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Max Rocha: ‘A lot of chefs are alcoholics. I’ve worked in restaurants where they have to put salt in the cooking wine so people don’t drink it’

Burnt out from his first career in music management, Max Rocha turned to his other passion, food. He opened his first restaurant, Café Cecilia last summer, and with lots of help from his entrepreneurial family, he’s cooking on gas

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Max Rocha by Andrew Nuding

Max Rocha by Andrew Nuding

John and Odette at Cafe Cecilia in November

John and Odette at Cafe Cecilia in November

John, Simone and Odette Rocha

John, Simone and Odette Rocha

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Max Rocha by Andrew Nuding

There’s a familiar figure with long grey hair puffing on a cigarillo outside Café Cecilia in Hackney, East London, Max Rocha’s new restaurant. It may still be breakfast time, but designer John Rocha, Max’s father, is already on site for a snagging session with the builders. Inside, Max’s sister, fashion designer Simone, is conducting a meeting at a corner table.

We’re very family-orientated here,” says Max. He’s not kidding.

John oversaw the interiors, Simone designed the staff uniforms. And Max’s mother, Odette, is his culinary touchstone, providing the recipe for the Guinness bread that is one of Café Cecilia’s staples, and on-hand each week to taste all the new dishes before they go on the menu.

“I think when you are on the outside you see things differently,” she says, “and that can be helpful.”

Café Cecilia is the toast of London, with the great, the good and the merely fashionable falling over themselves to praise the young Irish chef and queuing down the street for breakfast on weekends. Tables are now booked out weeks in advance.

“Honestly, it’s beyond my wildest dreams what we have created here,” says Max, sitting down for a coffee at a quiet table. “Florence Knight [head chef at the ultra-cool new Sessions Arts Club in Clerkenwell], comes in for breakfast on Sundays, and Anna Tobias [of Café Deco in Bloomsbury] called in yesterday. The Evening Standard included me in a list of top London chefs that included Richard Corrigan and Hélène Darroze.

"I was pinching myself. Dad said, What’s going on here? Corrigan was awarded two Michelin stars and Hélène three and I’m just here making terrines. For me, just to be mentioned alongside them is an absolute honour. I keep saying: Oh my God, this is so crazy. I’ve just got to try and embrace it.”

Until the start of lockdown, Max had been working in other people’s restaurants, with stints at St John, Spring and the River Cafe on his CV. But 2020, and the pandemic, saw him holed up in his flat in East London on his own, and for the first time he had the headspace to think about where his career was going. He set up a picnic business, and cooked for shoots.

The feedback was positive and with the encouragement of his family he began to look for restaurant premises, eventually settling on this new-build by Regent’s Canal, close to Broadway Market.

Café Cecilia – named in honour of John’s mother, who came up with the money to send her son from Hong Kong to London many years ago – opened in August and has been a hit since day one.

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“Some people have been in 10 times already,” says Max. “That makes me feel more comfortable that it’s going to work. And every lunch and dinner is booked and I look out from the kitchen and I don’t know anyone, so it’s amazing. It’s a dream kitchen and I’m only going to open my first restaurant once, so I’m going to enjoy it.

“I’m slowly becoming more confident in my food. I feel so fortunate that it’s connecting with people. I thought I was opening a cafe, and at breakfast it feels really like a cafe but for lunch and at night it’s much more of a restaurant, which we didn’t really expect but which is great because I think I’d be bored if I wasn’t getting to cook the dishes I’m cooking.”

Max’s description of his food as “simple, but really interesting” is spot-on. At lunch there are delicious fritti of sage leaves sandwiched together with anchovy cream, perfect mallard and an evil deep-fried bread and butter pudding with custard.

“He gets it from both sides,” says Odette. “I’ve loved cooking ever since I was really young and in John’s family in Hong Kong food is everything. At home, Max was always the one to help me, rather than Zoe and Simone. He was always trying different things and he baked with my mum too. She was a hard task master, though, she’d tell him: ‘That scone isn’t high enough!’ or ‘It’s too dry!’”

When he left school, Max was torn between his twin loves of food and music, but chose to work in the music business, on the management side. He ended up burnt out, anxious and feeling down.

“With hindsight he should have been concentrating on his own music,” says Odette. “He loves music and is really good at the guitar. Management just wasn’t for him, he’s better when he’s doing his own physical work.”

Around that time, Max and Odette did a sourdough class at E5 Bakehouse, and it was a turning point for Max, who decided he was going to become a chef.

“We get on very well and love spending time together,” says Odette, “so doing the class together was lovely. I was happy with his decision. I felt whatever he wanted to do was OK. He is very determined and whatever he does, he does well. So I wasn’t worried. John was concerned it might be a case of going from the frying pan into the fire because kitchens are tough places, but he stuck it out for six years. I’m glad he has his own place now.

“He feels good in the kitchen and that’s what we want for him. I’m thrilled he has found his niche. I believe no matter what you choose to work at, if you have a passion and work hard you can succeed.”

While Max’s style had been influenced by all the restaurants he has worked in along the way, and there are nods to Irish cuisine on the menu at Café Cecilia – evident in the breakfast dish of boiled egg, Coolea cheese and Guinness bread, and in the oysters, smoked salmon and ham that sometimes appear, it’s clear that Odette is his culinary muse.

“She’s not an ‘Irish cook’,” says Max. “She’s very influenced by seasonal ingredients and she’s really good at salads, pastas, fish and garnishes. She’s across the menu as a whole and she makes sure it’s at the right standard. I’m so lucky to have her.”

“My mum was a baker more than a cook,” adds Odette, “so I taught myself to cook from books such as [Alice Waters’] Chez Panisse, Sally Clarke, The River Cafe and Skye Gyngell’s A Year in My Kitchen. I’m not a red meat person but John loves meat and Max does too. I’m more into vegetables. Max and I chat about the produce that’s coming up and what he might do with it. He puts his own twist on everything and every week he’s open the food and plating are getting better and more consistent.

"People are loving his food, which is so exciting. My favourite dishes are the fritti, the pumpkin with black olive dressing and Graceburn cheese, the grilled mackerel with beetroot... and his almond and raspberry tart is wonderful.”

Max learned to make pasta at Mangia, an Italian restaurant in Copenhagen, where he worked a few years ago, and there’s always a pasta dish on the menu at Café Cecilia. One day it might be rabbit ragu, another agnolotti with cavolo nero.

“I take pasta really seriously,” he says. “I made pasta at Mangia from 8am ’til 5pm every day and then cooked it all night. Five pastas, one risotto – it was chaos. Funnily, I don’t hate pasta, I still love it. People are crazy about the pasta here. Usually in the mornings, someone else is cooking and I’ll be there rolling pasta from where I can see the room. That’s when I’m happiest, making pasta.”

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John and Odette at Cafe Cecilia in November

John and Odette at Cafe Cecilia in November

John and Odette at Cafe Cecilia in November

As focused as he is on great food, Max is also determined that his restaurant avoids the traditional pitfalls of hospitality in terms of staff burnout, antisocial hours and poor work/life balance. To that end Café Cecilia is open only five days a week, with currently no evening service.

The run up to Christmas, says Max, was a little overwhelming. First, the fresh wave of Covid hit bookings. “Then there was an outbreak of Covid in our staff and we had to close a week earlier than normal.” They were left “with a full fridge of food but we did the best we could with the food in terms of freezing some and giving some to family and friends”.

Making hospitality a better industry to work in is a hot topic. So how do you make a restaurant kitchen a good place to work?

“As a chef you get burnt out because you work double after double, and then when you have a day off, you can’t move,” he says. “And then that’s when mental health starts to break down. You’re trying to come down after service and you end up drinking, some people get into drugs. I want to try and make that not a problem any more.

“A lot of chefs are alcoholics. I’ve
worked in restaurants where they have to put salt in the cooking wine so people don’t drink it.

“If they’re coming in hungover because of partying, then it’s not the right place for them to work so I’ve a really strict rule here with everyone — it’s in our starting form — that you can’t come in hungover, and if you do come in hungover you have a meeting with me and my dad about it. For one thing it’s dangerous in the kitchen, and second, it provides a bad atmosphere for the guests who come here to eat.

“On their days off, they can go wild and do whatever they want, but when they’re here, we want them to be clear-minded, because we put so much into building this place.

“I’m making an effort to change the culture. I’ve told everyone that Monday is my office day and Tuesday is my prep day and that they can come and talk to me about any issues they have, whether with their mental health, or work, or work/life balance, or addiction. If they need to work a bit slower, we can adjust the prep list so they’re not burning out.

“I’ve worked in kitchens when I’ve been going through mental health stuff and my list is so long I can’t get it done. If someone tells me beforehand they have an issue, I can deal with it. I prefer to know if someone’s going through something because it’s better than me getting upset internally with how they’re working.

“One of my chefs said he had never seen a kitchen more led by hope than fear. It’s so positive and open, perhaps there’s a new way that we can have restaurants?

“The team’s working really well. And we’ve had some people leave because it wasn’t the right place for them and other people start, but that’s just kitchens. I think I realised I was ready to open a restaurant when I knew anyone could leave and
I wouldn’t be panicking.”

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John, Simone and Odette Rocha

John, Simone and Odette Rocha

John, Simone and Odette Rocha

So how is he finding the transition from being a chef who works under somebody else to being the boss?

“It’s good and bad,” he says. “I find I love managing people. My dad and Simone are a big help, because they have both been running businesses for years and can give me really good advice. The main thing for me here is the staff and then the food, because if the staff are happy then the food will be happy.

“The thing I’m struggling with at the moment is when I get home on a Sunday, it’s like getting back from Electric Picnic and for five days afterwards you feel like shit. That’s the hardest struggle for me at the moment because I barely drink, I don’t have a girlfriend, I just work, work, work and the serotonin is so high when I’m at work and then I just drop.

"That’s what I’m finding hardest, so now I’m booking in things to do with friends that force me to leave the house even if I don’t want to, like going for a skate – I love skateboarding – or going to play drums in my friend’s studio.”

It sounds as if Max has figured out how to make Café Cecilia a good place for his staff to work, and now he has to figure out how to make it work for himself.

“Dad keeps saying that – ‘We’ve got to make this a place that works for you as well, so that you can step away for a day or two a week’. The dream would be to do four kitchen shifts and one office shift a week, and maybe by next summer that could happen. For now though I have a lot of energy to give this place. I feel happier here than I do at home. It’s like my family.

“I was so lonely over lockdown, a loneliness I never could have imagined.
I come here first every day, I’m here at six. I read my cookbooks, rewrite the menu from the night before, rewrite the prep jobs, look at who’s in and how we are going to structure the day. It’s so nice to see the chefs come in and hear the coffee machine being turned on. I start rolling pasta and watch the room fill up slowly. That’s what I love.”

Max is 32 now and hasn’t lived in Ireland since his early 20s. He doesn’t see himself living in Ireland again.

“London is home now,” he says. “My family is here and I love it although it took me a couple of years to get used to it. Simone was already here when I arrived which really helped, but it took a while for me to warm to London and for London to warm to me. I live near the restaurant and I walk to work, and if it all works out and I can afford it I’ll buy a house near here.

“And maybe in 20 years’ time I’ll open a B&B with a dining room by the sea that could be a bit more of a fine-dining restaurant and go between the two. But for the moment I haven’t had a day off in seven months, and I need to figure that out first.

“All I really want to do is make mum and dad proud. Without them I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have this opportunity. I just want them to be happy with it. And they just want me to be happy.”


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