MasterChef's Monica Galetti says it was motherhood that mellowed her

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The recipes in Monica Galetti’s latest cookbook, collated from family favourites, are written with clarity, simplicity and concision. 

No tricky techniques, none of the fancy ingredients you might expect from a judge on the BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals. Just food cooked with love, redolent of her Pacific island childhood.

Her late mum Mere’s Soy & Honey Chicken. Her dad Eric’s Samoan Banana Soup. Her daughter Anais’s Quick Chicken Curry. 

Lockdown gave me the time to perfect the recipes,’ she says. ‘I could make them with the family and say, “What do you think of this?” I sent them off to friends and asked, “Can you replicate this?” I was conscious of making them accessible. Sometimes what I do as a chef needs to be pared down.’

Indeed for most of Monica’s friends the recipes are a delight, pitched at just the right level to ensure success. Not for her friend Craig, however, who decided to attempt her Black Forest Cheesecake for his husband Prat’s birthday while Monica – constrained by lockdown – supplied step-by-step instructions over WhatsApp.

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‘Prat is a really good cook. Craig isn’t,’ she says. ‘I was giving him video tutorials. The mess he was making! Prat came home to find Craig fighting with the ingredients. He said, “Monica, he’s not testing any more of your recipes!”’ She roars with laughter.

The cheesecake is there for me to taste on the day Monica and I meet. It’s heavenly. ‘Have some. I’m a feeder,’ says Monica.

Later in the day she’ll be at her restaurant, Mere, in Fitzrovia, London, running her kitchen. She and husband David Galetti opened the restaurant, named after Monica’s mum (Mere is Samoan for Mary) in 2017, a couple of years after she died. ‘Mum had a form of blood cancer,’ she says. ‘She suffered for a long time.’ Her voice falters.

But it must have been a comfort that she knew about your success, I ask. ‘Yes, she was very proud. She lives on through me and my siblings [three brothers and a sister]. She sacrificed so we could have food on the table. Everything I do is a homage to her.’

Monica’s cooking draws much inspiration from Samoa, an island lush with fresh produce, where she spent her early childhood raised by two aunts. Meanwhile her mum went to New Zealand to work in telecommunications, taking Monica’s older brothers. Monica was eight when she and her sister joined her mum and Eric, a mechanic, in Auckland.

We’re so busy in the restaurant I only see David on CCTV! 

Although restaurant bookings are abundant post-lockdown, Monica says a perfect storm of Covid and Brexit has made recruiting new staff a ‘dire’ problem. 

‘Most of my old crew are still with me but we need a few new people and post-Brexit they have to jump so many hurdles. A sommelier went home to Portugal during lockdown and can’t get back without a visa. There’s a dire shortage in hospitality. People are pinching each other’s staff and outbidding everyone on salaries, offering pay way above their experience level.’

She and David work so hard that, even though they’re in the same restaurant, they barely see each other. 

‘It can be tough,’ she says. ‘David will cover reception, take orders or he’s sommelier. But at least I know he’s there. If I can’t find him I just look on the CCTV. And it’s nice to have someone to go home with at the end of the night.’

I wonder if Anais, 14, has inherited her mum’s love of cooking. ‘I have to drag her into the kitchen to help me but we’ll cook, chat, listen to music, and she really enjoys it. She doesn’t want to be a chef, though. I know how tough it is – the long, antisocial hours. I’m not blind to the sacrifices I’ve had to make to get to where I am now, and I’m OK about her not wanting to.’

Monica trained in New Zealand and ended up at Le Gavroche in London where she met David, then the head sommelier, who she married in 2004. 

When I ask her to elaborate on the sacrifices she made she says, ‘I put everything else second for a long time. You miss out on family times, get-togethers with friends. I left pretty much everyone behind in New Zealand to pursue my career and I could have had so much more time with my daughter if I hadn’t been working so hard. In fact I could have had another child – but I overthought it for the sake of chasing my career. Thankfully nowadays the hours aren’t so mad.’

Aside from MasterChef, Monica has also co-presented Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond The Lobby with Giles Coren since 2017. They make a convivial duo, yet in her early TV appearances she earned a reputation as a martinet – stern, eye-rolling, uncompromising. 

Now, she agrees, she’s softened. ‘I enjoy it more now and I’ve relaxed into it. I was the hard chef at the beginning but I bite my tongue a lot more now – you should see the marks on the inside of my cheeks!’ she jokes. 

‘I realise the chefs are so nervous. They’re stepping out of their comfort zones. It’s TV and they’ve never done that before. I think being a mother has also brought out the more caring side of me.’ In her restaurant, too, she never throws tantrums. ‘Why shout? I like a happy and fun team.’

She includes in her book recipes from talented friends and her French in-laws. ‘They’ve just arrived from Jura. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since last February. It’s so nice for Anais and Nany might make a batch of her legendary Courgette Soup.’

Papy’s Tomato Tart – with ready-made puff pastry – is another favourite featured in At Home. So it’s OK to cheat on the pastry? ‘Absolutely! You’re at home!’ she cries. 

‘Memories are made from the food you share and when someone else has cooked for you it means so much. It doesn’t matter how simple it is. It’s just a big deal that they’ve gone to the trouble.’ 

At Home: My Favourite Recipes For Family And Friends by Monica Galetti is published by Aster, £20.

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