MasterChef judge practises what she preaches (+recipe)

By Nici Wickes

Nici Wickes talks to Le Gavroche's Monica Galetti about how her family background prepared her to strive for the best.

Monica Galetti is right-hand woman to famed chef Michel Roux Jr, son of the founder of the restaurant, Le Gavroche. Photo / Supplied
Monica Galetti is right-hand woman to famed chef Michel Roux Jr, son of the founder of the restaurant, Le Gavroche. Photo / Supplied

I can only imagine the opening night. Among the guests were Ava Gardner, Charlie Chaplin and Robert Redford. I'm talking about the famous Mayfair dining establishment, Le Gavroche. This icon (yes, this word is fitting in this instance) has just celebrated its 45th year in business and is still as current and relevant to London's dining scene as it was when it stormed on to the scene in 1967.

And now we are in for a taste of this famous kitchen's creations right here in Auckland when their senior sous chef, Monica Galetti, teams up with chef Ben Bayly at The Grove for one night only as part of the Auckland Restaurant Month line-up of events.

We caught up with London-based Galetti over the phone to find out what makes this disciplined young women tick because, clearly, she's a phenomenal talent.

Samoan-born and New Zealand-raised, where she trained as a chef, she has sustained working the gruelling hours required to survive in one of London's most disciplined kitchens, under Michel Roux Jr, son of the founder of Le Gavroche, for over a decade.

Even more awe-inspiring is that as well as pulling a full shift five days of every week at the restaurant, she also manages to fit in being one of the judges on MasterChef: The Professionals and she and her husband have a six-year-old daughter. In her role as judge on the TV show she's been labelled as hard as nails but also as someone who rewards effort and genuine skill, and she attributes at least some of her mental toughness to her strict upbringing.

Good training for a restaurant kitchen, I suggest.

"Well at Gavroche," she explains as we get started, "we're always striving for perfection and we maintain the highest of standards, both in terms of our service and food. My growing up was like that too - my parents were very strict with homework and stuff and they were always pushing us kids to get the best out of us. I still spend five days a week in the restaurant and I fit it in between the TV schedule and yeah, it's full-on but I love it all."

Has TV made us more or less apprehensive about cooking and dining out?

Shows like MasterChef are making food and dining not as scary, breaking down barriers and they're educating people. They're also encouraging younger people to be interested in food and I'm in full support of that. We see more kids coming to Gavroche now and that's partly due to the exposure from MasterChef:The Professionals. Restaurants that feature on TV get booked out. When the contestants travelled to Denmark in one episode, to cook at Noma, Noma's website crashed with the amount of traffic that was generated.

What major differences do you see between the dining culture in NZ and London?

I'm not that familiar with the Auckland dining scene but one thing I do notice is that being based in Britain we dine out with our 6-year-old all the time, and she tries wine and champagne and is always made to feel welcome. It's more common in Europe for children to join parents in restaurants. I'm not sure if that happens in NZ.

What do you think about diners who think they're too "novice" to dine at certain establishments and what advice would you give them if they're feeling nervous?

Tell the wait staff you're nervous! Life's too short to miss out on these things especially if all that's holding you back is fear. Everyone deserves to treat themselves and at the best places, the top restaurants, what you'll find is an exceedingly warm and welcoming service and people who will put you at ease, not make you more nervous. At Gavroche, I've heard people admit that they were apprehensive about coming to dine with us but once they get there, they couldn't be happier.Do you have some favourite ingredients that you simply adore and never get enough of?

Ceps. I love them shaved into salads, or sauteed with some butter, garlic and parsley - there's nothing like it. And they're Elton John's favourite mushroom too.

Anything you don't like?

I'll try most things but I don't like surprises - just ask my husband. He keeps trying to arrange a surprise weekend away for us without telling me but I'm too busy to have that sprung on me.

Apart from gracing the kitchen at The Grove for Auckland Restaurant month, what else is on your horizon?

I'm involved with the new series of The Great British Food Revival, a TV show about bringing awareness to our local ingredients and the producers. I'm championing asparagus. Did you know that local producers are getting pushed out of the market because the UK imports asparagus from Peru in the off season? It's terrible. So on the show, I've got to fight for their rights.

As I finish up our interview I get the get the impression that the strong-willed Galetti will be excellent at getting support for the humble asparagus and I feel for the other "contestant ingredients".

I then call Ben Bayly to ask him how he's feeling about Galetti taking over his kitchen for the night. Is he nervous?

"Not nervous, just excited. I spent over four years in London and modern British cuisine has a place close to my heart, I feel like it's a place where I became a man! Or learnt what it really takes to be a chef; it was a defining moment in my career and cooking with Monica I will re-live that, if only for a day. I can't wait to be back in that place, with that sort of food. It's really different from what we do in NZ, wonderfully so, and I'm looking forward to being reminded of it" he says nostalgically.

Did he ever dine at Le Gavroche when he was in London?

"Yes! In London they do this great thing for a weekday lunch; most of the restaurant greats run a short three course lunch menu for £20-30. I ate at Le Gavroche twice over a period of a year in this way and had some truly amazing food."

I quiz him on whether he's received long lists of strange ingredients and hot-headed demands from her but he just laughs, knowing full well I'm trying to get the closely guarded menu out of him. I do manage to extract from him that barley and leagram blue - a sheep cheese I think - are on the list, and he mumbles something about a "horseradish flan" but when I pounce on him to elaborate further, he clams up.

He does offer this up: "I hope she doesn't think my kitchen is too small. NZ restaurant kitchens generally are compared with those in Britain. I might splash a bit of paint around to make it look bigger."

Not nervous? Maybe just a little, I'd say.

Dad's stewed octopus - made Monica's way

Serves 8

1.5kg octopus, cleaned
1 lemon, cut in half
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
3 lemon thyme sprigs

Pearl barley
1 Tbs olive oil
1/2 onion, peeled and finely chopped
200g pearl barley
650ml chicken stock
40g squid ink

Sauce
1 Tbs olive oil
1/2 onion, peeled and finely diced
2 tsp mild curry powder
2 tsp ground turmeric
100ml white wine
200ml coconut milk
150ml single cream
Freshly ground white pepper

Samphire
15g butter
80g samphire, picked and washed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To finish
Finely grated zest of 1 lime

1 Heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Rinse the octopus and place in a casserole with the lemon, garlic, bay and lemon thyme. There is no need to add liquid as the octopus releases a lot during cooking. Do not add any salt. Put the lid on and cook in the oven until soft and tender, about 1 3/4 hours. Remove the lid and leave the octopus to cool in its liquid.

2 To cook the pearl barley, heat a saucepan over a medium-high heat and drizzle in the olive oil. Add the onion and sweat over a medium heat for 1 minute, then add the pearl barley and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add half chicken stock and simmer until it is all absorbed before adding the rest. Cook over a medium heat until the pearl barley grains swell and soften, yet remain firm to the bite, about 25 minutes; it should be moist but not too wet. Tip in the squid ink and stir to coat the grains.

3 Strain 400ml of the cooking liquor from the octopus to use for the sauce. Heat a saucepan over a medium-high heat and drizzle in the olive oil. Add the onion and sweat for 2 minutes, then add the spices and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the wine, stirring to deglaze, then pour in the 400ml reserved octopus liquor and bring to the boil. Simmer to reduce over a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Pour in the coconut milk and cream and continue to simmer for 5 minutes to make a vibrant sauce. Correct the seasoning with a pinch of salt and a few twists of white pepper.

4 To cook the samphire, melt butter over a medium-high heat, add the samphire and cook, tossing, for 2 minutes. Season to taste.

5 To serve, cut the octopus into bite-sized pieces and gently reheat in a little of its cooking juice or some of the sauce. Divide the pearl barley between warmed serving bowls and spoon the samphire on top. Arrange the octopus in the middle. Froth the sauce, using a handheld stick blender to make it foamy and spoon around the samphire. Sprinkle with lime zest to finish.

VIP Viva

To celebrate Auckland Restaurant Month, Viva is delighted to give one lucky reader two vouchers to dine out in the inner-city each week. This week, we have $100 to spend at Brew on Quay and $80 at La Zeppa. To enter go to nzherald.co.nz/vivagiveaways and enter the keywords "Auckland Restaurant Month" on the VIP Viva page along with your details. Entries close at 11.59pm on Sunday, July 29, 2012. For terms and conditions see the website.

* Monica Galetti teams up with Ben Bayly for A Taste of Gavroche at The Grove on August 22, one night only, tickets strictly limited. Six course degustation, $250 per person, matched with New Zealand wines by Michael Dearth and Le Gavroche's own head sommelier. Tickets available here.

- NZ Herald