Monica was born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand, where she completed her training as a chef.
She worked at Le Gavroche with mentor Michel Roux Jr for 17 years before setting up her own restaurant Mere with husband David earlier this year (in January). The couple were married in 2004 and their daughter Anais was born in 2007. Monica also became well known for her role as both a presenter and judge on the BBC TV show MasterChef: The Professionals.
Why did you decide to open your own restaurant this year?
It is something I’ve wanted to do for about 25 years, and it’s also been a long-term dream for my husband David and I to open one together. I think most chefs aspire to venture out and do their own thing at some point, and we’ve been very lucky to be able to do this.
How would you define the style of food at Mere?
It’s food that I like to cook! My background and training is in classic French cuisine so I guess the techniques we use are French, but my South Pacific roots influence the flavour combinations.
Any favourites on the menu?
Probably the ‘boil up and dough boys’. It’s a dish from New Zealand that reminds me of home, though if any Kiwis came in they would probably laugh themselves silly at the portion size – it’s a starter here! It’s very similar to a pot à feu. Traditionally, you have your pork or ham hock, kumara, carrots, whatever you have in a clear broth, and you have your big dumplings or ‘doughboys’ on top. At the end you chuck in a load of watercress. My version is a refined take on the traditional.
What made you name the restaurant Mere?
The name comes from the French word for mother, and also incidentally from my mother’s name, Mere, which is pronounced as ‘Mary’ in Samoan. The vibe in Mere is comfortable and relaxed, but it’s high-end relaxed and I think that’s important. We’ve chosen all the designs and décor according to our own tastes, so it’s a real reflection of who we are.
What is it like working so closely with your husband David?
It’s amazing, it’s just a shame we don’t get to see one another more. You’d think opening a restaurant together we would be in each other’s pockets but it’s not the case. At work, I’m in the kitchen and he is on the floor so I only see him if he comes in after taking an order.
How did you two meet?
We met at Le Gavroche, while we were both working there. I was in the kitchen and he was the sommelier. He would always smile and say hello whenever he walked by. Of course he just fell in love with me. I actually fancied his friend to begin with, but I found out he was gay so that didn’t work out.
When you are away from the kitchen, what do you like to do as a family? Does it revolve around food?
Not always around food, but often. When I grew up, mealtimes were family times. We would all sit together and talk, and that is something that I have carried with me to this day and something I do with my own family now.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My family are my greatest inspiration actually, and through my work I’m always striving to be better for them and to make them proud. I also draw a lot of inspiration from travel and the different flavours and cuisines I’ve tasted around the world.
What is your favourite electrical gadget?
My Ambach Bratt Pan is my favourite gadget – and now a necessity for working in a busy kitchen. The fact that I am able to make a stock in four hours when it would usually take 12 is just amazing.
What about kitchen tools? Do you have any implements that you couldn’t do without?
My knives are the most important – if you take almost every other piece of technology away and have to operate on the basics, I can’t imagine ever having to be without them.
Words by Susan Springate