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.



  1. Oh man! Thanks for this, unfortunately I've been under a rock :( This article is ace! Faafetai tele lava mo le introduction!

    1. No problem Dave. One of my sisters had seen Chef Galetti on TV several times and assumed she was Filipino, so you weren't the only one under the rock. Hey, you just gave me an idea for an interview. I should try and get one with The Rock! :) Thanks for dropping by Dave.