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August 28, 2023

Interview with Executive Chef Simon Christey-French, Rocks Group

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I’m originally from the East of England. After culinary college, I received a scholarship to a Michelin Star restaurant, the Horn of Plenty, in Devon, which taught me a lot of core values. From there, I went to a two-starred Michelin restaurant under Chef Michael Caines before working in London, The Square, another two-Michelin-starred restaurant. I then won Young Chef of the Year – the award for the best chef in the country under 25 in the UK.

Through that, I got an opportunity at Necker Island in the BVI, which was my first Caribbean experience and an amazing one!

However, I am more of a restaurant chef as I like working with a team, so I returned to London to become Head Chef at Pearl for around three years, which I absolutely loved. One grey London day, someone phoned and asked me if I wanted a job working in what was then the Pink Sands Club in Canouan in St Vincent & the Grenadines. The project was phenomenal, and it’s a fantastic little island. I then moved to Antigua and started working here. I’ve now been here for over seven and a half years and haven’t looked back since!

The Rocks Group is comprised of three restaurants with different settings and vibes. How are you involved with the three eateries?

My first position was as Head Chef at Sheer Rocks, which has a special place in my heart. After I had been there for four years, the company purchased Catherine’s Café – a French-inspired restaurant on the beach, which has a very different style. My sous chef Jamal got promoted to Head Chef at Sheer Rocks, which enabled me to get to grips with running several venues simultaneously. It can be tricky, but you have to adjust your way of thinking and how you approach things. The sign of a good manager is if things remain the same whether you are there not. Now, Rokuni is an entirely different dimension altogether. It’s been challenging to open this restaurant, but we’ve overcome it all using our initiative. The Head Chef, Rana, is from Nepal and he has already produced some phenomenal food.

As well as the three restaurants, we also have an events company and look after private villas, so sometimes we have five different operations on the go at the same time. It’s a lot, but I love a challenge, and I have great people supporting me.

Rokuni is in a beautiful but more unknown location on the island. Is this a challenge for the restaurant?

Yes, it comes with its challenges, but we are determined to make this part of the island a hotspot. We want to add a whole different dimension to the hospitality scene in Antigua by offering something that doesn’t already exist, and we’re getting there as a business is picking up. We have received some great feedback since we opened six weeks ago.

How would you describe your food?

My food comes from the heart, something you can taste, see and smell. In my opinion, all the love, care, and eye to detail that goes into making a dish is what elevates food. Before I got to Sheer Rocks I was very food orientated, but I’ve learned from the company that it is about the whole experience. Sheer Rocks is the very epitome of that; who greets you, the quality of the plates, cutlery and glassware, the rapport, and the music are all essential. Of course, the food is a significant part of it – that is why people go to a restaurant – but it’s certainly not just that.

How do you incorporate local ingredients into your cooking?

We take a long time to source all the ingredients; about 80 percent of Sheer Rock’s menu comes from the island; at Catherine’s, it’s slightly less, and Rokuni’s menu is about 70 percent local, purely because we have to import specific Asian ingredients.

We try to encapsulate the island flavours into whatever style of food we are making. Sheer Rocks is very modern European cuisine, Catherine’s is French, and Rokuni is Asian. I use products that can be sourced locally. Instead of smoked salmon, I use smoked wahoo. I prepare miso grouper instead of miso cod. Saying that, I would never use a product that I’m not happy with just because it’s local.

There are quite a few farmers here growing specific things like heirloom tomatoes, mustard leaves and the like. There is a farmer growing wild mushrooms like shiitake and oyster mushrooms and another producing freshwater shrimp.

But of course, it’s Antigua’s seafood that is the star. The tuna is beautiful, and the mahi-mahi is always a staple on my menu. I usually put “line-caught fish” on my menu, and then it depends on what fish I get that morning.

What do you like to eat when you’re not working?

If I ever get invited to somebody’s house to eat, they always get nervous cooking for a chef. But actually, we are the easiest people to cook for because we always want to eat someone else’s food! I’m simple, I like grilled sirloin steak with bearnaise sauce, and I make a mean chilli con Carne.

What next for the Rocks Group?

The company is very ambitious, and the sky is the limit. Next year we plan to open a sushi bar, and we have a few more projects on the horizon as we plan to continue growing.

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