The first job in the kitchen each morning is the bread. The large sack of unbleached organic flour comes from wheat grown in Norfolk. The sourdough starter began life as a potato on this farm, the rosemary is from the garden, the Maldon salt from Essex. We bake the long flat loaves of focaccia daily and they’ve been a fixture almost since we opened 18 years ago. When I said we’d serve them with little jugs of olive oil, not butter, the response was: ‘That’ll never work. This is Suffolk. This is butter country.’
Not that we persecute customers. If you want butter, just ask for it. In fact, few customers do. They just pour a little puddle of olive oil on the side plate, picking the little spikes of rosemary out of the bread’s salty crust. We serve the bread with the wine. The customer doesn’t order it and he isn’t charged for it. Charging for bread seems as unfriendly and out of date to me as a cover charge.
The reason that serving olive oil with the bread is acceptable even in the middle of Suffolk is because we’re all Italian now. We might not know the verbs, but we’re fluent in the nouns: focaccia, crostini, ravioli, marscarpone, cappuccino, latte, prosciutto, risotto, Parmigiano Reggiano. This patch of Suffolk may belong to that slenderest of categories-an English vineyard restaurant but nowadays, we all eat with an Italian accent.
That’s been my thinking for a long time, but last week, when I heard that Rose Gray, founder of the River Café, had died, I realised how much restaurants like mine owe to her. I never cooked in her kitchen, but I ate at the restaurant soon after it opened. Memories of that meal would eventually appear on my own menus: grilled polenta with marinated grilled vegetables; linguini with crab and fresh red chillies; and, of course, the renowned Chocolate Nemesis.
But if Mrs Gray’s most famous gift to us all was a passion for open, honest cooking with great flavours, there was another lesser-known legacy that anyone who runs a restaurant treasures even more. Although she had the highest possible standards, she didn’t achieve them by swearing or bullying. She understood the importance of a kitchen that was serious and fun, professional but friendly, a nice place to be.
Perhaps the most unconventional thing that she and her partner, Ruth Rogers, established at the River Café was the front of house-the waiters-helping with the prep each morning, washing salads, de-stemming herbs. This ‘everybody does everything’ philosophy breaks down the ‘them’ and ‘us’ that builds up all too easily in restaurants, where chefs are convinced that the waiters have it way too easy.
Nowhere is the damage of bullying felt more instantly than in the restaurant business. A chef who bullies his brigade will never produce delicious food. The sauce curdles, the spirit wilts. And a chef who thinks all waiters are good-for-nothing idiots can ruin a restaurant. You simply can’t recover from a verbal kick in the narrow space between the kitchen door and the dining room. The mood of the whole restaurant is determined at the stove.
You can probably see the fork coming in this road. What’s true of the chef de cuisine is true of the head of the country. Gordon Brown’s bullying is all too believable. Too many civil servants and MPs who’ve worked with him have now fled the kitchen. If the chef in charge of the nation has a temper that erupts without warning, his team becomes crippled. The country suffers.
What a shame this Prime Minister didn’t spend some time at the River Café. The olive oil would have improved his visage and the Barolo might have mellowed him. Better still, the inspiring way the passionate and driven Mrs Gray treated her staff might have shown him how to bring out the best in his sous chefs.
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