Hamish Brown grew up in New Zealand and had a successful early career culminating in awards such as Chef of the Nation in 1998.
Following the success of Zuma London, Rainer Becker (chef-turned-restaurateur) recognised the popularity of robatayaki cuisine in the capital and opened ROKA Charlotte Street in 2004. Hamish joined ROKA in 2007 and later became group executive chef for ROKA Restaurants London. Rainer and Hamish aimed to create an authentic, but contemporary Japanese menu, and the ROKA Group quickly expanded across London. The principal cuisine comes from the Robata grill, which is situated amid diners and forms an integral design element at the heart of all ROKA restaurants.
More recently, the group launched its first ever pop up in summer 2021, ROKA Mallorca, located in Cap Vermell Grand Hotel. The pop up brought the renowned robatayaki cuisine from ROKA to an open-air setting on Mallorca’s historical eastern coast and featured ROKA’s signature dishes; such as yellowtail sashimi with yuzu-truffle dressing and black cod dumplings.
We caught up with Hamish to find out about his influences and inspirations, and his love of scallops.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including your upbringing, where you are today, professionally, and what got you here?
I was born and grew up in New Zealand where my father owned a restaurant on the beachside and I spent my early days surfing and hanging out in the kitchen. I started cooking at 17 years old, did a three-year apprenticeship in an SLH small boutique hotel where I ended up becoming the executive chef some years later. I have been in London for 18 years, 15 of those working for ROKA. Food was the most natural transition for me, and it just happened! But once I started, I became addicted and couldn’t get enough!
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
The vibe and energy in a kitchen are what drew me in, the food and people have kept me hooked.
Who has been your biggest influence to get you to where you are today?
I think proving myself to my dad was a driving factor and he influenced me in the early days. Since I started working with Rainer Becker, the founder of ROKA, he has had a huge influence on me.
What’s your signature dish?
I don’t have a plate of food I would call a signature dish; food is an evolution and dishes are always changing.
Do your personal preferences influence the menu at all?
Not always, we are always listening to the customers, but naturally personal favourites find their way in!
How would you describe your cooking style?
Currently my style is a heavily influenced Japanese cuisine with a hint of western technique and classic cookery thrown in.
Do you have a favourite time of year or set of ingredients that you look forward to working with?
I love spring because of all the spring vegetables that come with the change of the seasons and the freshness of flavours once winter has ended.
What is your favourite ingredient to create with?
I really love scallops as they are so versatile.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I would love to be in design/architecture or even landscaping.
What is your favourite dish to cook at home?
Fresh handmade pasta, as the kids get involved and we make a huge mess, and all have a great time.
When are you happiest?
Hanging with my partner and three kids, playing the guitar with a cheeky glass of Bordeaux!
When you’re not in the kitchen where can you be found?
Normally running around after the kids!
What’s your favourite takeaway or comfort food?
Good quality Thai food.
What differences do you find working with local produce as opposed to non-local produce in terms of what you can create and flavour?
Obviously having the world of flavours at your disposal as a chef make creation more exciting, but I believe a balance is super important and celebrating local produce where possible is equally crucial.
How do you go about menu planning? What’s the process from picking the ingredients to getting them fresh into the kitchen and into dishes?
First, we start with a conversation as a team about what’s happening in the season and what products are out there as well as listening to the customer about what they would like to see on the menu. Then we cook testing ideas and taste them!
How would you describe the food you create at ROKA to someone who’s never experienced your kind of food?
ROKA food is contemporary Japanese food with a great selection of all styles and a big focus on the Robata grill.
What’s your favourite flavour combination?
Soya sauce and freshly grated wasabi.
What do your future plans entail?
I believe the future for me will involve mentoring the next generation of chefs and cooking great food!