Monica Galetti’s firmness on MasterChef: The Professionals is mesmerising, but that is really only half the picture. Galetti’s evidently got a mischievous sense of humour and freely divulges some of the nicknames that are bandied around the kitchen at Le Gavroche. She even admits she gets away with calling Michel Roux junior “Papa Smurf”
It’s all a far cry from spending her childhood in Samoa and New Zealand. Hearing about the buzz around the London restaurant scene, yet with next to no experience of high-end cooking, Galetti applied to Le Gavroche on spec and was amazed when she was offered a lowly job as a kitchen commis. She admits it was physically tough graft: “They certainly didn’t give me an inch being a woman, sometimes I would be holding back the tears, but somehow I thrived on it.” Galetti’s talent was soon recognised, as Roux says: “I saw in Monica a drive and an insatiable appetite to learn.” Galetti became a trusted Gavroche ‘foot soldier’, the type of battle-hardened cook that head chefs dream of. Soon her creativity and ability to take responsibility became apparent and she progressed rapidly becoming the first female sous chef at Le Gavroche and then Head Chef.
“Her steely professional look is there for all to see and is testimony to the hard climb to the very pinnacle of her career,” says Roux. “But look beyond, and you will find the most warm, affectionate, loving person and a beautiful doting mother, who’s now an integral part of the Roux family too.”
The TV break took Galetti by surprise. She auditioned alongside several others who’ve worked with Michel Roux and was simply flabbergasted when she was chosen. “I was walking along the street near Le Gavroche when I took the call and literally walked into a lamp post.” She confesses, perhaps surprisingly, that she gets incredibly nervous pre-screen, but is calm once in front of the camera.
It was Michel and his wife Giselle, who live off Abbeville Road, who encouraged Galetti and her French husband, David – head sommelier of Le Gavroche – to look south west for their first family home when Galetti found herself pregnant. Her daughter, Anais, is now six-years-old. She recalls wryly that they were house-hunting at the top of the property market six years ago. They started looking at properties in Balham but places would be snapped up even whilst they were making their way there to view. They hadn’t intended to move out to Morden but were tempted by the sound of an affordable spacious family house. That too was gone before they arrived, but they saw another neighbouring property and made a snap decision within half an hour.
“We knew nothing of the neighbourhood but soon discovered we were close to the very beautiful Cheam Village and Nonsuch Park. Fortunately, we’d found ourselves in a secluded enclave yet with great neighbourhood old-fashioned greengrocers and butchers.”
For local dining Galetti recommends Regional Thai in Cheam, especially the green prawn curry served extra hot. Meanwhile, at home, cooking with her daughter is a great source of pleasure. “Anais adores baking and especially likes the chocolate and honeycomb lollipops that feature in my first book, Monica’s Kitchen, and inevitably things get very messy in the kitchen. Yes, I’m firm even with Anais but always fair,” she says. Galetti believes too that it is good to teach children how to behave properly and respectfully in restaurants from an early age. She advises always taking plenty of toys and books as children can’t simply be expected to sit still and wait. “We took Anais to Waterside Inn recently and she had her own menu and felt really special and even questioned whether her meat was sufficiently medium-rare!”
Monica’s Kitchen ranges from “Work to Table” relatively quick recipes, albeit with a sophisticated edge to “A Leisurely Weekend”. Plus for entertaining, when there’s time to really focus and impress, there’s a chapter “A Time for Friends”. Christmas in the UK is time for a hard-earned rest. “I particularly enjoy my scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and champagne on Christmas morning,” says Monica longingly. “We’re very fortunate, we get the most amazing hampers from Le Gavroche with Christmas puddings we’ve made in the restaurant and all sorts of treats.” Most years, Monica decamps to her husband’s family in the Jura. “David’s mother makes the most incredible feasts that just go on and on. We start with oysters and crayfish, then there are several roasts and a whole array of desserts including magnificent éclairs.” Galetti’s favourite French festive tradition is the special cake for epiphany filled with almond cream and a hidden good luck charm. “All the children hide under the table, squealing with excitement. The grown-ups cut the cake into slices and each child calls out a number and then gets to see if their slice has the charm, which means they are treated as a little king for the rest of the day.” This year, however, will be different. Galetti and her family will be spending Christmas in Samoa for the first time. “It will be an extraordinary finale to the most memorable year ever.”
Monica’s Kitchen, by Monica Galetti, is published by Quadrille, £20 h/b