By Anna King Shahab
Monica Galetti returns to our screens with the new season of MasterChef: The Professionals. Samoan-born Galetti lived in New Zealand from the age of 8 until she left in her early 20s to pursue her dream of becoming a chef in the UK. She worked closely with Michel Roux jnr at his restaurant, Le Gavroche, becoming the first woman to gain senior role there, as senior sous chef. In 2017 she opened her own restaurant with her husband, sommelier David Galetti, named Mere after her late mother. Galetti talks about the tenacity and self-reliance it takes to succeed in her tough industry, and puts to rest a question we all have about the tasting of dishes on MasterChef.
You've co-hosted MasterChef: The Professionals for a decade or so. Is it still something you can get excited about?
Yes, I've been doing it since 2008, coming up to 11 years. It's getting tougher when it comes to getting skills tests together, 11 years on. But definitely, the excitement comes when we meet the new chefs and start to discover the new talent coming through.
What is it about competitive cooking shows? Viewers seemingly can't get enough.
I think it's the fact that they can relate to it – whether it's home cookery or professional cookery, everyone does a bit of cooking at some point. Even I can't believe how long the show has been going, and yet I've just agreed to another three years of it. MasterChef is just this crazy show that people just seem to really follow, it's incredible.
Have you learned any valuable lessons about cooking in the decade you've been judging?
Yeah, you know, if the wheel ain't broke, don't try to reinvent it. I think, if anything, it's "Trust in your skills and your strengths." Watching the chefs over a decade, you see that once they start to believe in themselves, they start to take off.
Trends – you must see them coming through with each season?
Ha, yes – there's been a lot of fermentation recently and there was a point where there was a lot of molecular stuff – everyone was making caviar balls and what have you. I think it's kind of gone full circle now and it's coming back to proper classic cooking skills.
And classical isn't necessarily easy, right? The basics, even. I just watched a chef prep your squid dish so poorly that you judges declined to taste it, as it hadn't been cleaned inside or out before cooking. Does it happen very often, that you deem a dish unsafe to taste?
Yeah, it has happened. Especially things with undercooked eggs. I recall having to spit some of a mushroom dish out because they didn't wash them and it was gritty and sandy. But it's only when something is actually unsafe to eat that we won't go there.
I can't imagine the pressure of someone like you watching and judging my cooking ...
At the beginning it's really tough on the chefs, bless them. The first time that they walk into the studio when we do the film test, they're so nervous and unprepared for five cameras and 20 people watching them. But once they get used to that, they start to relax. Off camera we're telling them, "Take a deep breath and treat it like your kitchen." We guide them through a lot of it. It's a shame they don't show all that as well. We give them feedback at the end on their strengths and weaknesses and what they need to do.
Burning questions: are the dishes cold by the time you get to taste them?
It depends on the shoot. Sometimes the cooking start time is staggered so we can taste them one by one. But if there are 12 or 14 of them going, when they finish and stop the clock they kick 'em all out and we can have a quick taste while the dishes are hot.
It can be hard to grasp the hard graft that goes into a career progression like yours. How did it feel to you, working up to where you are?
Well, I think for anyone who wants to be the best they can be comes sacrifice. I started my career in New Zealand, coming out of work at midnight or one in the morning, when all my friends were out clubbing. You sacrifice for what you want in life. I wouldn't say it was smooth-going, not at all. I'd train for competitions on my days off, or I'd go in early to do it. It's a drive I have to be the best I can be.
It comes at a cost on your relationships and time with your family. I wanted to move to Europe to better my career, because I couldn't get where I wanted to be in New Zealand and that meant sacrificing my family. Nothing comes easy, no matter what you want in life. Working at a two-Michelin star restaurant, where you get your ass kicked if you forget a bag of flour in the back or you haven't cleaned the fridge. Starting at 7am and getting home at 1am five days a week. I worked my ass off to get where I am today.
Lately there's been light cast on the immense pressure in the industry and the burnout that happens. Are we seeing a significant shift in kitchen culture to address that?
I can't speak for New Zealand but here in the UK there's a huge shift towards easing up on hours. I employ chefs who work four days a week. They have three off but even then some of them find that tough. Back then [when Galetti was training], it was so competitive, getting a foot into the best restaurants in the world and that's what it took, you didn't expect anything less, because if you didn't do it, someone else was ready to take your place. These days, we have fewer chefs and more restaurants, so you need to make it a better environment where they're not burning out. It's a different era we're in, I think. I have to be more aware of the hours to get the best of my team. I've had to adjust, it hasn't been easy, but for them it gives a better work life balance.
I've seen many colleagues burn out and decide to give up cooking but, over the years, employers, chefs in particular are more aware of that. But you still need to put the effort it to get somewhere and give the hard graft and be willing to learn. Chefs can't expect to come in and, after three years, call themselves chefs even though they've got so far to go.
At the same time, the #MeToo movement has seen discussion around sexual harassment in kitchens, with several high-profile chefs in the US being called out. Have you ever experienced or witnessed it yourself, in kitchens?
Through the years there has always been more men than women in the kitchen environment, so the banter has always been a bit tough in the kitchen - if you can take it, fine but then I also don't think it gives anyone the right to say to a woman, "Give me a blowjob" or whatever, because that's crossing a line, that's not banter. I've been in the kitchen for 25 years and I know what banter is, banter is a conversation between two people or making a joke together.
I saw it happen only a few times in my career and I think that's because I didn't put up with it. Raising my daughter to know how to defend herself and know what's right and what's not right is what's important. Those were the values my mum taught me. Doesn't it come down to how we're raised, how we treat women? And if it's the culture that's allowed to happen in the kitchen, then of course they're going to get away with it.
How do you feel we're doing on gender balance and diversity in general in the restaurant industry?
You know, I'm one of the few coloured women here in the UK who runs my own restaurant, so I think that in diversity there's still a long way to go. There are definitely more women in the industry now but in the top end it's still really tough and it comes with the choice of how to balance family life with a career like this.
How did you - and how do you - keep the dedication?
I always wanted a restaurant, since I started cooking. The goalposts changed a little but when I got pregnant [Galetti's daughter Roka is 12] and I took a step back. So the fact we're doing it now has been a huge relief, it's like: finally! But I believe you can never rest on your laurels, I know there is so much more I want to achieve, with the restaurant and business. But now I'd like to set another goal, to plan in 5-6 years' time to have more time with my daughter and with family, who live so far away.
In Samoa and New Zealand, you were raised with support from extended family. But in the UK, you haven't had any family to rely on.
No, it's very different. Back in Samoa and New Zealand it was all about relying on family to help with the kids and for a handout when you need it. We don't have any of that here and for me it's never been about relying on my family, because it was my choice to come and do this. If I got into trouble that was for me to get through, not to be a burden on my family back in NZ. London is a place where you've got to survive and I think it hardens you up; it's about coping. You have to try and get through. My family have had tough times and the last I wanted was to add to that, so yeah, I think I am pretty independent.
Have your family been to Mere yet?
I take my daughter in with me sometimes in the weekends; she'll spend time in the kitchen, especially in the pastry or pasta section helping out … more like eating everything! And now and then she'll come in with her grandparents and have a meal with them when they're visiting from France. I've yet to get the New Zealand family over to the restaurant but the first lot are actually coming this July. I'm really looking forward to them coming in, there's a sense of pride for me in showing them that I've done this, over here. And we'll be having lots of barbecues. I'll be getting my Prince Tui Teka on!
Do you love living in London?
Absolutely. It's been 20 years this month. I miss New Zealand so much but I love the freedom Europe has to offer – though Brexit might ruin that very soon. I think London is one of those places either you love it or you don't. Just the whole competitiveness of the hospitality industry I thrive on and I miss that when I come back to New Zealand. When I'm home in New ZealandI find it so far from everything else, as beautiful as it is. The attachment is more to the memories of families of family and friends I have there. And the seafood! Paua every day. Mussels, Bluff oysters where they're in season, ahhhh.
MasterChef: The Professionals, Mondays from May 20, 9.20pm, Food Network, Sky Channel 18.