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November 30 2019
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A festive crowd-pleaser.

Let’s all agree on something: Christmas is doing just fine. (Look at almost every retail display in the Western Hemisphere if you don’t believe us.) It’s not warmongering to bristle at Burl Ives, tinsel, and the infinite repetition of red and green. Sometimes it’s just a question of taste. Holidays can be holidays without horrendous sweaters and cloying apéritifs. They can be both comfortable and chic.

Our égérie for the path of cliché resistance is Ruth Rogers (who everyone affectionately calls “Ruthie”), co-founder and chef of London’s River Café. The stripped-down, joyfully minimalist canteen was opened in 1987 to provide simple, authentic Italian food to the employees of Rogers’s husband Richard’s successful architecture firm and everyone else who worked within the Thames Wharf buildings, the only people who had access to the Café at first. (Back then it was the Richard Rogers & Partners, but earlier, as Piano & Rogers, with Renzo Piano, the two brought you the Pompidou Center in Paris. Now it’s Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners.) Due to the local scarcity of Italian food at the time, the River Café soon became the worst-kept secret in London. Two years ago, it celebrated 30 years with River Café 30, a compendium of recipes delivered in a mod, happy, color-blocked form.

At home, Rogers’s holiday trimmings aren’t much different from the rest of the year’s; there’s just more illumination. “We don’t do a ton of décor,” she says. “At home we get a huge tree because I have the space. We just do white lights, and the kids and grandkids put small ornaments around the bottom of the tree. We make polenta cookies.” On the table, as ever, she looks to Italy. “We start with puntarelle, the Roman bitter greens, with anchovy. As an antidote to turkey, we have lobsters.” Rituals, on the other hand, are Anglo-traditional. “Everyone sings ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ I have a songbook I bring out. We play the piano and do the carols: ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘The First Noel.’ It’s a way of coming together.”

“As an antidote to turkey, we have lobsters.”

The group is big. With family and friends, every seat at their 40-place table is full. “All the teenagers come early to pitch in, and one or two of the chefs from River Café, whoever’s free and wants to comes to help out, and then they stay. There’s a cake I make every year based on a recipe of Richard’s mother’s. She was an Italian woman who came to the U.K. during the war. I think she was trying to replicate an Italian panforte and just kept adding more chocolate and almonds and alcohol over the years. It’s not an English fruitcake, you don’t make it in advance, but I do get the candied fruit at Fortnum & Mason because they have the oranges whole, so you chop them yourself and get some irregularity. I soak the fruit a day in advance in Italian brandy and for the topping I use Bristol Cream sherry—I think Richard’s mother used that because she didn’t have Marsala wine here. We like her substitution.”

During the holiday season, the River Café is similarly big on feeling, but tidy on decorations: “We do it all with lighting,” says Rogers. “We have a garden full of trees, and we just string them with white fairy lights and put some more in the windows. It’s very beautiful at night. The other thing we do during the buildup to Christmas is a bollito misto, which means “boiled meat.” It’s also got contechino sausage and lentils, which represent money. It’s a dish looking at the future of life, being spicy and strong. It’s very celebratory.”

The other big River Café holiday gesture is their gift boxes, which share the same clean, bright sensibility as the rest of Rogers’s world, with nary a jingling bell. “They’re a take on the traditional English hamper you send out every Christmas with a fruitcake and some biscuits except we do the ingredients we use in the River Café kitchen: our rice, our pasta, the jars of tomatoes from Puglia, wines from the wine list,” Rogers says. “There are objects, like bright linen napkins, or last year we did a cheese grater from Alessi. The most exciting thing for me is the olive oil. They’re pressing it now.” EXVOO ho ho. (Sorry.)

According to Ruthie, the Key Components of a Good Party …

A Quality Margarita

“My friend Joan Buck once said never give a party without a margarita, so we’ve stuck to that rule for 30 years. Lime juice, Cointreau, and Don Julio, which is made by a friend of ours.”

Low Lighting

“This should need no explanation.”

Inclusivity

“Never say no if someone asks to bring their partner or kids or a friend. The more the merrier.”

Alexandra Marshall is a writer based in Paris

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