From Samoa to NZ to Britain: The international culinary journey of chef Monica Galetti


Monica Galetti’s tastes were awakened by the fresh fruit and seafood of Samoa, then sweetened on the processed delights of 1980s Wellington. Now one of Britain’s leading chefs, she’s wowing visitors with a dash of Pacific passion at her London restaurant, Mere.

Words: Lee-Anne Duncan

1975–1983: Island life 

Born in Apia in 1975, Monica’s early memories are playing outside, running around eating freshly picked fruit and seafood straight from the sea. Palolo, an edible sea worm baked in coconut milk, was a favourite. “They’re like whitebait but more tender and finer.”

1983–1992: Apia to Petone 

Monica moved to New Zealand at eight, settling in Wellington’s Petone. She learned English, braved a much colder climate, and was awed by supermarkets. “I remember going down the aisles of junk food. I remember the smell of Farmbake cookies and being introduced to Milo. And cream buns! Mince pies! I miss mince pies.” When she cooked, it was Samoan food. “There was never a recipe. You just followed what Mum or Dad did. It was all about taste and smell and using what was available.”

1992–1999: Petone to the world 

At 17, Monica signed up for a hospitality course at the Central Institute of Technology (now WelTec), with an eye on hospitality’s travel opportunities. The course required everyone to sample all sides of hospitality, including the kitchens.

“The first day I walked into the kitchen, I knew I would do this forever. The chef tutor was piping swirly chocolate cake decorations. I watched him and thought, ‘My God, he is amazing. I want to do that.’ To create food like that was like magic.”

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Her first cookbook was one by the famous Roux brothers, and her first dish cooked from that book was soup and country loaf.

 

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“I thought it was the fanciest thing I could make.” Monica was soon entering cooking competitions, representing New Zealand in Australia and Europe. Competing took her to London, first visiting in 1996. “I fell in love not just with the UK, but its access to Europe. To find you could jump on a train and be in Paris in a couple of hours was just amazing to a little Kiwi.”

1999–2009: Le Gavroche 

Determined to get a job in London, Monica sent off her CV to top London restaurants before traveling in France. The first to offer her a position was one of the Roux brothers himself, suggesting a job at Le Gavroche, the three-Michelin-starred embodiment of French cooking. The role was commis chef, much lower than her usual place in the kitchen hierarchy but, over time, Monica rose to become the restaurant’s first female senior sous chef and was sent to open a Le Gavroche restaurant on Mauritius with her French husband, David Galetti, then the London restaurant’s sommelier. That was another tough gig — she spoke little French, and she had no team, suppliers or systems in place.

2009–2020: Books, TV, and Mere

Monica was cooking at London’s Le Gavroche when the MasterChef crew came to film a segment. They liked what they saw, and soon Monica was demonstrating the “skills test” for competitors on MasterChef: The Professionals. “I’d never planned to do TV. We chefs like to hide in the kitchen, expressing ourselves on the plate. To articulate what we do in a way the public understands takes a lot.”

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Monica did so well the BBC asked her to co-present Amazing Hotels — Beyond the Lobby in 2016. “When they rang, I was like, ‘You want me to travel around the world and stay in hotels? Okay!’” She and David finally realized their dream, opening Mere, their restaurant in Fitzrovia, in 2017. It’s named for Monica’s mother, who passed away in 2016.

 

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At Mere, Monica combines elements of Pacific and Kiwi culture on her menu, especially her childhood faves. “I have a hokey pokey dessert, which is a take on my favourite ice cream. My favourite New Zealand biscuit is the toffee pop, so I have a baked crémeux with a set caramel, finished with grated Koko Samoa, the 100 per cent cocoa we use to make hot drinks.” Filming mostly keeps her away from the stoves, but she ensures ample breaks to allow her to join David in running the restaurant and keeping up with their teenage daughter, Anaïs.

2020–2022: Braving lockdowns, a new book

With Britain’s sporadic lockdowns, Mere first closed in March 2020, reopening cautiously in May 2021. “Our first service, everyone was not quite game fit. We were out of practice, and the restaurant was rammed.

I remember pausing for 30 seconds to think, and the door into the restaurant opened. I heard laughter coming from the dining area, and I was almost in tears. It was so wonderful.” Monica kept busy during the lockdowns, finalizing her third cookbook, At Home. She hopes to get back to New Zealand this year and to take Anaïs to Samoa. Until then, she must treat any homesickness with oka, the marinated fish dish she (and her husband, and even her French mother-in-law) loves whipping up. “Raw fish in coconut milk, lots of lemon juice, spring onions and cucumber — that’s definitely my go-to for Samoan food.”

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LIFE LESSONS

If someone tells you you can’t, find someone who tells you you can: Don’t be put off achieving your dreams.

Worry a bit less about the future: Enjoy life now, and don’t waste energy concerned with what might be.

Keep in contact with your loved ones, cherish them while you can: Being away from family can be challenging, especially when doing something hard, like opening a restaurant in London and being separated by a pandemic.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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