29 March 2017
Monica Galetti is a stickler for detail. As anyone who has witnessed her poker-faced, straight-talking judging on MasterChef: The Professionals will know, her standards are high and uncompromising.
Plating up perfection comes with the territory. As the former senior sous chef at Michel Roux Jr’s two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, Galetti has had 17 years to perfect classical French haute cuisine. Since hanging up her apron at the Mayfair institution in 2015 and launching her own restaurant earlier this month, her remit is now as much about sofas as it is soufflés.
In the run-up to the opening of Mere, the Samoan-born, New Zealand chef’s self-confessed control freak tendencies went into overdrive. Rumour has it that she vetoed 50 or so chairs before finding a curved blue velvet banquette that was just right for the bar.
“It’s been stressful at times,” she admits when I catch her before lunch service. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I’ve been involved in every part of the process, but nothing ever runs smoothly.” To date there have been leaks, broken appliances and furniture delivery mishaps. Amid all that, the carpet has been specially commissioned, as has the art work. My eye wanders to an abstract depiction of a swirling flute of champagne cast in tactile gold that dominates one wall.
“I like the fact that you can’t steal it,” she quips. Fizz, as it happens, is her favourite drink and Monica being Monica – and having a French sommelier for a husband – decided to blend her own. The Galettis spent three days sipping their way around Champagne, with daughter Anais in tow. It’s not your average family holiday, but then any ten-year-old with Le Gavroche alumni for parents is bound to appreciate the finer things in life. “She’s unfazed by it all,” David says with a shy smile, as he pours the wine.
By the sound of things, he’s spent a lot of time running errands on his wife’s request between Fitzrovia and France. He drove all the way to the family wine cellar in Jura to collect old wine crates for the feature wall downstairs in the elegant dining room. Together they make a good team – David’s softly-spoken charm and easy-going nature is a good counterbalance to Monica’s more direct, no-nonsense attitude. Theirs was a workplace romance. The couple met when David joined the team at Le Gavroche in 2001, so restaurant life has always been an integral part of their relationship.
“It’s great having him by my side,” says Monica. “It’s just a shame that we don’t get to see each other more often.” Their daily routine sounds militant: David is in charge of the school run, while Monica opens up. On Saturdays she tries to slip home after lunch to spend time with Anais before rushing back for evening service. “I try to make it home for 1am and David will stay and close. I usually wait up for him so we can spend maybe half an hour together before bed.” And then it’s back to work again.
Mere has been a long-time coming, mainly because of the difficulty of juggling family life, but now that Anais is older, the time felt right. “I’ve wanted to open my own restaurant for about 25 years. I think most chefs aspire to open their own place and I’m no different to the rest,” Galetti says. Even so, I doubt most other chefs would be caught in their vests sawing shelves for the meat freezer – another pre-launch problem.
Today she’s left her toolbox at home and emerges quietly from the kitchen after lunch service still in her chef’s whites, working her way from table to table to greet guests tucking into their petits fours.
“We used to live not far from here, actually, near the British Museum. We’ve spent a lot of time walking around this area and eating here in the past, so we feel quite at home”
She looks remarkably fresh-faced for someone who is five days in to realising their long-held dream. I’ve just polished off a banana, coconut, rum caramel and whipped cream concoction (pictured below) when she arrives at our table. High on sugar, I declare it a ‘sexy banana split’, which is met with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve never heard it called that before,” she responds.
The menu is inspired, Monica says, by her type of cooking. The basic techniques are French, but her Samoan and New Zealand roots have informed the flavour combinations. There’s a signature dish of black curry scallop with lime, kumquat and puffed rice, as well as a more refined take on a traditional Maori pork boil up of ham hock, watercress doughboy, horseradish and spiced broth.
One of her favourite childhood foods was her dad’s baked pig’s head. “We used to fight over the cheeks when we were kids,” she smiles. “I’ve always loved cooking. My mother taught me from a young age and I really enjoyed being in the kitchen with her. Food was an important part of our family growing up. Everyone would sit down at the table and have a real conversation, and I think that’s stuck with me.”
The couple have tried to recreate that sense of comfort and familiarity at Mere, making it a place where you can relax, sit comfortably and enjoy great food and wine. After months of searching for a site, they knew that the Charlotte Street premises was the one. “It was like when you’re looking for a new house and you walk in and get that feeling,” Monica says. “We used to live not far from here, actually, near the British Museum. We’ve spent a lot of time walking around this area and eating here in the past, so we feel quite at home.”
One place she has never truly felt at home is in front of the camera. Does she feel under greater scrutiny given her eight-year judging stint on MasterChef? “The publicity has definitely had an impact,” she confesses. “The show has a huge following – bigger than I realised when I first started it, which has given me a public persona and probably given people certain expectations for the restaurant.” Expectations might be high, but as predicted, Mere has exceeded them, carpets, couches, cuisine and all.
74 Charlotte Street, W1T, www.mere-restaurant.com.