Born in 1975, Monica Galetti, née Fa'afiti, was raised by her aunt with her sister and four brothers in Samoa before moving to Wellington, New Zealand to join her mother in her teens. She moved to the UK in 1997 where she started cooking in London. In 2004 she married David, then head sommelier at Le Gavroche where they worked together. In 2006 they welcomed their daughter Anais, before she started as a judge on MasterChef in 2009.
Monica Galetti places her hacksaw down gently on the table next to my tape recorder. Last night I saw her on TV breaking a chef for having a messy workstation. I hope the two are not related. Moreover, I hope it’s nothing I need to bear in mind for our interview.
Her first solo restaurant, Mere, is due to open in two weeks’ time but by the looks of it, it could open tomorrow; never before has a restaurant looked so ready for customers. At the back of the bar there’s a wine tasting involving her sommelier, business partner and husband David, downstairs in the restaurant a full assembly of staff are completing their health and safety training, and in the kitchen, head chef Renee Miller is in full flow, churning out near-perfect incarnations of the plates that will land on tables when it launches. I suggest that she may as well open the doors early but soon think better of it.
‘I’ve been waiting a long time to do this. Everything is going to be perfect,’ she says, with a sideways glance towards the still-sheathed hacksaw. ‘We must have looked at 30 different sites over eight months before we found the right one. I need to know everything is going to be right.’
Viewers of MasterChef will be aware that attention to detail is at the core of everything that Galetti stands for. She is cast to play Bad Cop to Marcus Wareing’s Good – a role she accomplishes with aplomb – but in person there’s a warmth to her personality that is missed on TV. She has a laugh that would fill even the largest Park Lane banqueting suite and a brilliant white smile that she dispenses with ease as she recalls happy moments (and to anyone who can debone a chicken thigh in front of a BBC camera in five minutes flat).
And nothing reveals the iridescent beam more than when she’s talking about home. Not her address in Morden, South London, but rather Samoa and New Zealand, where she spent her formative years.
‘I had the happiest childhood with my sister and four brothers on the plantation,’ she recalls. ‘I remember saving a piglet that had been caught in a fence when I was really little. I kept it for ages and it got absolutely massive. Of course, the family eventually killed it and ate it. I do remember insisting I helped cook it though. I was always destined to be a chef from then, I think.’ It’s as early an education in field-to-fork dining as you will ever come across.
‘There’s a massive Asian influence in Samoan food,’ she continues. ‘We have a huge Chinese population, so the ingredients have been readily available for a long time. I remember huge vats of chow mein and chop suey that my brothers would plough into. Piles of vermicelli soaking in soy sauce and chunks of garlic with vegetables. God, I want to go home,’ she jokingly pines.
Home was Lower Hutt in Wellington, New Zealand, where Galetti spent two years at culinary college. She won every national competition available to her and also represented Oceania in international events. She travelled to the UK in 1997 to complete her chef’s education but it was just the beginning. ‘I thought I was pretty good but it turns out I didn’t know I was born,’ she says.
In 1999, Galetti sent her CV to all of the top restaurants in London. The first to reply? Michel Roux Jr. And so began the start of their 17-year relationship. ‘He offered me a job as first commis,’ she says. ‘I had no idea such a position existed. I’d been working as a chef de partie [generally third in command in most kitchens’ hierarchy], so I was relatively senior. It turns out that I needed to start from scratch.
I had won all these awards but nothing prepared me for Le Gavroche. The cleaning was insane,’ she tells me. ‘There would be three deep cleans throughout the day from Monday to Thursday and Friday marked the mother of all tidies. You certainly did not want to be working on a Friday when the acid and Alien suits came out and you had to toothbrush the ceilings with vinegar.
‘Chefs would patrol round like military officers picking out every spot of dirt. It was all about instilling a level of discipline and controlling the working environment. It also saved a monster cleaning bill.’ So will she be investing in biohazard suits for Mere? ‘No, my kitchen’s a lot smaller and more modern, so it doesn’t need it. In fact, my ovens clean themselves: stick a tablet in overnight and you’re done.’
The level of discipline in Le Gavroche’s kitchen over the years is the stuff of legend. In the early days, Galetti slotted straight in. ‘I was heading towards becoming a very violent kind of chef,’ she admits with a sigh. ‘I had no problem getting into punch-ups with blokes. I had four rugby-playing brothers, for heaven’s sake – I was never going to take it lying down. There was a point when Michel would walk around whistling the Rocky theme tune when he saw it coming.
‘I had a serious temper and it didn’t take much for me to flip. One time a guy called me a racist name – he immediately regretted it. I made him squeal like a pig. It didn’t happen again. I was 23 and had a lot of anger,’ she says.
You would never guess it to see her now (unless, perhaps, you weren’t able to debone a chicken thigh live on camera). What changed? ‘Michel,’ she says without missing a beat. ‘He taught me that it was about explaining, not shouting. If you don’t say why you’re shouting that guy is going to come back tomorrow and make the same mistake again. Michel taught me how to teach.
‘He also taught me how important it is to be able to work with anyone. In any kitchen the turnover of staff is high. It’s about learning how to find the best in whoever you’ve got to work with, whatever their weaknesses and strengths. As long as somebody comes through my door with enthusiasm, I know I can work with that.’
Galetti has spent a long time forming her dream team at the new restaurant. She worked with her head chef for seven years at Le Gavroche and the rest of the team was sought after alitany of CVs and interviews in a process that wouldn’t look out of place on The Apprentice. ‘Michel showed me how important it is to hang on to good staff once you’ve got them,’ she says.
‘The industry is really competitive at the moment for quality people and I’ve managed to construct a rota whereby my team has a four-day working week. Hell, I wish it was like that when I started.’
When Galetti had her daughter Anais, now ten years old, she came to realise the importance of work-life balance. ‘I felt torn and as though I wasn’t giving 100 per cent to work,’ she says.
‘I was still doing seriously long hours and five-day weeks but leaving the team after a busy lunch service to go home and see my daughter for an evening was really hard for me.
‘However, we are only allotted a finite amount of time with our kids and I certainly don’t want to miss out on any more of Anais’ childhood than I have to. I’m hoping that she will be 22 by the time she realises that she would much rather be with her friends than me but I know it’s not true –I’ve got five or six years, if I’m lucky.’
The opening of Mere marks a new point in her family’s future and there will be hallmarks of her Australasian heritage on the menu. ‘We’ll have a delicious coconut cream pie with banana for pudding and my take on a Kiwi boil-up with doughboys [dumplings]. It’s basically a pot au feu and mine will be refined, with wild watercress through the doughboys and properly chopped vegetables. I’ll also strip the skin from the pork, dehydrate it and crumble it across the top of the meat.’ A long way from the stews of her childhood, no doubt.
‘Michel told me to trust my instincts, so that’s what I’m going to do.’ Though with her public profile and stellar chef’s education, surely she’s feeling a bit of pressure? ‘My friends are telling me I’ll take London by storm but I don’t want to take it by storm. I want to make a lasting footprint. I know there’s going to be expectations but they’re other people’s. I just want to provide a great service and show people the art of hospitality. I learnt it at Le Gavroche and now it’s time to put my spin on it,’ she says.
With that, we say our goodbyes, she picks up the hacksaw and disappears into the kitchen – I never did find out what it was for. Though if there was ever a metaphor for cutting apron strings, this would be it.