MasterChef: The Professionals judge, Amazing Hotels presenter and Mere restaurant owner, Chef Monica Galetti is an icon for many in the food industry.
She was born in Samoa in the South Pacific, lived in Wellington, New Zealand, with her parents and five siblings. After completing her studies, she must have seriously impressed Michel Roux Jr, who gave her her very first offer as commis chef at his two-star Michelin restaurant, Le Gavroche. Impressively, she was the first woman to land a senior role in the kitchens of the restaurant.
Galetti married French-born sommelier David Galetti, the Head Sommelier at Le Gavroche. And together, they have since started their own restaurant Mere in London’s Fitzrovia and very trendy Charlotte Street.
In a male-dominated industry, how important is it for female chefs to break through?
I’m attracted to intelligent strong women. I believe having strong relationships and friends keeps you grounded and you have a sounding board that is honest. When you have people around you like that, they’re the ones who will tell you if you’re not being true to yourself or if you’re being a drama queen. There are many more women in the industry now than when I began cooking.
Who are the particular role models for female chefs at the moment? And who are yours?
Clare Smyth is an amazing woman in the industry, for me one of the best talents that we have in British gastronomy at the moment so I’m super excited to see her open her own restaurant. Rachel Humphrey has been at the helm of Le Gavroche now for many years and worked her way up from an apprentice. We worked together for a very long time after arriving in London in 1999 and we’ve been friends ever since.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in your career and how did you manage?
Motherhood and staying in a 2 Michelin kitchen was tough without any family here, but my husband and I managed it between us and Michel has been very supportive.
What are your thoughts on the changing shape of dining culture? And how do you keep fine dining at the forefront?
I’ve been in London almost 20 years and I’ve seen a huge change, mainly the switch to casual style dining. Everywhere is so hip right now, focusing on stripped back service. You’ve got some really cool places around this area, like Bubble Dogs just down the street where you can eat hot dogs, drink champagne and listen to loud music.
Mere will be, I guess, at the higher end of relaxed dining. Our sole objective is to make people happy, that’s what hospitality is about. I don’t like to queue up and wait for a table mainly becase I don’t have the time; some people do. It’s about making people feel warm and welcome. I want every customer to walk through the door and feel at home, forget life for a couple of hours and let us take care of them for a little bit.
Your restaurant Mere is the hot topic of the moment. Tell us about the inspiration and the menu.
Mere is about a love of food and the best ingredients, and a great team, which also goes for the Front of House team who have a huge passion for wines and excellent service.
What I like to cook inspired me to create the menu. My background is in fine dining so most of the basic techniques we use are French but mainly my Samoan and New Zealand roots inspire the flavour combinations. The restaurant is named after the woman that supported me throughout my career near and far, I am because of her, my mother: Mere. It is Samoan and pronounced as in MEREH in Mere-dith. These cultural influences present themselves in various way throughout my dishes, sometimes it’s really subtle, sometimes it’s not. For example, we used marmite from New Zealand in our mushroom and marmite tortellini. Or dishes like the banana and coconut dessert or pork boil-up are both heavily inspired by the South Pacific. My French training comes through most strongly in the preparation and cooking methods, especially in sauces.
Well we used to live not far from here, near the British museum. Our daughter was born down the road at Elizabeth Garnett Anderson Hospital. We’ve spent a lot of time walking around and eating in this area. The vibe is that of a neighborhood; it’s quite quirky as well. You almost feel like you’re not in central London.
Charlotte Street has a great selection of restaurants already, it’s known for that so for us it’s a really great place to be. In the beginning, people were saying we were at the wrong end of Charlotte Street, but for me that made it the right end to be. Being slightly away from the crowded part of the road is nice because people don’t expect to find us here. And our neighbours and the businesses around us have been wonderful
How is running a restaurant with your husband, balancing motherhood and filming Masterchef?
I am no longer only a Chef, I’m also a mother, and having to juggle that with the business can be really difficult at times. Television work is what I have on the side of this and can make things very tricky but you have to be very driven to want to succeed and try to use the opportunities when they arise. No one said it’d be easy. It’s a fine balancing act that needs a lot of organising and focus. When I commit to something it’s 110% or not at all. It’s tough as we don’t have any family here so the 3 of us have had to adapt, but it has been hugely rewarding. I love being with my daughter, I love being in my kitchen too. Some days are easier than others, so the times that I do get to spend with her have to be real quality time.
It’s been great having David by my side throughout the whole process of opening. We have very similar tastes so the designing side wasn’t really an issue. If one of us couldn’t make a meeting we would completely trust the other to go and make decisions.
Describe your signature dish on the menu.
The mushroom and marmite tortellini, and of course the coconut and banana cream pie. With some flavours of New Zealand and some of Samoa. Now coming to Spring 2018, the asparagus with burnt lemon gel and Langoustines and I have a strawberry and sorrel desert that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making with my pastry team.
What did you look for when putting your team together?
The key team, both in the kitchen and Front of House are people we have previously worked with. Everyone else simply applied, and we interviewed them to see who we wanted to work with at Mere. A key team player is important, respect for the equipment, ingredients and here, peers are all important. An eager to learn attitude and those that love what they do.
You worked for Le Gavroche for many years. What are the biggest lessons you took from there?
Whilst working at Le Gavroche, I was of course trained in classical French cuisine, and learnt all the specialist techniques that go alongside that, so I’ve definitely been influenced by that. It was a kitchen with so many different nationalities when I started there – Japanese, Jamaicans, French, Scottish Italians and more, so I learnt a mishmash of different languages as well as adapting to get the best out of the ten you have. To recognise their strengths and weaknesses and also to read people on how they’re mood is and what their work quality is like.
What region inspires your cooking?
As local as possible for ingredients, but from Europe, Asian and South Pacific for influences.
How important is it to instil a sense of passion for food in the younger generation and how do you do this?
It’s very important, getting them to taste what they make, to read cook books and to dine out.
Do you hope your daughter will pick up your culinary skills in the future, ‘pass the torch’ so to speak?
I would support her in whatever she wanted to do as long as she was happy. She’s only 11 so it’s not written in stone that she’s going to be a chef.
Your favourite place to eat in London? And to drink?
I love our local Thai restaurant. But I also like The Typing Room in Bethnal Green. What Lee Westcott does in term of presentation and flavour is excellent. We had my husband’s birthday at Sorella in Clapham before they opened to the public and its now our favourite Italian and is a lovely neighbourhood style restaurant .
Where in the world would you travel to eat?
A tropical island – possibly in the Pacific – surrounded by our dearest friends and family. I love New York, Spain, Italy. Desperate to get to Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong!
On the rare occasion you get a holiday, where would you go and why?
New Zealand, I don’t get to go there near enough. And Greece, we love the people and the food!
What is next?
I am about to start filming my 10th series of Masterchef, cooking a dinner for 200 for the Heads of Commonwealth next week, cooking at Car Fest, my main focus is Mere and improving on the great first year we’ve had already.
Finally, which 3 inspirational people, living or not, would you invite to dine with you, and why?
Giles Coren, he’s a hoot to be with and we always have a great conversation about food, wine and the industry as a whole. Silvano Giraldin, the same as above and is a fountain of knowledge about the London food scene going back 50 yearrs, My daughter, she just LOVES dining out and getting to try new things and of course… mocktails.