Monica Galetti speaks quickly and without hesitation, racing towards the next full stop like she’s in the conversation equivalent of a relay race. The sooner she finishes speaking, the sooner I can move on to my next question, and the sooner she can get back to doing absolutely anything that isn’t talking to me.
To be fair, there’s a whole lot to do that doesn’t involve talking to me. When we spoke, the Samoan-born New Zealand chef and MasterChef: The Professionals judge was just three weeks away from launching her own restaurant in Fitzrovia with her sommelier husband David.
The pair met while working together alongside Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche, the two Michelin-starred restaurant where Monica began her UK career in 1999, rising to the position of senior sous-chef. The time was right, she says, for the Galettis to launch a venture of their own.
She begins our conversation with a sigh so deep and existential that I fear she might turn herself inside out, before she adopts a measured smile. It’s nothing so theatrical as an extension of her frank and forthright on-screen personality. She is, I feel, a bit pissed off.
The restaurant is Mere – the Samoan word for Mary and Monica’s mother’s name – and it will offer seasonal, ingredients-led dishes in its 70-seat downstairs dining room. But while the ground floor cocktail bar is stocked, the art has been hung and the blue velvet banquettes have had their dust covers removed, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Taking a corner seat as busy staff buzz back and forth, I’ve felt less in the way in traffic jams.
“Okay,” says Monica, firing a metaphorical starting gun. “Let’s do this.” She begins our conversation with a sigh so deep and existential that I fear she might turn herself inside out, before she adopts a measured smile. It’s nothing so theatrical as an extension of her frank and forthright on-screen personality. She is, I feel, a bit pissed off. I tell her that I’m sensing some–
“Aggression? Yes. It’s not directed at you. It’s just this part of the package. I know it’s supposed to go hand in hand, but I’m a grumpy chef who’d rather be running the kitchen, and instead I’ve got my PR company yelling at me, saying ‘no, you have to talk to these people now.’
“Time is of the essence at the moment,” she continues, her sharp tone softening slightly. “I just find I’m not having enough time in the day to get everything done. So there’s that. But I know it’s a great thing to have the interest of people, and I shouldn’t take that for granted. So I do apologise.”
Since beginning her television work in 2009, Monica has gained celebrity status alongside fellow MasterChef judges Gregg Wallace, Marcus Wareing and her old mentor Michel Roux. It’s a high profile role she takes seriously and is proud to have – especially as a woman – but one she admits she’s never felt totally comfortable within.
“Don’t call me a celebrity chef,” she warns. “I’m a chef first and foremost, and I was never desperate to become famous and be on television. It was never part of my game plan. That was just a product of being in the right place at the right time, and working with the right people. It just so happens that I now enjoy doing it. But I’m a chef and I belong in the kitchen.”
Contracted for “another couple of series” with the BBC, Monica openly wonders how she will continue to balance a media career with the day-to-day business of running a new restaurant and training up staff.
“I’ll have to film during the day and then get on my bike and shoot back to the restaurant for the evening service as much as I can. And between all of that I need to fit my child in somewhere. That’s my biggest stress. I’m trying to do so much here at the restaurant, but at the same time my child is waiting for me to put her to bed, or the person I’ve lined up for childcare is suddenly deciding they can’t do it. Three weeks before I open. It’s really tough. You’re never as prepared as you think you’re going to be.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that this time-starved chef has little to say about new restaurant trends. “I’ve no idea. I love dining out, but I haven’t been able to since taking this on.” Nor does she have much of an opinion on the changing landscape of television cooking shows. “I don’t have the time to watch my own show, let alone anybody else’s.”
Does she feel her role as the judge of a cooking show means her own plates are under more scrutiny than most? “Possibly. But all I can do is work to the best of my abilities. I’m not about fancy, molecular cuisine, it’s not my thing. I think you can create amazing plates of food while keeping it simple.”
Monica stops to ask if I’ve been offered a coffee, and calls to a member of staff for the music to be switched off. She’s a self-described control freak and, by my own assessment, a fastidious and detail-oriented micro-manager. She has eyes on everything from the layout of the bar down to the cleanliness of the ashtrays out front.
“I can’t just focus on the kitchen any more,” she says. “Mere is our restaurant, and I need to look at every aspect of it. I’m very fortunate to be able to do this with my husband and some very talented staff. We can only cook to the best of our ability and try to please people with what we have to offer here.”
And with that we’re finished. Monica pats me on the knee and tells me I’m younger than she thought I would be, and as I leave I can’t quite tell if it’s conciliatory or condescending. She’s a naturally dominant personality, curt and unsympathetic to anyone she believes might slow her down. With just days before she launches her own enterprise, pity anyone standing in her way.