BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening.
My castaway this week is the chef, Monica Galletti, as a judge on TV's MasterChef, the Professionals, she's been sharpening contestants skills and occasionally cutting them down to size for over a decade. But food has been central to her life since the beginning. Her first memories are collecting eggs and mangos on the family plantation in Samoa. After moving to New Zealand, she trained in hospitality, making a name for herself in the cutthroat world of competitive cookery before following her dream, moving to London to train with restaurant royalty, the royal family, one of the few women to have made it to the top in her profession.
She's now running a restaurant of her own, named in honour of her mother, who taught her the values that have been central to her success. She says there's always a problem. Every day there's a problem. The main thing is to keep calm. If you lose the plot, the team will see it and the last thing they need to see is us at the top running the show, panicking. Stay calm and be quick on fixing a problem.
Stopping a problem head on is vital. Monica Galletti, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Thank you for having me. So if ever there's been a time to keep calm, Monica, it is now, isn't it? Isn't it?
Just so Monica, of course, along with the rest of the hospitality sector, you're dealing with the all consuming problem at the moment of coronavirus in your restaurant, closed for the third time late last year and then remains closed today. How are you managing on a day to day basis?
You know that the last closure was the third time was really tough.
Everyone was coming up to the Christmas season.
So you had preordered everything from your suppliers and we were given 24 hour notice, you know, and it was just so much money. I won't say wasted. You know, I gave a lot away to to my team to make sure everyone had a doggy bag to take home and they were OK for a few days with it all. But to the business, it's just, you know, a complete write off and the pressure must be really intense.
How are you coping with that?
Um, better, I guess, because we've had a few runs. And now, you know, the first lock down was was real emotional for me. It took me, you know, a couple of weeks to really accept what was going on, going from complete madness and being so busy to doing nothing. So I had to to adjust to it and accept there was nothing I could do about it. And I think that's the hardest thing for people like me who are control freaks.
You know, there was just it was taken out of your hands. You can't plan for it. You just got to accept it in some way and find a way to to focus and get through, keeping busy or finding a routine during the day. A reason to to get up and be busy is what I've found has helped.
You're very good at keeping cool in a crisis. Is it true that you once cut the top of your finger off during a cookery demo and just kept going?
I said, oh my gosh, it was horrible, you know, bless.
And I had a little girl on on stage with me helping this poor little girl. I put her off, OK?
And she says, Are you going to be alright? Yeah, don't worry. She goes, okay, because you're bleeding everywhere. And I was like, oh, it's nothing.
And, you know, I got off the stage and they're trying to find the other part of it, but. Right. Because the quote I have about the other part is lobbed it into a bin.
Yes. I just wiped everything off the bench into the into the bin because I had a little girl with me and I didn't want her to freak out or to panic, you know.
So just quickly, what the everything that was on the including the top of my thumb, you know, so on that rather brutal note, it's time for desk number one. What's it going to be, Monica? And why have you chosen this?
This No. One is three little birds by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Couldn't be more true to to how we are at the moment.
And also, for me, just memories of family getting together Christmas mornings and the summer in New Zealand.
And it's just a feel good to know more about every gonna of your right. And then don't worry about a thing. Everything's gonna be all right.
Three Little Birds by Bob Marley in the Wailers. Monica Galletti, you were born on the island of Apollo in Western Samoa. Tell me a little bit more about the place. What's it like?
It's paradise. It's just, you know, beautiful, clear blue waters. Some of the most friendliest of people you will come across and in our culture is, you know, very much about music, dance, family, food.
It's very special to me. So you lived on a plantation. You had lots of extended family close by. So there's a strong kind of family network there.
Yes, we have, you know, a family plot. Big family plot is like a main house there and then around that would be sort of smaller, you know, homes of of other relatives. So, you know, it was just a great place to grow up as a child. You were never alone. There was always someone to play with. And when it came to play, you were a bit of a tomboy. So I'm imagining lots of climbing trees and stuff like that.
Absolutely. You know, climbing trees, always getting in trouble because I'd say on a cocoa plant and eat the, you know, the pope that you make chocolate from, you know, getting a smack on my bum because, you know, they say you get so tummy if you eat too much of it.
Now, your biological father, he wasn't part of your life. But as I mentioned in the introduction, your mother was a huge influence.
How would you describe her? Very strong.
She became that the head of our family, the Samoan way of life, as you know, sort of run by the head of the family who's sort of the title of a chief and my family sort of quite prestigious and the title that they come with. And so mum was head of the family for a while until she passed.
She was the main breadwinner and worked long hours. I know when you were young as a telephone operator who looked after you and your siblings while your mom was working, my aunties had unzipping.
It was the main one in charge because Auntie SA was in a wheelchair because she was born with polio. But, you know, that didn't make her by any means that the less strong of the two because she had opinion and she could pinch yourself.
If you were naughty or if I was naughty, yeah, I'd get a pinch, but also very loving. You know, I remember them, you know, holding me to to put me to sleep. You know, some some nights I remember crying, wanting my mom and stuff and keeping it just rocking me to sleep.
And from the time you were five or so, you got involved with food preparation. What was your job?
I was just so curious.
The majority of the hard work that was done was what we call OMOs, as it was when all the food sort of baked in a huge pit. They make a fire with volcanic rocks. When the fire dies down, you take it all apart and all the food's being prepared. Makes some by the women and the men like, you know, I hope to find a pig. For example, the vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves and the fish like so.
And you then layer them inside these these rocks, then cover it up with banana leaves, although it's sort of roasting and steaming at the same time. So I used to try and help out.
I think they sort of got in the way more than anything, trying to peel like the green bananas with them. They have the peeler that they sort of made of the piece of wood. And I remember being covered and get all sticky with it before our stomachs start rumbling.
Monica, I think we better get into disk. No, to take a moment, some music. What are we going to hear next?
Next is is a tune that brings so much to me. Is Codesa more Matala see my beautiful Samwell by the five stars.
And your mum used to dance to that. She was a dancer.
Yeah. Mean our culture is, is very much a you know, a lot of it is to do with someone dancing, traditional dancing.
And another one of my first memories I remember was sitting on a veranda watching my mum and a dance group practicing and just how graceful she was. I see, I see I less. There might be a fee of. Samuel Matala, see my beautiful Samoa, the five stars, Monica Gelati, when you were very small, your mother and stepfather made the difficult decision to emigrate to New Zealand. How did you find out they were leaving?
How old were you? I think I must have been about five.
Five or six. Yeah, I don't recall being told that they were leaving.
I think I said goodbye to her one day and then sort of being explained in the way that Mum had gone away by knows at that age. You just think your mum's gone away. She's coming back. Yeah. But, you know, she had taken my brothers with her. My two older brothers were there at the time and my aunts who had raised us, you know, while mum was working in that. So I pleaded with Mum to leave me and my sister back in Samoa with them.
And of course, you know, you would have known you must have been told that they were trying to build a better life for all of you.
Yeah. You just, you know, had no understanding thing at that age of of what a better life was when for me, I was having a good life. You know, I thought things were good at that age. Yeah. Yeah.
They were sending money back to you for your upkeep to your aunt's. But a few years later, it stopped coming. What happened?
All of a sudden? I stopped going to school. And then I remember we didn't have food for a long period of time for for a few months. And one of the aunts, big family, another one of the aunts was sort of tapping into the money that mum was sending before my aunts that were raising us could get to it. So you didn't how did you survive?
How were you keeping them? I recall being very hungry, having to eat rice for like breakfast, lunch and dinner. And to this day, I can't really eat rice because of that.
And then just realising then all of a sudden, my sister and I were on a plane to New Zealand.
Okay, so your parents, my mum had found out, and that was when the penny dropped and my you know, my aunties, aunties are. And I had to tell my mum what was going on. Yeah. And I think at first they were quite afraid of telling Mum because they knew they were going to lose us. Yeah, of course.
And that must have been difficult for you to say goodbye to them. Yeah, it was was really sad because, you know, you just didn't realize that, you know, you were seeing your aunts for the last time and all of a sudden you were on a plane, you know, and that was the goodbye to to some for me.
So, yeah, it was tough, incredibly emotional for you.
Still, I can hear it in your voice. I mean, you were only eight years old. How do you think those experiences have gone into making you who you are today?
I think, you know, they just make you stronger our way of life and the way you know, that we've been brought up as these things happen and you can be angry about it, but dwelling on it is sort of quite poisonous for the soul.
All right, Monica. Time for your next desk, tell us about what we're going to hear and why you've chosen it today. Oh, this is a good one. This is You Ought To Be In Love by Dave Dobbyn.
So this is from an animation that ran in New Zealand and was huge. Am I right? Yeah.
The footrot flats, you know, any Kiwi, you know, sort of knew this from the 80s, I think when it came out and it was about a working farm dog. And this song came out when he had fallen in love dog.
Yeah, but it was just this huge I mean, you got to check out footrot flats, you know, for me. So, you know, taking on another country, another culture and adapted and grew to love New Zealand. And there's just, again, something that evokes a lot of great memories from New Zealand.
A winning one is hard enough to find when you got to never leave it behind. When it's given back, you'll be a powerful man with. You ought to be in love, Dave Dobbyn featuring Ardia, so Monica Jelassi, they were in New Zealand and back with your family initially in Auckland and then Wellington. It must have been quite a culture shock, leaving a small island to go to a big city. What you remember about that time?
Yeah, it took a while to settle into food being so different, you know, and also, you know, having to learn English. And I just missed blue sky and ocean, even though there was a lot of it in New Zealand, it just wasn't the same. You know, I missed walking around barefoot because I just found the ground too cold.
Yeah, it was a big change for us.
And am I right in thinking that, you know, at that point, your first career choice was to be a brain surgeon?
Yeah, that was a few years later. I think it was more, you know, watching my parents and over the years that were to come as accumulation of of their struggles and their sacrifice, I always aim to do well in some way so that they wouldn't have to work so hard anymore.
After you left school, you began studying for a diploma in hospitality management. Would you say you were a good student?
Once I'd walked into that kitchen. I had never been more focused on anything. I knew exactly where I was meant to be and this was my calling and I would do nothing else.
And what was it that that that just connected with you? I walked into the kitchen and the chef was piping chocolate decorations, the all classic decorations you did, you know, to set, and then you put them on cakes and what have you. And I thought it was the most amazing skill I'd ever seen and how beautiful it was. And I wanted to be able to do that, you know, things like the butchery and how quick that he was doing it.
I was so amazed by it.
And I think it was so different from from the food culture that I had grown up with. You know, it was so much more thought and it was precise as opposed to the one cooking, which I absolutely love still.
But, you know, it was just so amazing to me and I knew it's what I wanted to do.
Well, find out where that epiphany took you next after some more music.
This is disc number four, Monica Yv, chosen in Hotel California by the Eagles. Oh, my God. I absolutely love this song. I was in school and I think I must have been like 14 or 15.
And I remember this guy, Aaron, getting up during the school assembly and playing this and singing to it. And I just thought was the most amazing thing. Poor guy. I think I followed him around for like six months after that. And it wasn't because I had a crush on it was just to make him play the song for me. I used to hide every time I used to enter the music room.
Let all go down. You can find it here. Twisted the Eagles and Hotel California, which Monica Galletti listen to as many times as you like on your island. It's not the Russians, that's all. It's all yours. Thank you.
So, Monica, after you graduated from college, you got a job as a chef and a fine dining restaurant in Wellington. And it was around that time that you started taking part in culinary competitions. So how did that happen? Why? Why did you start doing that?
The chef there was a very competitive chef. And Steven asked me if I'd be interested in trying my hand at the competition. And I said, yes, I'd like to give it a go. Turned out they now had a bit of a flair for the competitions. And I went on to sort of win the regionals and Wellington and then won the national competitions over in New Zealand. And then that took me abroad to start competing, representing New Zealand and Oceania and then in European competitions.
I just had this crazy hunger to learn. And I mean, I'd finished work at midnight and my boss would then get a box of ingredients out. They'd all go home and I'd stay there until about 2:00 in the morning, knocking up a three course meal. And I thrived on it.
So in the late 90s, you travelled around Europe and eventually came to London. How did you get your first break once you were here? Growing up as a young chef?
The cookbooks I had and I remember were, you know, the brothers and the brothers for me back then. And even now, you know, it's like gods of cooking. And I just thinking, wow, just be amazing to just meet them one day. And whilst I was travelling, I sent my CV off to, of course, the waterside to the Gap Wash, you know, basically of the top restaurants back then in the 90s.
And Gavroche were the first to reply, an immense stepping back down to a composition.
I was already like, chef, the part of me cooking like six, seven years already.
But I didn't care. I had my foot in the door of the most amazing kitchen. And, you know, if that's what it meant, then that's what it took.
What was it like working in such a prestigious kitchen? Frightening. I think the fear is something you sort of instill in yourself as well. You know, there's so competitive in that kitchen.
Everyone wants to be better, if not as good as the chef cooking next to them, you know, or Michelle would go on his break in the afternoon and he'd be shouted out, make sure you all get out and have a break is like, yes, chef.
And as soon as he left, you'd all sneak back in the kitchen, you know?
But it was also an amazing experience to to be able to to learn in that kitchen.
I'm quite lucky that I was taught butchery by Michelle Roux Jr. I know that he said of you that he was tough on you as a mentor, but because he knew you were good. Yeah.
You know, he told me that much later on. Would have been nice if he told me that at the beginning.
I guess you can show favoritism, you know, and I knew it was his favourite all along.
Time for desk number five.
What have you chosen for us and why this number five is La Vie en rose by this version is Louis Armstrong's.
There's been many versions of it, but for me this is one of my particular favorites. I remember this one sort of, you know, in the in my twenties, the excitement of about to leave New Zealand to travel.
And of course, you know where it's taken me to to now. Oh, very close, and to me, that's the magic spell you go, this is like the arm.
When you kiss me over though, I close my eyes.
Louis Armstrong and La Vie en Rose. Even today, Monica Galletti, restaurant kitchens do tend to be male dominated. Why do you think that's still the case?
Well, I think nowadays you're seeing much more women in the kitchen, definitely in my own kitchen, so to speak. I employ a lot of women and it's more of us out there than when I started. I remember there were months when I'd be the only woman in that kitchen. But I think over the years the mentality has changed. It's okay to ask for help, you know, to lift heavy things. You know, it's instead of trying to be as strong as as as the guys you know and I know in my kitchen, the best way to get the best out of my team is not to shout at them.
Yeah, you got to lose your temper if something goes wrong and you shout at the situation.
But, you know, if my team are happy and you give them up for service, you know, it's like, come on, guys, are we ready? We're going to smash us.
And he was like, Yes, chef, I love that, you know, that excitement of firing them up as opposed to just constantly belittling someone, telling someone they're no good. Why are you doing that to someone if you wanted them to be at their best?
Have you ever been in environments that weren't so positive?
Yeah. You know, in a different kitchens and what have you and how did you deal with it?
You know, I had a lot of anger when I was much younger as well.
So if someone got in your way, you told them you gave as good as he got.
Absolutely. And also, being a tomboy, I had, you know, my two older brothers used to kick my butt, you know, taught me how to be a bit tougher. I think so. I guess I you know, I knew how to cope with guys a bit more. And also for me, once I had a chef's jacket on, you were fair game. Everyone was a chef. So it's about the jacket, not the person.
Yes, it's the jacket. But you are angry, too. You said I'm going to have to ask you about that. It's it's a long story short.
I did my first year at the GAF and I got a phone call on this Wednesday morning around Michelle giving me the phone and telling me, you know, come in the office and take the phone call. It wasn't a good phone call. My my partner at the time was was back in New Zealand, had sort of passed away overnight. So I had to leave and go home. And remember, I trashed Michelle's office.
Yeah, I think yeah. Absolutely destroyed Michelle's office. So I went home back to our house, dealt with the funeral and everything.
And I spent a year back at home.
And then I rung up Michelle and he was like, oh, I think you said, you know, how's it going? And I just said, I'm not doing well, chef. And he said, come back.
I just couldn't be in New Zealand anymore. It was too painful to be there. There's just so many memories. So I had to leave and I knew I wasn't coming back and I wanted to escape. And the Gavroche was the perfect escape.
It's all I could focus on, you know, to get through it. It was all I knew.
Let's take a minute to hear some more music. Monica, it's time for your next disc. What are we going to hear and why is this going with you today?
This is My Girl by The Temptations. And Tom, you know, this was actually is a song that I used to sing and play for my daughter since she was born.
And I remember, I think when she was about five and we were dancing around a lot and then in the kitchen and they came on and she was like, oh, it's my song know, of course, nowadays, and I'll play it for her.
She just rolls her eyes at me. Did he? But the. The Temptations with my girl. So Monica Jelassi, Michelle put you forward to be a judge on MasterChef the professionals, and you joined the team back in 2009 on screen, you have a reputation for being forthright and formidable, but reviewers can be quite sharp and some at the beginning even duped. You nasty Monica. That must have been difficult to deal with. Yeah.
You know, I just sort of wish they'd come straight to my face and they wouldn't, you know, at some it was a different world, isn't it?
I was, you know, just a simple chef. It's all that mattered to me.
And then to suddenly end up on on on television, there was no preparation of what would happen once you took part on, you know, on a TV show to sort of deal with, you know, negative sort of feedbacks about who you are and what you do, why she has a tattoo on arrest.
You know, it was just a lot to for me to to accept feedback, you know, being called a so-and-so and being harsh and what have you.
This was back in the day when the social media side of it just started, you know, social media just sort of taken off.
Then for me, I was just doing a job and perhaps, you know, spoke too much in the beginning the way you did as a chef and just realized maybe the language has got to change a bit more.
So what was that? Just very direct. Yeah. Yeah, very direct.
And I don't know, because I was a woman doing it, you know, I was being called a Ramsay, really, but eventually he just learnt to deal with it.
Did I deal with it? Well, I just stopped watching the show.
I was like whenever I was out, I used to give me a panic attack knowing it was happening. Really? So you never watched it?
No, because it was associated in the beginning with a lot of negative feedback. So much that I remember some nights when the show would come on, I'd jump into bed and my daughter just just like shut it out.
So, you know, eventually you had an up to it and you just learn to just ignore it. It's not a real sort of judgement on who I am as a person, as a mother, as a chef. That's, you know, people with pretty big keyboard and they got no, you know, to to spend their time on.
Um, but, yeah, it's been amazing being a part of that show. And it's the nurturing side of it and the discovering of new talent, especially when we're down to like the final ten or twelve chefs and we're spending more time with them. It becomes very tough to start losing them at that point.
I mean, sometimes our judging can take hours trying to make sure that, you know, we keep our favorites and we're making the right decision. And and it's very serious. We take it very seriously.
Time for some more music. Monica, what are we going to do next? Next has got to be, you know, my favorite five favorite songs and any of my daughter. It's this it's Purple Rain by Prince.
I'm not wanted to be people we can. Prince and Purple Rain, Monica Galletti, and you are want on occasion to bust out some serious air guitar to that trucker.
Oh, how can you not? Monica, as I said in my introduction, there are very few women who've reached the heights that you have and few people of color too. I know that you've said you want to see that change. What needs to happen, do you think, for it to do so?
I tend to think that it's because of the backgrounds that we come from.
You know, culturally, you know, I come from a similar background where, you know, the food is is very humble. It's very simple.
The world of fine dining can be frightening, you know, if it's not what you grew up in.
And I think when the doors are just thrown open and you're given the confidence to step into that world, you know, without any barriers at all, and you've made to feel very welcome in it, you know, that you belong, then it's no longer as frightening. And I think the interest of food has shifted to be more inclusive, which makes us feel that actually, yeah, my style of food is going to be you or I or I can give it a go.
I remember making for the first time some some want food from Michelle in the store, but nervous about it, you know.
But what did you make of the pork buns for steamed pork buns. Basically straight for offering up for chef.
They loved it. Absolutely. Accorsi Did you own your own restaurant?
Mary along with your husband, David? He's the head sommelier. How did the two of you meet? Were you on pastry at Le Gavroche? And he was on wine with a wine storage at the pastry window.
Yeah, there are some sellers outside the gab and he used to, you know, be out there working. And I was in the pastry. I used to always knock on the window to say hello. Yeah.
He said he knew he was in love with me when he first saw me.
So that's why I tell everyone he fell in love with me. Love at first sight through the window. You know, he can help himself and he must have a nice glass of wine pick for you at the end of the day.
That's got to be one of the perks, of course, is the whole reason I married him.
So, Monica, I'm about to cast you away.
What do you think you'll miss?
At the moment? We feel like I'm stranded on an island. The last few months I've been in training for eight years. You're just ready to go.
I it's conversation as people.
Yeah, well, you'll have your disc's to keep you company and we'll allow you one more before we send you off it's desk number eight. Then what are we going to hear, Monica Galletti and why is it going with you.
Disc number eight is a feeling good.
Nina Simone's my go to tune when we're about to go out, for example, doing something exciting or waking up on a Sunday morning knowing that it's going to be the three of us speaks for itself.
And I'm feeling good. You know, I feel. You know, I feel. Blossom on the tree, you know, happy. It's a Nina Simone, I'm feeling good, so it's time to send you away to the island, Monica Galassi, I'm giving you the Bible on the complete works of Shakespeare to take with you.
You can take another book of your choice.
What would you like the complete works of Oscar Wilde. I was helping a friend of mine clear out her book collection. They were downsizing and came across it. And I think it's 10 years I've had it. And I said, Oh, this looks good. And she says, Oh, take it.
And I don't even think she's read it because it's still in an immaculate condition. And it sits next to my bedside table because I said, you know, one day I will get and every now and then I'll maybe pick it up and read one of the poems in it and then put it back down. So 10 years later, I still haven't read it and I'll probably have to be on that desert island to actually finish it. Its time has come.
You're in for a treat. You could also have a luxury item. What would you like?
A luxury item would have to be diving gear. If I have a PADI open water certificates and I love diving. And finally, which one of the eight tracks that you've shared with us today would you save from the waves?
Oh, that's a terrible thing to have to go through.
That's why we leave it to our three little birds. Bob Marley. It is. Yeah. Monica Gelati, thank you very much for letting us see your Desert Island Discs.
Thank you so much. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Monica, I'm sure she'll finally make some headway with Oscar Wilde during her time on the island. Over the years, we've cast many chefs away, including her mentors, the brothers, Ruth Rogers, Keith Floyd, Raymond Blong, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson. You can hear all of those programs via the Desert Island Discs website. And on BBC Sang's Next Time, my guest will be the entomologist, George McGovern.
I do hope you'll join us. Hello, do you know that in a million years there'll be no more total solar eclipses because the moon is gradually moving away from the Earth or during China's Cultural Revolution, people were arrested for bourgeois habits like keeping a pet or wearing tight trousers. Melvyn Bragg. And those are two of the extraordinary things I've learned while presenting the latest series in our time. Each week, I ask three expert academic guests to break down and illuminate everything from quantum gravity to the nature of humanity, from Confucius to Augustus, from Beowulf to Baltika.
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