The River Cafe’s First “Look Book” Pushes the Boundaries of What a Cookbook Can Be

22 February, 2023

It’s an autumn morning at Vogue House, and three editors are oohing and aahing—not over a couture dress or vertiginous stiletto—but a cookbook Ruth Rogers has just placed on a glass desk. Cut flush and beautifully printed in Italy, every single page is a different color, fronted by a rainbow cover designed by Michael Nash Associates and emblazoned with the playful title: The River Cafe Look Book: Recipes For Kids Of All Ages. A compilation of the London institution’s much-loved recipes, it’s light enough to carry around the kitchen as you move between a cutting board and a simmering pot, but still gorgeous enough to display.

It might seem peculiar for the chef-founder of the River Cafe—arguably London’s most famous restaurant—to release anything designed for children, but, as Rogers affirms, her dishes are “actually quite simple.” (No gels or foams here, praise be.) Many of the restaurant’s classics have been pared back for the Look Book, too: in lieu of the chocolate nemesis cake, for example, readers will find a “pressed chocolate cake” which is easy enough to make with under 12s, but impressive enough to serve at a dinner party.

What makes the Look Book such a triumph, though, is its format. After trying to create step-by-step lessons about how to master kitchen basics (“boil a tomato, peel it carefully, remove the seeds”), Rogers and her team decided there had to be another way forward beyond having “a recipe on the left, a photograph on the right.” “It just felt so patronizing to me—and that’s never been part of the River Cafe DNA,” she adds.

Ultimately, the team’s inspiration came via Rogers’s late partner, the celebrated architect Richard. “My husband died recently after having a bad fall three years ago [which left him with brain damage],” she recalls in her lilting Transatlantic accent. “In those three years, he read a lot, and someone—my daughter-in-law, actually—sent us these books developed by a neurologist, an artist, and a photographer in Holland for people with autism and dementia. Each one pairs different images—with the goal of eliciting comparisons between the two—and I just thought, is there a way to do this for food?”

As it turns out, yes. Having already worked with photographer Matthew Donaldson on the previous iteration of the cookbook (along with myriad other River Cafe projects), Rogers joined executive chefs Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli in trawling through Donaldson’s archives for pictures that could run alongside snaps of the River Cafe’s dishes. Among the evocative juxtapositions the group ultimately chose to include within the book’s 100 “Look” pages: brown lentils next to autumn leaves scattered across a pavement; a meringue that echoes the texture of a classical sculpture; and spaghetti alle vongole topped with chili next to wilted red tulips.

Each shot is exquisite enough to hang on a wall (here’s hoping the River Cafe shop launches prints in the near future), and makes you long to get into the kitchen, regardless of your level of experience. The 50 corresponding recipes in the “Cook” section, meanwhile, weave transferable lessons into foolproof instructions. A zucchini salad opens with guidance about dropping vegetables into cold water for 30 minutes to firm them up before peeling, while a wrapped monkfish dish is used to teach readers how to handle baking parchment. (The parcels should be seared “in a hot pan so they don’t stick” before going into the oven.) “I always say that a recipe is half science and half poetry,” Rogers reflects, “and these ones are really for everybody.”