Lockdown has forced Monica Galetti to slow down, but the chef and TV presenter hasn't stopped. She tells Caroline Baldwin about takeaway meal kits, managing her own mental health and prioritising staff wellbeing.
The ongoing stop-start-stop-start uncertainty of lockdown has hit hospitality hard, and while a roadmap now offers a glimmer of hope, the last year has clearly taken a toll on the mental health of the industry.
Like every chef and restaurant owner, Monica Galetti has found this last year tough, going from a hectic life of running a busy restaurant, scoping out a second location for potential expansion and travelling the world filming episodes for TV, to sudden lockdown.
"You've got to find the positive within it, and that's not always possible day-to-day," she says. "Some days are harder than others to get through. And when you're used to being so busy and active and engaged with people, to not have that is very up and down mentally."
The difficulty Galetti – and much of the industry – has faced over the past year is the lack of an opening date to work towards. "It's been ongoing, which has been really tough. And although I try and be positive and get into a routine, I find I've not planned things to look forward to because we can't; if I do make plans and they don't happen I get quite upset. Sometimes you just have to take it a day at a time."
But now hospitality does finally have a roadmap from the government, with a provisional opening date of 12 April for outdoor hospitality, while indoor dining and hotels may be able to open from 17 May.
"It's a long way away, but I'd rather wait until May than be shut down again. I'd rather we stay closed longer and reopen permanently – having to close down a fourth time, I don't know how we'd cope," she explains. "It's heart-breaking and financially devastating. You've got to spend money just to open up, to restock everything – the whole restaurant, let alone flowers. Suddenly shutting down again, you've just lost it all – the waste, you've wasted everything, it's just ridiculous."
I'd rather we stay closed longer and reopen permanently
While the pandemic has allowed the MasterChef: The Professionals judge to slow down and spend more time with husband, daughter and dogs, she says there are often days when she simply misses interacting with her team and being creative in the kitchen of her restaurant.
The takeaway pivot
The focus at the moment is the launch of a meal kit delivery service, Mere@Home, which launches this week in time for Mother's Day. "We were planning on doing it back in December and then, of course, we went into sudden lockdown and it wasn't possible."
Galetti says she "isn't somebody who likes to rush stuff", and while takeaway has been on her mind for a while, it needed a lot of thought in terms of logistics, the menu and the safety of her staff.
"I thought it would be good to give it a go," she says, explaining how fellow chef Angela Hartnett suggested she tried partnering with Restaurant Box to handle the logistics. "But with the virus really kicking off, I didn't want to put my team at risk over a takeaway system. I just didn't think it was worth it, so we put it on pause."
I didn't want to put my team at risk over a takeaway system
She decided to wait until the infection rate had started to drop, and now has some of the team back in the kitchen to create a four-course menu that has already seen high demand from within the M25, giving Galetti confidence to go national from next week. The Mother's Day menu includes lager-cured Scottish salmon, slow-cooked pressed short rib and Yorkshire forced rhubarb millefeuille, as well as a video guiding consumers through the dishes and showing them how to finish off the cooking.
"It's got to be realistic – I can be as cheffy as I want, but if the customer can't replicate it home, what's the point?"
A family business
Galetti opened her first restaurant with her sommelier husband, David Galetti, in partnership with Westbury Street Holdings, nearly four years ago, choosing London's Fitzrovia as the spot for Mere, which is named after her mother.
"When I lost my mum back in 2015 it was the kick up the backside I needed to get a move on," she explains. "I'd become very comfortable where I was at with life, family and work. When mum passed it was, ‘what the hell are you doing Monica? Wake up, get going', and that spurred us on to move forward with it. It was only natural that I named it after mum."
She describes Mere as an accumulation of the years she and David have put into hospitality and the lessons they have both learned. David is front of house and Monica is in the kitchen, cooking food learned from her travels, classical training and Samoan heritage.
But the vital ingredient for success in a restaurant is a core team who share the couple's values and relaxed approach to high-end dining.
"I don't want anyone to feel like they don't belong when they walk into the restaurant. We get such a mix of people – a wonderful old couple celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary on one table next to a couple of Instagrammers who don't even talk. I just love the whole mix of it all and the underlying feeling is that they are loving what we're serving. The feeling of being looked after, it's warm and welcoming," she says with a nostalgic sigh. "Now you're really making me miss the restaurant."
I don't want anyone to feel like they don't belong when they walk into a restaurant
Just before the pandemic, Galetti was about to start looking for a second site for Mere but, right now, she is very grateful that was at such an early stage of planning, as a second restaurant is firmly on pause.
"I just want to get my restaurant up and running, make sure my people are OK, see guests, see Charlotte Street come back to life, be able to dine out, hug my friends – how precious is a hug these days? To sit down and have a glass of wine and talk with someone – those are the things I really miss and look forward to."
One of the big challenges Galetti – and the entire industry – face prior to reopening in the spring is getting furloughed staff mentally prepared to return to work. She and David have a team of around 30 staff with whom they have engaged throughout the pandemic.
"We have a WhatsApp group with the team. I think it's really important to drop in and get the conversation going – my head chef posted a podcast in there the other day on mental health. Now and then I drop in and say: ‘Hey guys, have you left the house? It's a nice day, go for a walk, get out there. What have you been cooking?'"
She says it's important to understand that everyone is going through a different journey and is experiencing life very differently right now – from a young parent with a newborn to staff who haven't been able to visit their families in Italy or France, or employees who live alone. "Everyone has had different ways to try and get through it. It's about keeping tabs on it and letting them know they're not alone if they want to reach out."
She continues: "I care about what happens to my team and I worry about them. That's natural to me; I've always been that way inclined. Sometimes that gets abused a bit, but you can't change who you are if you care about people."
She describes her team as her "little family", and clearly feels a strong sense of responsibility.
"I don't feel like I'm alone in certain points of these lockdowns when I think: ‘What's the point in all of this? Why don't we just lock up for good?' But I think about my people and I can't do that to them – where would they be if we don't open up again?
"There are people counting on you, and we love what we do, and all the people that come to support us. You get back on that high and start to look forward to it again."
Sharing the passion
Galetti believes this caring attitude comes about from years of working in hospitality. "I've always been a feeder – if people walk into my kitchen, I've got to feed them."
She points out it can be difficult to get people to commit to hospitality as a job for life – especially in front of house roles. But for her it comes down to checking in with each individual member of her team and showing enthusiasm about the possibility that one day they could be running the restaurant or take up a senior role in the kitchen.
She shares a story about a young waiter, Abdul, who started at Mere as a temporary kitchen porter. "He didn't speak at all, he was so shy. He was very polite and would do his job, but he wouldn't speak," she explains. "He'd been with us maybe for a year, and we were planning a staff day out as a treat. I asked him if he wanted to come, and he said yes. I wasn't sure if he really would because he was so quiet, but he did, and from that day on he opened up so much – he was sitting at the bar with the team and breaking out jokes."
Galetti soon discovered that Abdul had joined Mere to earn a bit of money after he had qualified as a plumber but failed to find an apprenticeship. "I told him: ‘I don't know of anyone who could give you an apprenticeship as a plumber, but what do you think of the guys who do the running with the trays in the restaurant? Do you think you could do that? You could earn a bit more money, dress smarter'."
After some initial hesitation, he started the following Monday as a runner and has since progressed to become a waiter. "The moral of the story is about telling people they can do it and building up their confidence. I tell Abdul ‘one day you could be the restaurant manager', and he laughs, but I say ‘I don't know why you're laughing because I'm serious, you've got a great personality and you're very friendly. I've seen how you take your work very seriously and never skip corners and that's where you start from.' For me, that's what works."
While Galetti understands that there will always be workers in the industry who move on, she says that: "it's about making it look appealing to be in the higher ranks of front of house. That's where we need to nail it. The endgame as a chef – we all know what everyone is going for there – it's about pushing the same degree of passion in front of house."
From kitchen to television
Television was never something Galetti intended to get into – "[it's] just something that happened" – but she has now been the face of MasterChef: The Professionals for over a decade.
The opportunity first came about while she was working under Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche. The TV side of her career has had its "headaches and blessings – but I've been very lucky to have a different avenue to explore the industry and discover some amazing talents out there. That's what's kept me going and in that show."
Balancing a TV career alongside the "day job of being in the kitchen" was always tricky. "I will film during the day and constantly be on my phone checking in on what's happening at the restaurant, and then I'd jump on a motorbike taxi to get back for evening service. It just brings a different madness to the normal day. It can go on for two-and-a-half months, where you are filming two to three days a week and then getting back to the restaurant for the evening. It's about staying on top of it and trying to get a balance."
Following MasterChef, she was asked to present Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby, which sees her and co-presenter Giles Coren explore some of the most luxurious hotels around the world – a gig she admits both she and Coren were very lucky to land.
It was only in the November before the pandemic struck that she and Coren were filming an episode of Amazing Hotels at Jade Mountain in St Lucia. The subsequent episode, which aired last month, saw the pair head to the Swinton Estate, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, which was filmed under social distancing in the middle of the pandemic.
"Giles and I had never worked together, but knew of each other in the industry and we became very good friends over the years. I love working with him – he's so much fun and a great travel buddy. We know each other so well we can give each other a bit of grief," she jokes.
"It's nice because we both like trying different foods. We try and find slots in our schedules where we can go for dinner together or squeeze in a lunch and try some local food – it's so nice to have someone to do it with. Normally, I'd happily go on my own, but it's so great to have a friend who loves it as well and is willing to try different things."
Photography: Adrian Franklin / Hospitality Media
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