Hamish Brown, group executive chef, ROKA, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th December 2014
Hamish Brown has come a long way since he was first introduced to cooking by his chef father in Christchurch, New Zealand. The 36-year-old, who lives life as it comes, came to London to find out for himself why all the world’s top chefs were relocating to our capital. He had no plan, and ten years on his laid back approach has served him well. Now Group Executive Chef for ROKA restaurant he spoke to The Staff Canteen about creating ROKA’s dishes, his love of Japanese culture and spending all of his money on surf boards! You were introduced to cooking by your dad but when did you know being a chef was the career for you?Roka - Aldwych Good old dad did influence me, we used to hang out in the kitchen when we were kids as it was a family business, but I didn’t cook with him at a young age. I went on work experience to a local restaurant when I was in high school and I pretty much never went back! I loved it so I finished my exams and left school. I stayed at that restaurant for six months; I was a mad surfer at that age so I decided to move to Australia and find a job there. How long were you there for? For about four months! Then I came back with my tail between my legs because I bought two surf boards and ran out of money. I came back and got an apprenticeship in a hotel and I stayed there for five years. I finished my apprenticeship and took charge of one of the restaurants within the hotel. Did you travel again after your first experience? Chocolate to macha pudding, yo-nashi aisuI went to America for three months which was big eye opening experience for a boy from Christchurch. I was lucky enough to stay with and work for chefs who had a connection to my father and it was a whole new world of products and ingredients – stuff I had never seen before. It really broadened my horizons. Has anything stuck with you from that experience? One of the restaurants was doing south western style cuisine which was interesting – big, bold flavours and that has stuck with me, I’ve had a passion for that always. What I did learn was the scale restaurants can be – that was what ultimately led me to London. I’ve been here ten years now and I came over because I kept reading about the products and restaurants in London. It was becoming more and more fashionable to be in London and all the big names were shifting there. I have an Irish passport so I thought why not? Why not go over there and check it out. How did you end up at ROKA? I took a bit of time off cooking when I first arrived, I spent some time up north and then I moved to London and worked in a gastro pub called The Hole in the Wall in Chiswick. I moved from there to Peter Gordon’s The Providores  - I always wanted to work with Peter who was a bit of a rock star back in New Zealand and he was focusing on fusion which I was big into at the time. It was a great opportunity, when you’ve not worked in London before it’s hard to get that first step in. I met the previous executive chef of ROKA, also a fellow Kiwi, and ROKA were expanding so I put my hand up and said I would be really excited to be involved and I was lucky enough to get a chance.
Five ingredients: Wasabi – served with fish sashimi Soy sauce – it’s a bit of a no brainer as it can be used in so many different ways. Venison – although we don’t use it in the restaurant at the moment it’s one of my favourite meats just simply barbequed. Scallops – we use scallops from the Orkney Islands, hand dived and they are just sensational. I like them just with ponzu sauce. Chocolate – I love dark and bitter chocolate, you can’t beat a dark, bitter chocolate mousse. Signature dish: I don’t think I do – although one thing I would always cook at home would be a lemon tart. But with a twist, I add a bit of Japenese Yuzu instead of lemon.
How do British ingredients compare to what’s available in New Zealand? They are chalk and cheese in many ways. There are some amazing products in New Zealand, but a lot of our premium products are actually exported to the rest of the world! But to go fishing, diving and hunting – we have amazing produce on our doorstep. The big difference in London is the availability of products from all over the world. In New Zealand we just get bits and bobs, so the British pantry is a lot bigger. Now Group Executive Chef at ROKA, do you still have the freedom to create dishes you want? Absolutely! I have a head chef in every restaurant who is in charge of the daily running and my job is to mentor them, work with them on our products and ensure we are developing as a company as we want to continue expanding and moving forward. We want to make it something special and everyone plays a part. What is the creative process behind ROKA dishes? We focus on the products, those that come to the market and those we go searching for. It’s all about the team in each restaurant and its location – this is very important. We talk to customers and find out what they like and we use the seasons as well. Each team works on the dishes and then I work with them side by side once they have developed them. We also have a ROKA News board in each restaurant where new development dishes go on every few months. Any dishes that are well received here find their way on to our main menu. As a Japanese restaurant are all your dishes inspired by Japan or do you take ideas from elsewhere? Sequence 0125The biggest inspiration is Japan of course, I’ve just had a trip there and I have a million ideas for dishes and products I want to reintroduce. But my own inspiration generally comes from the chefs in the team. They work on something and I can help develop it to the next level and bring in different things. Seasonal produce is also always a big inspiration, it really helps us along the way looking at what’s available on the market – we wouldn’t call it a seasonal menu but seasons are a good guide. And we do use a lot pf local produce not just what we bring in from Japan. Do you and the team go to Japan often? Not as often as we would like but we always pick up something new when we do. It’s often something old that we haven’t discovered yet! Japan’s food culture is so old they have so many things they have been doing for years and years in every village or town. For us it’s an expansion of our knowledge of their culture and how each region does things. After years of experiencing different cultures and cuisines, what is your individual cooking style and food philosophy?Roka - Aldwych I think cooking is an evolution. I don’t think anyone has any one style which they stick to, we all try and do the best we can. My philosophy is I try and take a good product and make it sing, make it shine. It may sound a bit corny but also customer’s enjoyment, one thing I've learnt working at ROKA is that it’s about the customer. We want to make them happy, we want to give them something they’ve never tried before but we have to listen to what they like. How do you source your ingredients? We’re a well-established restaurant now, we’re ten years old so we have great connections across all the different markets. We have a couple of key butchers, two great fish suppliers and obviously our local grocers. The sheer volume can be a hindrance at times as we can’t target smaller producers as we need to deliver consistency across all of the restaurants. But we do have amazing products and itss taken ten years to get right and make sure we have the best of the best for our volume. Sequence 0121Although using wild ingredients isn’t an option for ROKA is it something you’ve cooked with in the past? In New Zealand we did, we had a great lifestyle hunting and picking porcini mushrooms – I love the idea of it. I think it can be a little bit over sold, the price of foraged stuff can be ridiculous. The romance of getting out there at five o’clock in the morning and foraging before you come into the restaurant is not really practical for us. Foraged products have transformed British cuisine in the past few years, for the better. Do you have a favourite dish on the menu at the moment? In the new Aldwych restaurant we have a Wagu tartare. We are lucky enough to have Wagu which is Japanese for beef, supplied by a company called Joshu Wagyu and their quality of beef is amazing - Wagu is really creamy and luscious. The dish is very different and is made with a black seaweed cracker, wasabi and a little bit of Japanese mustard. It’s a simple dish but it’s getting great feedback and it’s an original dish for that restaurant. The new ROKA in Aldwych is now open - read about it here
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th December 2014

Hamish Brown, group executive chef, ROKA, London