Max Rocha talks one hundred miles an hour, scarcely pausing to breathe in and reflect on what it is that he has achieved over the past 7 months and we don’t blame him. Cafe Cecilia opened in August 2021, and it sits proudly, if somewhat inconspicuously, on the edge of the canal in Hackney. Having smashed the first months of service, Max and his team have become known as the darlings of the London restaurant scene, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Their homely yet refined fare reflects an Irish upbringing as well as stints in some of the city’s most iconic kitchens (more on that later). But the most impressive part about this venture is the attitude with which the restaurant is run, Max has cultivated an efficacious and effervescent culture which may indeed change the way in which kitchens are perceived in years to come.
This fabled environment that Max has created in both the kitchen and dining room at Cafe Cecilia stems from a need for self-preservation. Having worked in the music industry after studying Business and French at University, he was hit by a tidal wave of clinical depression which necessitated a career change, one which was spurred on by a loaf of bread. “In a way bread kind of saved my life to be totally honest with you and I know that doesn’t sound like it’s true, but it really is. I couldn’t get out of bed and well, I was like, I need to change my career, I need to change. And I said to my mum one day, ‘Listen Ma, do you want to make some bread today?’” The tactility and energy that goes into making a loaf of bread was a practice that became cathartic and life-changing for Max, likening it to Sertraline. He is open about the fact that he has struggled with depression and ADHD, both of which he manages with medication, but is also adamant that baking was one of the first things that helped him get out of his head.
After taking a bread course with his mum, Odette, Max knew the kitchen was where he wanted to spend his days, so he headed, with confidence, to Spring in Somerset House. “I went in, and I saw Skye (Gyngell), said hi and she asked if I was looking for a job, I said, yeah, but I have no idea what I’m doing. She’s like, cool. Just like that and then boom, I was in the kitchen for nearly four years.” After Spring, Max went on to work at St John Bread and Wine and The River Cafe, working with some of our favourite Semaine alumni, Fergus Henderson and Ruthie Rogers. Each kitchen taught him valuable lessons that he still carries in his daily practices; Spring taught him seasonality and how to work in a riotously busy kitchen, at St John, he “learnt how to do things like costings, in terms of using the whole animal. If we did a roast on Saturday night, we’d serve it cold the next day, it wouldn’t go to staff, it would all be saved for the menu.” Ruthie, who is always at the end of the phoneline if Max needs advice, taught him the mastery of managing a team and how not to shout.
His biggest takeaway from these jobs, however, was a mindset passed onto him from his mentor Farokh Talati, Head Chef at St John – the importance of happy staff. He recalls a time when he was struggling during a service, on the verge of tears, “Farokh was like ‘Max, let’s go for a walk’ and we walked around the whole block. He took me out of the room to talk and that was more important to him than the service.” Max looks after his staff in a myriad of ways but one, slightly unorthodox, policy is that of ‘no hangovers and no phones’. This rule is written into Cafe Cecilia staffers’ contracts, and they take it very seriously. “This isn’t a restaurant” he tells us, “if you want to go out and party every night, you know what I mean? Which, sadly, is a part of the kitchen culture, which I understand because after service, you’re so stressed that you need a vice, right?” But by asking staff not to come into work with a hangover, Max is striving to avoid a toxic work environment. Knowing what it’s like to work whilst overcoming various addictions, his belief is that by encouraging a certain level of sobriety, they can avoid the brewing bitterness and anger that is often commonplace in high-intensity kitchens and “on your days off, that pint will taste even nicer.”
This ingrained desire to have a happy team shines through everything that Max does and radiates through the restaurant. He admits that he is not a mental health professional but ascribes to the adage of always talking about your problems. His team knows that he is there on a Tuesday morning if they want to come in and have a chat or ask for advice, and it’s this open attitude that is keeping the cogs of Cafe Cecilia well-oiled and advancing smoothly.
Both the food and decor of Cafe Cecilia exude an air of refined simplicity, this coupled with the strong familial energy that abounds makes the restaurant feel like home, albeit a much more delicious home (sorry, Mum). By settling in a new build, Max and his dad, John, were able to really put their touch on the interiors, with a minimal white finish and art adorning the walls, Max tells us that it actually feels like his own flat. Following on the family theme, Simone, Max’s sister and winner of Best Independent British Brand 2021 at the BFAs, designed the utilitarian-chic uniforms and mum, Odette consults on the menu nearly everyday. Her name sits proudly on the chalkboard as her eponymous chocolate cake is always available for pudding. Other menu staples include a rustic pork and apricot terrine, onglet and chips with peppercorn sauce, and most importantly, Guinness bread. The infamous soda bread is made every morning and never goes to waste as any leftovers get made into Guinness bread ice-cream — thrifty and delicious.
When it comes to looking forward, Max is content with where they are at but palpably excited to see what happens next. He tells us of their plans to open an outside area with tables running down the canal in the summer, but still only during the day. They currently run two dinner services per week on a Friday and Saturday and he says “if we can make a living doing that then we’re dreaming. You don’t get into cooking for the money, you get into it because you’re stupid and you love it. And if we can make a living, you know, I’d much prefer to not open another night.”
As his investor, his dad, fashion designer John Rocha, questioned this scheduling decision at first, but seeing how well the restaurant is running and how happy their son is, now fully supports it. Growing up in Dublin, with a famous fashion designer as a father came with its pitfalls, Max explains, “I’ve always lived in this kind of shadow in Ireland, you know, I’d be walking to school and his face will be on the bus.” But now, it is fair to say that he has carved out his own path, not as his father’s son or his sister’s brother, but as a pioneering success in his own right, as Max Rocha.
From London to the rest of the world, Max’s digital download is keeping him connected.
All you need to get the vibe of Max's Cafe Cecilia.
When it comes to restaurant recs, we knew we would follow Max blindly, but he also has some stellar culture tips. (We also love Yvon Lambert in Paris).
What does the word “taste” mean to you?
How you choose your way of life.
Do you have a life motto that you live by?
Start small, dream big.
What was the last thing that made you laugh?
My girlfriend laughing at Ratatouille.
What are your favourite qualities in a human being?
Who is your hero?
What is your biggest flaw?
What is your best quality?
What would your last meal on earth be?
My mum’s Sunday Roast Chicken.
What does success mean to you?
Be able to live well doing a job that I love.
If you had the power to change anything you wanted in the world, what would you change?
The war in Ukraine.
Max's Dressed Crab
Max is here to teach us one of his favourite dishes, inspired by his mum and his childhood in Ireland. You can watch Max and his mum, Odette, make this delicious dish in our film but for your own cooking and eating pleasure, Max has given us the secret recipe. Crack on!ENTER WORKBOOK