Tennessee farm to make it more sustainable.
Interviews range from cozy (Ms Close, from a wealthy family in Greenwich, Connecticut, told Ms Rogers her comfort food was Oreo cookies) to austere (Tracey Emin, the British artist, spoke of growing up in the poverty, with a single mother and a father married to another woman).
Some of Ms. Rogers’ guests are confirmed food junkies. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal told him he researched city restaurants before going promoting a movie. But Victoria Beckham, the fashion entrepreneur and former Spice Girl, suggested the food was an indulgence someone at their job couldn’t afford.
âI’m a very picky eater,â Ms. Beckham told Ms. Rogers, after reciting a recipe for roast marinated sea bass. “I like things to be cooked in a very simple way.”
She attributed her lack of adventure to her mother, who she said once used the oven as a filing cabinet. “If he wasn’t in the microwave, he wasn’t interested,” recalls Beckham. Her husband, David, on the other hand, loves to eat. He asked Mrs. Rogers for a cooking class in exchange for recording an episode. (The Beckhams are the only couple to both participate; Mr. McCartney and his daughter, designer Stella McCartney, are the only father-daughter duo.)
Mr McCartney, who quit eating meat in the late 1970s, explained how attitudes towards vegetarianism have changed. At first, he remembers asking for meatless options at Claridge’s, the grand hotel in Mayfair, where the sniffing waiter returned with a plate of steamed vegetables. Now, he says, restaurants with vegetarian menus are so good that he often eats too much.
For the record, Mr. McCartney’s comfort food is a quesadilla.
The pandemic has freed up time for busy artists like Mr McCartney to record the sessions. But she had to conduct the first interviews on Zoom. Ms Rogers, who has an easy-to-listen voice and a tactile manner, said she found it more difficult than the newer ones, recorded face-to-face at the restaurant.
“She has no inhibitions in talking to people,” said Zad Rogers, one of her step-sons, whose company, Atomized Studios, produced the podcast with iHeartMedia. “But I was a little worried about the length of the conversations.”
With the River Cafe buzzing again, Ms. Rogers has thankfully returned to her role as an ultra-connected host, descending from table to table to greet regulars. One recent afternoon, she hugged Jonathan Newhouse, the president of CondÃ© Nast International, who was having dinner with his son Roo Rogers.
Ms. Rogers, who grew up in Woodstock, NY, is married to architect Richard Rogers, famous for designing the Center Pompidou in Paris. She and a partner, Rose Gray, opened the River Cafe in 1987, initially as a canteen for her husband’s business. (Ms Gray died in 2010.) Mr Rogers designed the airy space of the restaurant, in a converted oil warehouse on the north bank of the Thames.
These days, life at the River Cafe looks awe-inspiring. Beside Mr. Newhouse’s table a table of young Americans chatted like a bottle of Billecart-Salmon champagne chilled in a silver bucket. But the pandemic has taken its toll, Ms Rogers said: A first effort to deliver food collapsed after her bosses told her they feared contracting Covid-19. She has also lost staff to Brexit.
âNormally when I’m in Italy and I meet a really good waiter, I say, ‘Why don’t you come to London?’â She said. âI told someone in Venice this summer and he said, ‘I can’t. You don’t want us.
Still, Mrs. Rogers waits with hope. She spoke about upcoming guests, like actor and food connoisseur Stanley Tucci, and Jony Ive, the former Apple chief designer. There are people she would like to interview, including John McEnroe and Bill Gates. âA lot of people in Silicon Valley don’t eat,â she marveled.
And she doesn’t mind affectionately making fun of her guests. When Mr. Gyllenhaal spoke about the rituals of dining out, which included reserving a table – âin the case of your restaurant, months in advanceâ – she replied, âWhen have you ever booked a table? months table in advance? “