Saturday, October 27, 2012

Chef Monica Galetti - MasterChef Elite

Chef Monica Galetti is the most famous Samoan chef I know of. For those of you who don't know who she is, I'm not going to ask what rock you've been hiding under (because I'm polite like that), but I am going to introduce her. 

She was born in Samoa, Monica Fa'afiti, and moved to Wellington, New Zealand at a young age. There she trained as a chef and entered international culinary competitions. Bitten by the travel bug, she applied for jobs with leading restaurateurs and Michel Roux, a renowned chef in the UK, took her on.

Since 1999, she has worked at Roux's high-end restaurant Le Gavroche which is all kinds of famous in itself (was first UK restaurant to receive three Michelin stars, trained Gordon Ramsey, has a Guiness Record for most expensive meal in the world). Chef Galetti started there as a lowly Commis Chef and rose through the ranks to become the restaurant's first female Sous Chef and then Head Chef for a Le Gavroche restaurant in Mauritius. 

She returned to the UK Le Gavroche and on top of working there, she is currently a presenter and judge on MasterChef: The Professionals where she judges a fierce cooking competition between qualified chefs. She has also just published her first solo cookbook Monica's Kitchen, and she is Samoa's very own UK Tourism Ambassador. And she's a mother. This is one busy woman so I was really fortunate to get an interview with her for our humble blog. 

Read on to learn more about this magnificent Samoan who has reached the pinnacle of culinary success.

© Charlotte Knee
Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write your book?
I’ve been asked a few times to do a book but being an actual chef I felt there was no point in writing up another sauce or meat book or a book about slow cooking. And then my friends came up with the idea, ‘Well, why don’t you just teach people how to cook what you do and make it a bit easier?’ and that’s how the idea came about and it kind of grew from there.

What kind of recipes and flavours can readers expect to find in your book?
It’s a whole mix. My background in cooking has been based in French cooking for the last twelve years while I’ve been here [Europe]. But I’m also a Mum with a young child and I rush home from work and have to knock out quick meals, as nutritional as possible and as quick as possible. It’s all about seasonal availability of what I have at the time, straight from the source and as fresh as possible. And then there’s the Something Different chapter which is different on this side of the world, not so much if you’re living in New Zealand. I’ve got a recipe for the oka and I’ve taken sapasui and deconstructed it – I’ve used veal and made the noodles separate to make it more appealing to this side of the world compared to how we know it.

Umu Galetti-style, seriously,
that's pork, taro and luau
How was it, writing your book?
I think most of it has just been learning to get a balance of working life and family life. There’s so much going on at the same time: filming, the restaurant, writing this, and I think my daughter suffered quite a lot from the timing of it. I’d finish work and pick her up then be at home with her and then sort of rushing to get her bed so I could get on the computer to type stuff out. So if anything, it made me appreciate the time that I have with her and also how fun it is to be cooking with a child. When I was doing the book it actually made me realise how much cooking I do actually do with my daughter, and it's quite a bit.    

With the Samoan dishes that you mentioned from your Something Different chapter of the book, I love the way you’ve taken Samoan food and refined it. Do you have an opinion on Samoan food and how would you like to see it develop?
I’d hate to have it change. You know, it’s just what we grow up on. Luau is luau and I’d hate to have it any other way. For our palates, we know what to expect. Teaching the European palate and adjusting the food to suit, making it more pleasant to the eye is the thing. And also to teach about the ingredients we have - you can eat the taro leaf, the sea grapes or limulimu that we have in Samoa - and showing them that there are other types of things can Samoans can cook other than the coconut bun.

I’m really fascinated by your journey from Samoa to New Zealand and now there to Europe and by how you’ve developed in your career. I was wondering how your French mentors have influenced your cooking style.
I think it’s down to the person. I’ve had to prove myself over the years to be worthy of the positions and the promotions that I’ve earned. Through that, my mentors have seen that I’m very keen and passionate about what I do so they’ve invested in me, sent me off to France to work there for a while in pastry, and I think it’s that. They see I have a passion for it and they’re willing to put back into you what you put into your work.

Sapasui with flair
Didn't recognise it, didja?
You have a bit of a fearsome reputation so if someone wanted to work for you, what would be the top things you’d be looking for?
Always from the beginning, presentation and how you dress yourself is important. I believe that if you can’t respect yourself how are you going to respect the ingredients or the people you work with. So the first thing is self-presentation and hygiene from the beginning. Having common sense is more important than anything. No matter what you are doing, have some common sense and it helps you out with a lot of issues.

I saw you mention elsewhere how you had a trainee who didn’t wash a vegetable before using it.
Yes, it’s just little things like that which people will forget and think is not important, but it does matter, especially at this level of cooking.

With your own kitchen at home, what are some ingredients that you always have on hand?
I always have puff pastry in my fridge. I always have smoked salmon. Lemons. What else do I have? Champagne. My husband is a sommelier so I have a very well-stacked cellar for myself to choose from but champagne isn’t really counted with that. I always have bacon lardons in the freezer. They help with quick easy meals like pasta. And in the store cupboard I’ve always got couscous pasta, tinned tomatoes, tomato paste and fresh herbs, very important.

Do you grow your own?
Yes I do.

I know that people would be intimidated cooking for you. Do you feel intimidated picking a wine for your husband? [He is Head Sommelier at Le Gavroche]
No, because I come from New Zealand and we have some pretty damned decent wines! But I love to leave it up to him and he always tries to teach me something new about wine or grapes so that, I enjoy.

Okra - don't ever cook this for her
(Photo from Columbia Culinary Society)
Is there any ingredient that you won’t cook?
Okra. I hate okra. It’s horrible. People say ‘Oh, you haven’t had it right. You have to put it in a curry.’ But when I’ve had it, it’s slimy and eew and horrible. And I would never use horse meat.

You know they sell that in the supermarket in Holland.
Yeah, I know. It’s not something I like. I lived in Holland for about six months. I wouldn’t cook monkeys, cat, things I don’t think are necessary to eat, I wouldn’t cook with.

Incidentally, do you eat sea (sea slug guts)?
Oh, actually no, it’s been a while, and I think I would eat more of it now.

What are your favourite Pacific dishes?
A proper umu is what I’m dying to have. Roast with the pig, with the luau in there and kalo. So I’m looking forward to Samoa. I’m going to Samoa this Christmas. It’s the first time I’m taking my daughter and my husband and it’s the first time back for me in over twenty years. Part of it is to go back home and rediscover my roots and it’s going to be a really really good trip. 

You mentioned that your daughter enjoys cooking with you. Does she help you around the kitchen and does she have a sophisticated palate?
I think more so now that she’s six years old. She loves cooking with us and she enjoys it. And she always eats her meat medium rare. She won't eat it if it's not medium rare. She loves sea bass and sole. And if we’re having meat at home, if we’re having a steak, she’ll say, “Are we having red wine?” It’s cute.

I’ve read that in Europe when people take their children out for dinner they allow them to taste a bit of alcohol. Is that what you do?
That’s what we do, we encourage her. When it becomes a part of normal eating and dining, it’s in a sense something that’s not abused. So it’s all about teaching her and nurturing her palate as well.

You’re around food all the time and you have such a great figure. How do you keep in shape?
I work out about five times a week. I tend to hit the gym at half six in the morning and I go straight to work afterwards. On the weekends I do boxing training.

And finally, can you tell us a bit about your future projects? What have you got on the horizons?
I just agreed to another three years with the BBC for MasterChef. I’ve got another series coming out for MasterChef in November. We did another series called the Great British Food Revival and that will be out in the next few weeks. We’re also filming a few episodes for another programme with Michel which is called Food and Wine and that will be out in January.  

Fa'afetai tele lava (Many thanks) to Chef Galetti for taking the time to talk to me. It was really a great pleasure to communicate with someone so talented. Thanks also to Ed from Quadrille Publishing who organised the interview.

Monica's Kitchen is a beautifully photographed hardcover book full of sophisticated but simple recipes for the everyday cook. I just received my book today and was salivating over the photos, and I've already marked lots of recipes I want to try out. Make sure you get your copy soon, and if I were in the UK, I'd be doing my darnedest to get it signed by the inimitable Chef Galetti.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Coconut Cream Pie

Before making this recipe I'd never eaten a coconut cream pie in my life. I'd had all manner of fruit pies - pineapple, blueberry, apple, peach, strawberry, apricot - but never a coconut cream pie, or any cream pie for that matter. Oh I'd had pumpkin pie, banoffee pie, sweet potato pie, lots of chocolate pies, even a mango pie ...OK, I'm starting to sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump, aren't I? 

Anyway, a reader once mentioned banana cream pie and that probably planted the seed in my head to make this pie. Now, I read the recipe through a couple of times, not wanting a repeat of the brown sugar chicken situation. I even measured out all my ingredients beforehand, which is something I do only on the most auspicious occasions.

But no matter how good of a cook you are, there are always moments in the kitchen that just knock you back to your childhood self when you tried to peel fa'i maka (green bananas) the traditional Samoan way and you ended up mutilating the banana so badly that the leftover stub was thrown at your head and then you were thrown out of the kitchen. 

This pie had a few of those moments, and I'm not ashamed to share them with you here. 

Recipe comes from Me'a Kai and can be found here. But don't blame the recipe for what you see below. Blame the cook who to this day, cannot really peel perfect fa'i maka.

Started by mixing the butter and sugar for the crust. So far so good, but hey, it's only two ingredients.

Pressed the very soft sticky dough into my baking dish. Smoothed it out as best I could. Not very smooth though, is it?

Prettied it up around the edges with a fork, then baked it.

Crust came out of the oven looking kind of sad and depressed. It had shrunk down to half its height and had just slithered to the bottom of the baking dish, looking like it had lost the will to go on. 

Coconut cream layer thickened up nicely,

as did the lemon cream layer.

Here's the finished pie.

When I was putting the lemon layer on the pie the coconut cream layer spread out to the sides. Not sure if my coconut layer wasn't thick enough or if I was supposed to let it set. In any case, the layers of the pie were not very even as you can see here. Also, my crust was slightly under-cooked in the corners where the pastry had collapsed. 

Of course, none of these points were enough to keep me from devouring the pie. It was truly delicious.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dr Tracy Berno - Making Pacific Futures Brighter

I'm so proud to present an interview with Dr Tracy Berno, co-author of Me'a Kai. Dr Berno is a tourism academic and consultant who has worked in the Pacific for over two decades. In her research she highlights the use of fresh, local produce in tourism and hospitality, and this helps promote rural development and sustainable farming. 

I really admire the work Dr Berno does because it creates a potential for the average Samoan farmer, like my cousin Popo, to enjoy steady local demand for his produce from say, hotels and restaurants, instead of trying to scrape by with what tala and sene he can earn at the market. 

Dr Berno is an academic with vision, and her research benefits so many in our local communities. Read on to discover more about her work, her favourite foods and some great tips she's got for finding the best Pacific flavours.

Dr Tracy Berno
Tourism academic and Consultant
(Photo supplied)
1. Congratulations on your cookbook Me'a Kai winning the Gourmand Best Cookbook in the World 2010! Your co-author, Chef Robert Oliver, said that you cried when you heard the news. Can you explain your reaction and what the award meant to you? 
Thank you for your kind words. Winning Best Cookbook in the World was certainly a real honour. I did indeed cry when Robert and Shiri rang to tell me the news. I had been scheduled to fly to Paris to meet them for the awards, but unfortunately, Christchurch, where I live, was struck by a devastating earthquake only a few days before I was meant to leave. We live in the central city, which was badly damaged. I had to cancel the trip. Things were very grim in Christchurch, so when Robert told me that we had won it was just so uplifting - I was quite overwhelmed and burst into tears. My poor family didn’t know if I was crying because we had won or because we had lost!

We had worked on the book for several years and really poured our hearts and souls into it. We are all very passionate about the Pacific and the book was deeply meaningful to us. We were welcomed into the homes and lives of so many wonderful and interesting people through our journeys in the region. It was such a privilege to be able share their stories and recipes. I was excited just to see the book published, let alone win an award for it. The award was very special because it was about everyone who contributed to the book; through their stories that they so generously allowed us to share, the Pacific had captured the attention of the world.

2. Can you share with us one of your memorable highlights in the creation of your cookbook?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. There were so many memorable aspects to our work on the book. One moment that really stands out in my mind though was early on in our work on the book. Robert, Shiri and I met up at the Old Mill Cottage Restaurant in Suva. It was a typical rainy Suva day, and we sat under the veranda having lunch while the rain absolutely pounded on the tin roof. The Old Mill Cottage serves a range of really great Fijian food. We ate, we talked, we laughed and we planned the book – all while sharing a terrific Pacific meal. It struck me that we were doing exactly what we wanted to capture in the book. It was at that moment that I knew we were on to something really special.

3. One of the unique things about your cookbook is that it is not just a collection of recipes or a travelogue of the Pacific or a coffee-table book/souvenir. You and Chef Oliver intended for it to be a tool, highlighting potential links between agriculture and tourism. Can you tell us a bit more about this, and what the 'farm-to-fork' concept means for the average island farmer or for the average tourist? 
My involvement in the book came about through my academic research interests. As an academic, my interest is in working with communities to create benefits for them from tourism. I was fortunate to spend many years as a tourism academic in the Pacific and was able to travel extensively in the region. In my travels, two things often struck me – (1) where was all the great Pacific food that I ate in friends’ homes and in local restaurants and why couldn’t I get it in the resorts and tourist hotels, and (2) why were there so many imported foods when there was a range of Pacific products available locally.

These questions got me thinking about how better linkages between local agricultural producers and the tourism industry could be a means of creating benefits for communities who were not directly involved in tourism. This led to many years of research looking at barriers and facilitators for agriculture-tourism linkages along the supply-chain (from “farm-to-fork”). One of the many findings of the research was that it’s not just a matter of increasing agricultural production, or getting hotels and restaurants to buy more (i.e., it’s not all supply driven) – there needed to be a means of enhancing the food on the tourists’ tables to create a demand for the locally grown products. That’s where the idea of a book came in, a book that would highlight the foods of the Pacific in a way that would be appealing to the tourist palate and create demand for local cuisine, using the local products. In that way, the book would become a tool for helping to facilitate agriculture-tourism linkages, which would in turn, create benefits along the supply-chain from the farmers all the way to the tourists who get to experience a fresh, quality local cuisine.

Virgin Coconut Oil from
Women in Business Development Samoa
4. As a self-confessed 'gastro-nerd', what are your favourite Pacific ingredients?
I am glad you said ingredients, rather than ingredient! My kitchen is never without limes, chillies and coconut products. In fact, at the moment I have two drinking coconuts, one brown cooking coconut, five litres of organic virgin coconut oil and three types of dried coconut in my kitchen. Not to mention a few tins of coconut cream in the pantry for emergencies! If I have those three ingredients, I can create a meal out of anything.
When I can get a hold of them fresh, my other favourite products are ota (Fijian fern), breadfruit, jackfruit, pele, mangosteen and soursop. But they are all pretty hard to come by in New Zealand. These are the things that I crave and seek out first when I am back up in the region.

5. What Pacific ingredient do you think deserves more attention abroad? 
Coconut. I don’t think people appreciate either the nutritional properties or the versatility of coconuts.

6. Is there anything you refuse to cook or eat? Sea-slug innards? Palolo worms? Fruit bats?
I can honestly say that I will try anything once, and I have tried some very odd things over the years. However, I will confess to a preference for what is on the outside of God’s creatures, rather than what is on the inside. 

7. Do you have a favourite Samoan food or drink?
I have only just returned from Samoa just over a week ago, so Samoan food is still on my mind. I love a good palusami. I also really like breadfruit that has been cooked over a fire. I was down at the market on most days buying palusami and beadfruit for my lunch. I also really like oka and poke. I think I ate one or the other most days, and one night I had poke as a starter and oka as my main! This trip I tried some lolepopo (Samoan ‘lollypop’) for the first time, which was just delicious – a new way for me to use coconut!

Oka (Fijian kokoda) featured on the cover of Me'a Kai

8. Most of my readers are living outside the islands and want to recreate the flavours of their childhoods in their own kitchen. Do you have any tips or advice for making island food taste authentic outside the islands?
Explore your local ethnic markets and grocery stores to get the freshest products as you can. Talk to staff and other shoppers and ask where else they shop – I have found many hidden gems that way. The best food comes straight off the plantation, so get into your garden and start growing some of your own. In my backyard I have cumquat, lemon and lime trees, lemongrass, chillies and coriander, snake beans and Chinese greens. We’re just cleaning out and refurbishing our glasshouse and once we have done that, I will be growing passionfruit, mountain pawpaw and other warmer climate products as well. If you can’t find it in the shops – grow it yourself!
Also, get together with your friends to cook. A meal prepared and shared with friends always tastes more like home.

9. Can you tell us about your next projects? Or what directions you would like to explore?
Robert, Shiri and I have recently started on a book on the food of Samoa. We were all just up in Samoa collecting recipes, photographing food and gathering information about local products, particularly organics. We had a great time working together again (the first time we have all been together since the launch of Me’a Kai), eating, sharing a few jokes and catching up with friends. It’s still fairly early days (Robert and I still have a lot of writing yet to do), but I am very excited about how the book is starting to shape up. The interest and support we received up in Samoa was just amazing. And I came home with a suitcase full of organic virgin coconut oil, koko Samoa, breadfruit and taro chips and Samoa’s own chili sauce!

I have also just started a new position as Associate Professor (Tourism and Development), so I am looking forward to extending my research to look for more ways of assisting communities to benefit from tourism and continuing my research in the area of agriculture-tourism linkages.

Taro chips from
10. Is there anything else you would like to share with my readers?
I’d like to encourage all your readers to travel well and really immerse themselves in the local culture. Try the food, buy local products, respect and enjoy the local culture. That way both you and your generous hosts will get the most benefits out of your shared experience.
If readers are interested in what Robert, Shiri and I are doing, please follow Me’a Kai on facebook. You can also follow us on
And of course – make sure you keep an eye out for our new book on Samoa when it is released. We’ll keep you posted!

Thank you Dr Berno for your generous time and for your continued support of our local agriculture and tourism industries. I hope that your home in Christchurch is restored as soon as possible. Thanks again for taking the time to answer all my questions. 

Dr Berno and her team are doing wonderful things for Samoa with their newest project. So readers, please show them some support by liking the Me'a Kai Facebook page. And stay tuned for the release date of their new Samoan cookbook.