Monica Galetti: ‘My goal was to be a chef, it wasn’t to be on TV’

The chef on 13 years of MasterChef: The Professionals, the many uses of Marmite and why she can’t have a banana in peace

I grew up in Samoa and, looking back, I don’t think I realised how wonderful life was back then. The chickens used to run wild on the family plantation and we’d collect their eggs. We’d pick guavas, pineapples, papayas. It was such a normal thing to do.

Every Sunday, we’d have an “umu” – a big fire pit with volcanic rocks. When the fire dies down, the rocks are taken off and you lay it with the meat or palusami [wrapped bundles of taro leaves with a coconut and onion filling]. Then it all gets topped with the rocks and covered with banana leaves and left for an hour to cook. The whole family get involved, everyone had a role.

We had to move to New Zealand when I was eight for a better life. There’s a huge Samoan community in New Zealand, so a lot of that culture survives, but there was no more picking tropical fruit. It was apples and sweetcorn instead. But my dad was into growing his own fruits and vegetables – he still is.

When I walked into the kitchen for the first time, I knew I was going to do that for ever. I was studying my diploma in hospitality, and I just fell in love with it. It was like being a magician. I still remember the first time I made a bread roll. For me it was the most amazing thing.

I was 21 when I got to London and I sent my CV out to so many restaurants. Michel [Roux Jr] was the first one to reply. While I was training, the Roux family were [only in] the books that you saw. I didn’t think it was possible to meet them. Nowadays, Michel is like an older brother.

The best training I could have had was coming to a Roux kitchen. To understand how to cook meat, without sticking a probe in it, just by sheer touch, it takes time to be able to cook like that. These days, you can just set a timer and stick it in a water bath. Sauces from scratch, stocks from scratch, so much of it is bought in these days. The skills to fillet and to butcher, you’d be surprised by how many chefs don’t have those.

The shift into television was only meant to be a 15-minute stint. I’ve been asked to do various celebrity stuff, which I refuse. Because I don’t think it’s relevant to just jump in and do a bit of everything. It’s different because my goal was to be a chef, it wasn’t to be on television. When your goal is to be on television, you jump at every opportunity to be on TV.

This is my 13th year of MasterChef: the Professionals. I just love it when the chefs start to gain in confidence and it gets really exciting. Like Santosh [Shah from the 2020 series], bringing Nepalese cuisine and so many crazy ingredients I’d never had before. Or Adam Handling, who first came through there and, even then, we could see how talented he was.

So many people have said: you don’t really need to run a restaurant, you could just do everything else. But I can’t imagine not having my own kitchen, or being part of a serious kitchen. It’s a natural high: if I ever lose that, I’ll just stop.

I use Marmite quite a bit in the restaurant – that’s Kiwi Marmite, not British Marmite. We do a Marmite salt that we use for the popcorn, I do Marmite in a pasta dish with mushrooms and chicken. You’re not putting cups of it in, it’s more used as a seasoning. But I still love it on toast.

My dogs love bananas as a treat. You can never have a banana in peace in this house! Honestly, no matter how quiet you try to peel it, they come running and just stare you down until you share your banana. Yeah, it’s annoying.

My favourite things

Salt and vinegar crisps. I’ve loved them since I was a child and at the moment I’m enjoying those lentil ones.

Bubbles. Champagne. Anything from Bollinger to Krug. We do drink quite well at home. But saying that, I’ve now restricted it to the weekends. Lockdown was a dark time. Was anyone else hiding their recycle bin from the neighbours?

My favourite place to eat, which I’m overdue a visit, would be Sabor. Everything that Nieves [Barragán-Mohacho] cooks is amazing, from the octopus they do to the whole big fish.

Dish to make
Homemade pizza. If I could, I’d eat pizza every day. Of course you get to a certain age and you can’t do that any more. But I love making the dough from scratch, and everyone can pick their own fillings and they are cooked in three minutes.

At Home: My Favourite Recipes for Family & Friends by Monica Galetti is published by Aster (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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