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For Simone and Max Rocha, Family Has Always Been a Source of Inspiration

By Kin Woo

The designer Simone Rocha and the chef Max Rocha in the back garden of Simone’s home in East London.
Jacob Lillis
The designer Simone Rocha and the chef Max Rocha in the back garden of Simone’s home in East London.

One very hot Friday afternoon in June, the chef Max Rocha, 30, packed a picnic hamper with a pork terrine, an almond tart, some strawberries and a loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread and cycled two miles east from his home in London’s Hackney neighbourhood to that of his sister, the fashion designer Simone Rocha, 33, in De Beauvoir Town. Since the lockdown began in the U.K. in late March, he had made many such deliveries to both Simone — who lives with her partner, the cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin, and their 4-year-old daughter, Valentine — and to the siblings’ parents, the celebrated Hong Kong-born designer John Rocha and Odette Rocha, who is Simone’s business partner, at their home in central London. Accustomed to working in a busy kitchen alongside 20 other chefs at the acclaimed River Café in West London, Max had found himself spending more time alone after the restaurant was forced to close in March. Cooking for his family, he says, became “an excuse to say hello.”

Jacob LillisMax assembles lunch in Simone’s kitchen.
Max assembles lunch in Simone’s kitchen.

“But we are ridiculously close as a family anyway,” says Simone. Growing up in an elegant three-story red brick house in Dublin, where their parents frequently hosted parties for creative friends and artists including the photographer Perry Ogden and the film director Jim Sheridan, the siblings were shy and quiet as children, mostly keeping to themselves. They built on their bond in adulthood when Max joined his sister in London in 2009, not long before she graduated from Central Saint Martins and started her namesake label. Today, Simone says, “we cross-pollinate all the time.” Max has commissioned bands to play at her shows while she repays the favour by creating floral arrangements for the informal supper clubs Max has hosted over the past two years.

But if the lockdown, which has now eased in England, underscored what Simone calls “the necessity of human connection,” it also gave each of the siblings time to refocus on their own respective passions and crafts. For Simone, that meant more hours playing with her daughter, perfecting her baking skills and working in her garden, where she planted radishes and peas. She also rediscovered her love for embroidery and began hand-stitching gifts for friends, including vintage aprons and kitchen towels embellished with their names. “What I do has always started from textiles and the hand,” she says of her brand, which is known for its darkly romantic vision of femininity and deep love of craftsmanship. “But when you run your own label, you realise you don’t sew anymore because you’re dealing with finance and staff and a million other things. So in that sense, this period has been amazing.”

Figuring out how to design a collection in quarantine, however, has been a challenge. Simone worked remotely with her studio to produce the label’s fall pieces — which include thick Aran knits and delicate tulle dresses inspired by the Irish writer J.M. Synge’s 1904 play “Riders to the Sea” — while also making scrubs and masks for National Health Service staffers. Conducting fittings over Zoom, she says, was especially hard “because I don’t work flat or on a computer but on a stand and on a model. It’s always about the interaction with the woman.” But she’s adapted, and in other ways, too. She launched an online store two weeks into the lockdown, a step necessitated by the temporary closure of many retailers and her own stores in London, Hong Kong and New York, and she hopes to present her collection later this month in an exhibition instead of a more traditional runway show.

Jacob LillisSimone cuts pale pink English roses from her garden to make a floral arrangement for her kitchen.
Simone cuts pale pink English roses from her garden to make a floral arrangement for her kitchen.

Max has also had to recalibrate his plans over the past few months. After spending several years working in music, in public relations and band management, he discovered his true calling at the Australian chef Skye Gyngell’s London restaurant, Spring, where he began as a commis in 2015. “That was the most liberating thing for me — to go into a kitchen and not be John Rocha’s son or Simone’s brother,” he says. After stints working with other celebrated chefs, including Fergus Henderson at St. John and Ruth Rogers at River Café, Max had been preparing to open his own restaurant in East London this year, one serving a nostalgic, seasonally inspired riff on the homemade Irish fare his mother used to cook for the family. Now that those plans are on hold until spring, in addition to preparing food for family and friends, he has been offering a weekend picnic takeout menu from a record shop in East London with fellow chefs Tim Blanchard and Rosie McBurney, laying plans to host more pop-up dinners later in the year, and baking bread to donate to a local charity that delivers supplies to health care workers. “The reason I got into cooking in the first place was for my mental health,” he says, describing how the physicality of his trade helped him come to terms with his depression. “So I wanted to use my skills to bring positive energy to the people around me.”

At her house on that sunny June afternoon, Simone set the table in the backyard with a white linen tablecloth while Max sliced the bread and terrine, serving it with plenty of mustard and butter. After months of socially distanced drop-offs, this was the first time the siblings were able to sit down to a meal together, and it felt “almost like Christmas,” said Max. As they found respite from the scorching heat in the lush garden, full of pale pink roses and sprigs of milk-white cow parsley, Simone reflected on the significance of the moment. “There’s a sense of sharing,” she said, “and coming together.”