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How Max Rocha’s Dublin-Inspired Café Cecilia Became an Instant London Favorite

For Max Rocha, opening his buzzy restaurant Café Cecilia in the Hackney neighborhood of London last February was very much a family effort. The name Cecilia is a tribute to his Chinese paternal grandmother. His father, fashion designer John Rocha, had a hand in the interiors. His older sister, fashion designer Simone Rocha, designed the staffers’ uniforms. Even his young niece, Valentine, contributed a drawing that’s on a wall. But it’s his mother, Odette Rocha, whose influence is most heavily celebrated when it comes to the Dublin-inspired menu. Many of the delightfully unfussy dishes — amongst them a homemade Guinness bread, a pork and apricot terrine, a sage and anchovy fritti, and a chocolate mousse — are versions of what Odette cooked for Max and Simone when they were growing up in Ireland.

After putting in kitchen hours at famed London establishments like The River Café, St John Bread & Wine, and Spring (and catering for a variety of art and fashion shoots), Rocha branched out as head chef of his own eatery by focusing on fresh, in-season produce and putting forth strong family vibes. It’s no wonder Café Cecilia has become much-adored — the restaurant’s DNA pulses with Rocha coolness that runs generations deep. Ahead, we catch up with Rocha on his approach to blending European cuisines, his love for Italian pasta, and his favorite spots for international food — that is, besides his own.

Cafe Cecilia restaurant

What would you say is your approach to food?

My approach is to keep things simple. If you can get quality ingredients from good producers, you don't need to do much to make them taste nice.

What is 'British' food? Would you say your menu is inspired by England, Ireland, or both?

I'm not sure exactly what British food is, but if I had to give an answer, it would be food cooked with ingredients grown in Britain. I think some of our food can be very inspired by Ireland and the food I ate growing up.

Can you tell us about the Italian influence of Café Cecilia? What is your attraction to the Italian way of eating?

I love Italian food and I loved working with Italian chefs in different kitchens. I worked in a restaurant called Mangia in Copenhagen with three Italian chefs and I learnt so much about how they cook and the produce they love to cook with. They were different from anyone I’ve cooked with before; it really came from the heart. I learnt a lot about Italian ingredients working at The River Café and my mum always cooked from The River Café books when I was growing up so it was really nice to go and work there. My favourite thing to cook in service is fresh pasta.

Is the menu a marriage of UK and Italy food and any other type of cuisine? I know you were recently in America.

I love American Italian food. The style of cooking in some Italian restaurants in NYC, like Cafe Altro Paradiso and King, are not super traditional, but very tasty. It's funny, we just put on what we like to cook and it covers different countries, but somehow it works. I was anxious about this before we opened, but it's worked out, and I guess it's just important to cook what you enjoy. I also love French cooking — we always have a terrine on and classic French peppercorn sauce.

Are there elements of American culture you're inspired by?

Not really in terms of the culture but I do dream about opening a restaurant in New York.

What was it like collaborating with your family ahead of opening your first restaurant?

It was really fun as they had never worked in food-related businesses. It was nice to work with my dad on the design of the space from scratch, my sister on the clothes for the front-of-house team, and my mum on the initial menu planning. 

What are your favourite restaurants in the world?

La Petite Maison in Nice, France

Quality Chop House in London

Le Baratin in Paris

Yardbird in Hong Kong

Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin

What is your advice for young cooks, chefs, and food writers?

My best advice is to go cook and work for people you admire greatly, and learn as much as you can. Being a chef is a very hard job. It makes it easier if you are working for a chef that you greatly respect. In terms of writing, I'm still very new to it but I began by pitching a story during lockdown and it being picked up and published. I really, really enjoy writing so I keep doing it, be it for myself or others. The main thing is to get a pen down on paper.

Cafe Cecilia resurant in the London neighbourhood of Hackney