The subject of this interview in our Best Female Chefs Series, in partnership with Champagne Ayala, is Monica Galetti, who tells us about her sense of achievement at owning her first restaurant, Mere, what it’s like working with her husband, and the very different ways in which Masterchef has changed her life.
For one of the most recognisable faces in the restaurant trade, Monica Galetti does not make being a chef sound like the most attractive career choice. “It’s going to be pretty ugly,” she tells me in the cobalt-blue bar of her Fitzrovia restaurant, Mere. “It’s hard work and you’ll miss a lot of time out with your friends.”
Champagne Ayala: Celebrating over 160 years of history, Champagne Ayala was one of the original twenty-six Grandes Marques Champagne Houses, received a Royal Warrant in 1908, and became a part of the Bollinger family in 2005. With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne Ayala is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy, and crafted in a boutique scale by winemaker Caroline Latrive, who was one of the first female Cellar Masters in the region. Ayala’s well-balanced Chardonnay-focused blends and low dosage make it a terrific epicurean pairing. No wonder the wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.
Then again, Galetti, who was known as ‘Scary Monica’ during her early appearances on Masterchef, is famous for her blunt honesty. And she is equally honest about the rewards – both personal and professional – that life as a chef can bring. “If you really love it, then it’s absolutely what you should do. You won’t get the rewards for a long time, but if you do, it’s the best feeling you can have.”
Galetti had to wait until she was 42 to launch her first restaurant, opening Mere with her husband David in spring 2017. Before then, the years of hard work and missing time out with friends involved uprooting herself from New Zealand to work at Le Gavroche when Michel Roux Jr offered her a commis-chef position on the basis of an on-spec letter asking for a job. Galetti spent 14 years at the Mayfair restaurant, becoming Le Gavroche’s first female senior sous-chef, as well as appearing as a judge on Masterchef: The Professionals for the past nine years.
And while anyone who has ever seen her on TV alongside Marcus Wareing and Greg Wallace would be under no illusion that Galetti was anything other than her own woman, having her own restaurant has allowed her to finally shine on her own terms.
“When you’re working for someone else as a chef, you know you’re doing someone else’s style of food,” she says. “Mere is something I’ve been itching to do, and it’s been very liberating. As a chef, there’s nothing that gives you the same sense of completion as owning your own restaurant, where you can finally be in charge of how you want to be perceived with your style of service and food. Coming from Polynesia and New Zealand, I like much lighter, fresher flavours rather than anything rich and heavy.”
Monica’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
My instant hot water tap that lets me make a cup of tea straight away.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
Roast chicken. When you work in the restaurant industry, all you want is simple home cooking.
Favourite London restaurant?
For something quick with my daughter, Roka. And I’ve just been to Hide, which I love.
Favourite foodie travel destination?
Spain. You can eat so casually, so well, and you’ve got the high end too if you want it.
How do you relax?
I take my dogs for a walk. I have a boxer and a really naughty French bulldog.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
Something artistic. Possibly a florist – I love arranging flowers.
Galetti says that her team have settled in confidently to Charlotte Street in the year or so since opening and that repeat custom is good. She’s still friends with Rachel Humphrey, Le Gavroche’s head chef. “And it’s always great to have a laugh with Michel.”
It was at Le Gavroche that Galetti met David, who was the restaurant’s head sommelier. Owning Mere with her husband means the restaurant is in safe hands when she’s not there, and also that she has someone to share both her ambitions and frustrations with. “Because it’s our restaurant and it’s very personal to us, we can plan things together, and get excited about things together. And it means there’s someone who completely understands when you’re upset or angry that something hasn’t turned out how you wanted it to.”
Working together also means that the couple can offer a more balanced family life to their 11-year old daughter Anais than might otherwise be possible with both parents working in hospitality.
“Opening the restaurant was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I’ve had to sacrifice even more time with my daughter. David and I don’t have any family in the UK and when Mere opened it was the first time we’d employed a nanny. But now that the restaurant has started to find its feet, I can say that every second Saturday I’m with Anais, and on the other Saturday David will be with her. On the nights that I am home, I make sure that it’s the best time we have together.”
Galetti admits that in the early days of Mere, she would be in tears on the restaurant’s back stairs when Anais phoned her during service, and says that more could be done to help women balance a career in hospitality with having children. “I think it’s the responsibility of the restaurant industry and employers to support women when they decide to have families and be given the opportunity to get back into the kitchen. It’s still tough to get that balance, but as long as there’s a good support network, hopefully we can get more women embracing this amazing industry.”
Galetti’s working day is even tougher when she’s filming Masterchef. She’s in the studio for 7am, finishes filming at 7pm, then she’s at Mere for evening service and home at 1am – ready to be up at 6am to go through it all again. It’s a long day and one that is tiring on an emotional level as well as a physical one.
“In television, you have to be on, you have to have a bubbly persona and you have to keep that energy going. But then you stop filming for 20 minutes, and you sort of drop. Your energy levels are constantly being drawn in different directions and it wears you out mentally. Whereas in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t have to talk to anyone until at least 10.30am.”
Monica’s perfect match
The dish: Apple and sorrel consommé (pictured)
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012
“I talked to my husband David, who is Mere’s sommelier, about how to balance the Champagne. This dish is a bit floral and lightly acidic, and it has the freshness you want in summer. It’s about to go on to our vegetarian menu.”
Nor has she ever felt comfortable with the fame that what she calls her part-time job brings, pulling a hoodie over her head when she does the school run to avoid autograph hunters – although she says that for her daughter, having a famous mum isn’t a big deal.
But there’s one area in which Galetti has been happy that Masterchef has changed her. “Masterchef has made me a lot more patient. You can’t tell someone off if they have no idea how to do something – you have to show them first and give them that ability. Masterchef has given me the ability to be a teacher.”
It might take a lot of hard work and patience to become a masterchef like Galetti. But the rewards can come in surprising places.
Read our first interview with two Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze, who tells us about the challenges she has faced in her 30-year career, the differences between London and Paris, and how Brexit will affect her cross-Channel kitchen.
Portrait and food images by Laurie Fletcher