You’ll have seen them both on BBC 2’s Masterchef: The Professionals watching and ultimately judging the shaky-handed chefs who hope they have what it takes to measure up in a Michelin-starred kitchen. I’m talking about Michel Roux Jr and his sous chef Monica Galetti. It’s here at the Cactus Kitchens “Michel and Monica Experience” that I’m getting up close and personal with the talented pairing I usually see on my telly. And, do you know what? I know they won’t be reading this so I can say what I like – these two are the perfect partnership – a better looking, younger and funnier culinary version of the Chuckle Brothers without the ladders. Probably not so jolly inside the professional kitchen when service is in full swing, but we’re not, so they can get away with a lot – all for our entertainment. If you’ve watched the programme, they’re absolutely nothing like they’re edited for the audience – sorry. There is no good cop, bad cop here, just a perfect partnership, both chefs doting on each other’s talent. Mentor and protegé. Food lovers and worshippers of it. Monica is hilarious, Michel easily goaded and watching their chemistry in a kitchen is a joy to behold. And I’m here, right in the middle of it with a handful of other food lovers.
If you know your fine dining establishments you’ll know about Michel and Monica and that they both work at Le Gavroche a two-starred Michelin restaurant in central London. Michel’s the boss and you can probably tell from the surname, member of the legendary Roux Family. Monica is his senior sous chef and she’s married to the restaurant Sommelier. She was born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand. She’s worked with Michel for more than a decade and in 2009 she became one of the Masterchef judges.
This is an experience not being offered anywhere else in the country and whilst the £750 price tag may come with an initial “How much?” I can tell you it is worth every penny. Where else can you shoot the breeze about your cooking disasters with like-minded cooks, or have Michel Roux poke his head over your shoulder and admire your creme pat (not a euphemism) and have Monica answer your questions about turning out the perfect meringue with out-of-date egg whites?
So, I hear you say, where can we get to take part in this amazing day? Cactus Kitchens is a brand new cookery school built in the Gods of a former chapel in Clapham and which by the way, also happens to be home to BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen studio. Each of the 12 individual cooking stations are fitted out with the finest equipment money can buy including induction hobs, ovens, razor-sharp Global knives, Kitchen Aid mixers and Green Pan cookware – all of which were given final approval by Mr Roux.
So, what did I cook and what did I learn? In simple terms, it’s all about the preparation your “mise en place”. Once you’ve got yourself sorted out there’s not too much that can go too wrong. The day begins with refreshments and delicious, homemade lemon and orange brownies (one word of caution, don’t eat anything at this point, as you’ll be eating all day). We were then taken up to the cookery school and it’s here we get to meet Michel and Monica after a brief introduction from the brainchild of the school, Amanda Ross. We’re given a run through of how the day will work and after we’re given a demonstration of our first item to prep then it’s back to our workstations to cook. All the clearing up is done by the lovely Geoff and the cookery school’s wonderful team of friendly staff.
So you can be as messy as you like, although you are encouraged to clear your work surfaces as you go along. Sage words by experienced chefs. Michel pops in and says hello, very relaxed, no chef whites watches the first prep and then goes off to Le Gavroche to oversee the lunch service. All control is passed over to Monica which she handles magnificently well (that will be years of service working in the restaurant then).
We spend the day watching the demonstration and prepping our dishes and Monica visits each workstation to see how students are getting on. The knives are razor-sharp and everything is brand new so lots of instruction on how to chop properly with fingers and nails out of blade reach.
Our starter is mackerel with cauliflower puree and vegetables a la Grecque. All the fish prep is done, pin boned and filleted. The only thing for us to do is score, season and fry in a hot pan. The cauliflower puree is prepared and set aside and we make a muslin-bag infusion of spices for the vegetables.
I put my fish into the hot pan, watch the flesh react to the heat, and then let it stick – not the smartest – so I don’t remove a whole fillet of fish. Nevertheless it tastes delicious and doesn’t look too bad on the plate. These are lessons you learn in this kitchen so you don’t recreate them at home.
Our main course was roast duck on wilted turnip greens with a parsnip tatin. Again all cooked at different times but married at the plating stage. I was particularly delighted with my tatin, I had not attempted an individual savoury tart before and the results were impressive and, more importantly tasty.
Usually put off by sauce-making, Monica showed me a technique (sans whisk) that produced a great Port sauce that was rich and buttery and so simple. I know that learning new skills and techniques is the point of coming to a cookery school but believe me, I have left lots of classes having just followed a recipe, feeling that I haven’t actually taken any new skills away with me.
My duck was crispy and cooked perfectly if I say so myself. This is mine, not the chef’s finished dish – not bad at all, is it?
The accompanying butternut squash puree was easy enough to make and brought brightness to the plate.
Our dessert was chocolate soufflé with chocolate sauce. Here’s the start of the creme patisserie – the rest I took home and is in the freezer waiting for my next dinner party guests.
We eat all the food we prepare on the premises and our last meal is eaten in the dining room downstairs. Michel joins us from Le Gavroche and casts his eye over the finished dishes. He tells us that he’s been sausage tasting for a wedding breakfast, chats about the day, and then signs books which really personalise the experience for some.
It’s time then to have a quick tour of the Saturday Kitchen studio (no pictures) and we discover where the show is filmed and where Mr Martin cooks and entertains his guests.
I’ve completed a few cookery courses at home and abroad (Leith’s, Waitrose, L’atelier des chefs, Cookery School at Little Portland Street), but this is nothing like I’ve ever experienced and I picked up a few tricks and tips. Primarily, Monica gave me the confidence to tackle dishes that may not come out well at all. As it happens, I messed up on the relatively simple dish and excelled at the dish that was technically more complex.
I was also reminded about the organised kitchen and that plating up is as important as the time and care you take over the dishes – it’s not about how you think it should look, it’s how you want it to look – showcasing your hard work. All common sense I know but when you have a chef showing you how a 2-star Michelin restaurant does it, things seem to fall into place.
The whole point of this school is that it’s small which in turn means personal and relaxed. Sure, there are other courses in the UK which are larger, tailor dishes to your skill level but unless I am missing a trick, where else can you spend time in a kitchen with the actual chefs whose name is on the marketing material for this kind of price?
There are a series of cookery experiences from a Saturday Kitchen Cooking Experience (would be rude not to) (£295); a Michel Roux Jr Experience (£595); a Monica Galetti Experience (£595); Michel & Monica Experience (£750); The Ken Hom Chinese New Year Experience (Morning £125 or all day £395); a Valentine’s Wine Experience (£195) and an Adam Byatt experience (veteran of the kitchens of Claridges, The Berkeley and Michelin starred The Square) (£150). This is the woman who runs Saturday Kitchen and keeps James Martin in check. Her little black book of chefs will be huge and her influence enormous and I can’t wait to sign up for other courses.
Would I recommend this experience? Absolutely. 200%. I’m saving up for the next. Don’t hesitate, book it, before the waiting list gets too long.
I leave you with a picture that sums up my love for the day – taken, no less, by the charming and totally fabulous Monica Galetti.
Cactus Kitchens, Cactus Studios, 1 St Luke’s Avenue, London SW4 7LG