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Meeting the MasterChef: an interview with Monica Galetti

The chef and MasterChef judge talks to us about her food heroes, her favourite restaurant in London and how her heritage influences her menu.

Published 10 Jul 2019, 15:59 BST
Chef Monica Galetti
Chef Monica Galetti
Photograph by Food Story Media

Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised Monica Galetti moved to the UK in the late Nineties to work alongside Michel Roux Jr at his two Michelin-star restaurant Le Gavroche. Today, she heads up Mere restaurant in London, serving up a fusion of South Pacific and French cuisine, and is also a judge on BBC Two’s MasterChef: The Professionals.

When did you realise you wanted to be a chef?
It was in my teens. I’d always wanted to work in hospitality and tourism, and cooking was something I’d always done and really loved doing; it was a part of growing up for me. As soon as I set foot in the kitchen, I knew there was no looking back. I was so in love with my craft from then on. 

Who introduced you to cooking?
My mum taught me everything about cooking. In our [Samoan] culture, girls are taught to cook at a very young age, so it was very natural. But to take it to another level, I found it so exciting to learn the European style of cooking. The first time I saw a chef in the kitchen making chocolate decorations or trussing a chicken properly, for example — they were things I’d never seen in a home kitchen with my family. I found it very exciting to be learning all of this.

What are your memories of moving from Samoa to New Zealand, and how different are the two food cultures?
It was a huge upheaval weather-wise, going from a tropical island to somewhere quite cold. Having to learn English was also quite difficult, as was the feeling that I didn’t belong. Culturally, New Zealand has lots of Pacific Island influences from Tonga, Fiji and Mali [a Fijian island], which all have their little communities. There were also new foods being introduced to my diet, and I didn’t take to very sweet things. I remember my brother would put sugar on sweet cereals, which I thought was disgusting; I still can’t eat sweet cereal. I don’t mind naturally sweet foods, like raisins, but I couldn’t get on board with the idea of adding sugar. It was all very new — opening packets of food instead of picking fruit off the tree, going grocery shopping instead of picking your pineapples, mangoes or papayas from the garden. 

So there wasn’t much processed food while you were living in Samoa?
No, everything was homemade. The pigs and chickens ran around in the plantation, the fruits and vegetables were grown nearby, and people went to markets to buy fresh fish. Back then — and we’re talking about the late ’70s here — refrigerated things were a luxury in the islands. Everything was bought and made fresh. I found it very difficult to adapt, and even now I can’t have frozen produce.

What are some of your favourite dishes from both Samoa and New Zealand?
We always cook very simple things at home. My favourite dishes from Samoa are chop suey and raw fish, which is a bit like a coconut ceviche that I sometimes make at the restaurant. From New Zealand, I love hāngi, which is when food is buried in the ground and steamed. It’s very similar to Samoan cooking in that sense. Also, pork buns are so good.

Have you been anywhere that’s really impressed you with its cuisine?
I thoroughly enjoyed the food and spices in Oman. I related to things like rubbing the goat in spices and using a smoke pit in the ground, and I was surprised by the similarities. Also, San Sebastián really impressed me — I’d heard about how amazing it was, but it wasn’t until I visited that I realised just how special it is. 

What did you enjoy most in San Sebastián?
The produce and the fact that the city is on the beach; it’s just amazing. You can go to all these little tapas bars and it’s some of the best food you’ll ever have. Simple things, like beautiful olives and octopus, are prepared in such a beautiful way. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal there.

Where’s on your travel wish list? 
Japan. I was meant to visit more than 20 years ago, but I stupidly passed up the chance because I had other plans. I love the culture, and the fields in spring when the blossoms are out. I also want to visit Thailand and India. I think I’ve done Europe, so I’d like to see a bit more of Asia.

How much of an influence was your heritage when creating the menu at Mere?
The menu is an accumulation of the past 25-odd years. I’m classically trained in a French kitchen, but I hail from the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, and my husband is French. It’s an amalgamation of all that, plus my love of travel and learning from other cultures. For example, I bring in elements of what I love about New Zealand, like hokey pokey ice cream [vanilla with small pieces of honeycomb toffee] — my favourite. I also use my favourite chocolate biscuit, a Toffee Pop from New Zealand, to make a dessert over here. My cooking techniques are mostly French, but I love working with pasta, so I always have some kind of pasta dish, like the Marmite agnolotti with mushrooms and pumpkin that was on the autumn menu. Marmite is a huge thing for me also, and I have Marmite popcorn in the bar. 

Which chefs inspire you?
I learnt by craft and really refined it within the Roux family. They’ve always been a huge guidance in my work. I’ve adapted the skills I’ve learnt over the years to the way I like to cook and the flavours I like to use. The Roux family will always hold a special place in my heart and I still refer to them for guidance now and then. Also, Clare Smyth — I think she’s such an amazing talent and her whole work ethos and her focus on cookery is admirable. She’s a real force to reckon with in our industry. 

Where are your favourite places to eat in London?
There’s this little Thai restaurant called Regional Thai in Cheam Village. All the recipes are ones the chef learnt from her mum, and you can see them cooking in the open kitchen. The food is just delicious. It’s such a quaint little place with a great atmosphere and I love going back there.

Do you think programmes like MasterChef have changed the way people cook at home?
I think so. I believe people can watch the show and think ‘Actually, I want to give that a go’. One of the most satisfying things is when people come up to me and tell me they saw the skills test I did, and that they’ve tried it and it’s been great.

What advice would you give to girls or women hoping to make it as chefs? 
Believe in yourself. Get yourself in the kitchen, where you can learn, and don’t let anyone hold you back. You’re as good as anyone else. Don’t limit yourself — just absolutely enjoy what you’re doing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself and learning, it makes the job easier.

Monica is the chef owner of Mere.

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