Max Rocha, son of fashion designer John Rocha, has just opened Café Cecilia in London’s Hackney … with a little help from his family. KATY McGUINNESS spoke to him …
“I figured if I opened the restaurant on my birthday, all my friends and family would have to come.” Max Rocha is being modest, because within hours of bookings going live for his first solo restaurant, Café Cecilia in Hackney, London, last month, every sitting had been snapped up.
Max and Odette
On the Regent’s Canal, a couple of minutes’ walk from Broadway Market, the restaurant’s name is a tribute to Max’s paternal grandmother. “Cecilia got my dad John from Hong Kong to the UK and without her none of us would be here,” says Max. “It’s been lovely with Dad, Mum and Simone all helping. I’m embracing and enjoying everything so much, I’ll never open my first restaurant again.” Max came to cooking by accident after an early career in the music business. “My mum Odette took me on a bread-baking course to try and shake my depression and that was the start of everything.”
John on site
Since then, he has worked in restaurants such as Skye Gyngell’s Spring, The River Café and St John Bread & Wine, but says he never had a big desire to open his own place.
Then Covid-19 struck, and he found himself home alone in his flat in East London with plenty of time on his hands. He started making picnics – often featuring Odette’s Guinness bread recipe – and they turned out to be a pandemic hit. “For the first time in a long time I had time to relax and think about what I really wanted,” he says. “And people liking the picnics gave me confidence. I thought, maybe a restaurant might work.”
The hunt for premises took more than six months. “Originally I thought I’d like a charming old neighbourhood place with lots of character, but then this new-build became available and we have been able to make the space our own. My dad drew the design and layout by hand, and Luke Hickson, the architect who designed all Simone’s stores, made it happen.
“The interior is plain with white walls and simple wooden tables. Music is so important for good energy in the room: it will be Astral Weeks, Paul Brady and Joni Mitchell, all the good stuff.” Sister Simone has designed the aprons and uniforms, and when it came to selecting tableware, Max has opted for utilitarian plain white crockery, canteen-style cutlery and simple, inexpensive glasses. “I’d rather put the money into the team, the produce, and the sound system.”
Simone’s designs for the uniforms
Max’s menu centres on simple meat, fish and vegetable dishes that will change with the seasons. “My mum has had a huge input into the menu, I talk to her about it all the time. Her Guinness bread is there, with a boiled egg and Coolea cheese for breakfast.”
The tasting table, set by Odette backstage
His opening team includes alumni of some restaurants he has worked in, establishments which share a common focus on excellent ingredients prepared without fuss. Manager Kate Towers comes from Rochelle Canteen, the lowkey gourmand’s London restaurant of choice. “It’s a small, amazing team, they believe in the whole thing – I feel so lucky. Initially we are open for breakfast and lunch, and we offer catering too. Soon we will open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, but I didn’t want to rush and be overwhelmed, and if the staff are happy the food will be happy. It’s all about people enjoying simple food, food cooked with all the care in the world.”
And with that he’s off. “I’ve got a Bakewell in the oven so I have to go.”
Siblings Max and Simone Rocha were photographed for the New York Times this summer, and described their close relationship and their childhood growing up in Dublin, before both moved to London. Now their relationship extends to the professional, which results in a rewarding creative exchange. Fashion designer Simone told the NYT, “We cross-pollinate all the time.” Max has commissioned bands to play at her fashion shows while she created floral arrangements for the informal supper clubs Max hosted. Simone has designed the uniforms for Café Cecilia.
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