You can take the girl out of the island, but you can't take the island out of the girl.

Monica Galetti might be a name synonymous with culinary delights, chef artistry and maybe even the "death stare''; but before all that, she was just another kid growing up in Samoa.

Born in Apia, she grew up in the village of Sapapāli'i, Savaii, before the family migrated to New Zealand while she was still a young girl.

One of her earliest memories is of her dad teaching her how to make palusami (coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves).

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She defines herself as a Samoan-Kiwi — a term that acknowledges her island roots and the upbringing she enjoyed in what her parents' generation dubbed the land of milk and honey.

"That's who I am and I will always be that, first and foremost. I live in the UK — I've worked a lot overseas — but I am Samoan-Kiwi."

MasterChef judge Monica Galetti is all about the island food when she is back home in New Zealand. Photo / Doug Sherring
MasterChef judge Monica Galetti is all about the island food when she is back home in New Zealand. Photo / Doug Sherring

The accomplished chef, who still calls Wellington home, moved to London in 1999 after accepting an offer from top chef Michel Roux Jr to work at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant: Le Gavroche.

There, she was a force to be reckoned with; working through the kitchen to become the first woman to hold a senior position — sous-chef — at the restaurant.

Galetti is arguably most recognised for her role as a judge chef on the BBC cooking series MasterChef, which she has appeared on for 10 years and recently re-signed with.

She was in New Zealand last week to speak at the Pacific Aotearoa Summit. Asked how she got that gig, the answer is typical of the Samoan grapevine — through the cousin of a friend.

She silenced the room when she shared stories about the struggles and the very humble beginnings her family faced during the 1980s.

"I know what it's like to have holes in my shoes."

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Her mother's death a few years ago sparked something inside her — a move towards a dream she had long wanted to fulfill.

In March last year, she and wine expert husband David Galetti opened a restaurant in London.

Its name pays tribute to the woman who motivated her to achieve all this: Mere.

"My mum went without so much to put food on the table and I find naming it after her — it's her legacy through me.

"We live, we die. We get forgotten and I just feel like, for my mum, every person who walks through my door will know her name."

Visitors will catch subtle influences from the Pacific: Tapa-patterned panels, a siapo (tapa cloth) from Samoa and artwork — created by a cousin — on the walls.

Mere's menu also gets a touch of Pasifika or Kiwiana now and again; with a modern version of oka (raw fish) included last summer.

Samoan-born Kiwi Monica Galetti has been a MasterChef judge for more than 10 years. Photo / Supplied
Samoan-born Kiwi Monica Galetti has been a MasterChef judge for more than 10 years. Photo / Supplied

"I've done a take on pork boil-up as well — but it wouldn't be a pork boil-up as you know back here,'' she laughed.

"At the moment I have a take on a Toffee Pop. But again, it's very different — it's the ideas and the flavours of it and making a dessert or food."

She is living a hugely successful life these days, but it has been challenging.

"For the first couple of years in the UK, I was like: Oh my God, what have I done? I was working from 7 in the morning to 1 in the morning. It was crazy.

"It was gradual and it hurt. But when you look at what you can achieve afterwards, it's all worth it."

It was odd not to see many brown faces in the kitchen, she said.

"In the beginning, I was called black in an actual kitchen. It was a real shock for me.

"But it never happened again. Whoever said that learnt a lesson — you just don't call a Samoan black ... because yeah, you're not going to get very far in the kitchen without me hurting you,'' she joked.

For now, life is good and even better when she is back home eating all the traditional Samoan food she can — chopsuey and roast pig's head still among her favourites.

"All I do is I eat island food when I get back here.

"That's all I want. Keke pua'a, (pork buns) bring it on — and then back to the gym when I get back," she laughed.