It’s 8pm on a Wednesday in London, and Monica Galetti is sitting in the hallway behind her restaurant, Mere, watching the kitchen on a security camera.
The culture in that kitchen is, she tells me over Zoom, “pretty damn good”.
In what’s still a male-dominated industry, Galetti says, she likes to employ women where she can.
“But I don’t go out there and say I prefer to have women, no, that doesn’t make it fair at all. Once you’re in a chef’s jacket you’re a chef, and as good as you are as a chef.”
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Galetti, 46, is undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s most successful chefs. She’s worked in one of the finest restaurants in the world and risen through the ranks to hold positions most will only ever dream of – a feat made even more astonishing by the fact that she is a woman, a woman of colour, and a woman of colour from New Zealand.
But she has worked most of her career in the UK, meaning Galetti only became known to most Kiwis when she hit our television screens as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2009.
On that show, which is still running 13 years later, Galetti takes the role of tough judge, the one who – excuse the pun – sugar coats nothing, pulls no punches.
That, she says, is a pretty accurate depiction of what she’s like in her own kitchen.
“I didn’t plan to go on TV,” she says. “I didn’t have any training on how to articulate and to come across to the public… I just went on television being who I was in the kitchen.”
On Zoom, from the other side of the world, Galetti is a tiny bit terrifying. Her manner is brusque and direct. She challenges me on the premise of a couple of my questions, and attempts at jokes on my part fall flat.
At the same time, she’s thoughtful and generous with her answers. She takes her time getting it right and if she hadn’t told me she had an eye on Mere’s kitchen, I wouldn’t have suspected she was anything less than 100 per cent focused on our interview.
These traits – the directness, the attention to detail, the determination and single mindedness – are ones that befit a top chef. It would, in fact, be impossible to have established the kind of career Galetti has without them.
This is particularly true of women. Even within an already male-dominated industry – only about 20 per cent of chefs in the UK are female – Galetti is in a category, haute cuisine, that is especially teeming with testosterone. Around the world, female chefs hold less than 5 per cent of Michelin stars.
“Any industry with lots of men is going to be a pissing contest, isn’t it,” Galetti muses. “Policemen are going to be like that, firemen are going to be like that, so a roomful of male chefs is going to be like that. So it could be any industry, it’s how you cope with it.”
For Galetti, the way to cope with it was to roll up her sleeves and show that she could do anything the guys could do – she recalls hauling whole animal carcasses, or two or three 25kg bags of flour at a time.
But when the misogyny inevitably does arise, she adds, “It’s having the balls yourself to speak up for yourself if you’re unhappy with a situation… I came from a household and a culture where you did speak up for yourself and I was taught to speak up for others as well, so I’ve never taken any bulls… from anyone.”
Galetti was born Monica Fa’afiti in Samoa in 1975, and moved to New Zealand when she was 8. She grew up in Wellington and, after attending the Central Institute of Technology in Upper Hutt, got a job in the kitchen of the now-defunct Lower Hutt fine dining restaurant Timothy’s. Her talent was immediately evident, and she was sent around the world to represent New Zealand in several cooking competitions.
Aged 23, feeling she had outgrown New Zealand and wanting to spend more time overseas, Galetti began sending her CV to top restaurants in London. One of the first to respond was Michel Roux Jr, offering her a role as commis chef – one of the lowest positions in the kitchen – at his two Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche. Despite it being a significant demotion, Galetti accepted the job.
“It was a massive wake up call compared to working in New Zealand,” Galetti recalls, “the strictness of Michelin kitchens and the hours we used to do back then, but just the quality of ingredients was another level.” She remembers the first time she saw live lobsters and langoustines, or worked with fresh truffles.
“And game season was also something quite unique for me here, things we would never get and work with [in New Zealand], from woodcock, to different types of ducks, to mallards, the different types of pigeons that you get – my eyes were literally popping out of my head as the season went on.”
It was at Le Gavroche that Galetti began mastering classical French techniques – her training in this area, she says, had been “very basic”.
“We’re talking about the Roux family here. In New Zealand that’s only available in books… I was very fortunate and very lucky to have had that schooling.”
The Roux family is one of the great restaurant dynasties. Michel Albert Roux is the son of Albert, nephew of Michel, and brother of Alain. Le Gavroche, which Michel Sr and Albert opened in 1967, was the first restaurant outside of France to receive a Michelin star; a second London address, The Waterside Inn, was the first outside of France to hold three stars for a quarter century. Chefs who have trained in their kitchens include Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing – and Galetti.
“It’s the highest quality, and they expect no less from their chefs, and of course loyalty to them is rewarded very well,” she says. “I spent over 13 years with them because I loved working with them and they looked after me well, they’re like family to me… When you set foot in there [and] you show them you mean business, the world is your oyster with the Roux family. They don’t have any limits.”
Chez Roux, those who work hard, reap the rewards. Michel Jr, Galetti recalls, used to send her to a Michelin-starred restaurant, on him, every time she got promoted. But she would never have assumed she was entitled to that.
The Le Gavroche kitchen, she says, “wasn’t one where you watched the clock and demanded how much you got paid and how many days off you got as soon as you started – no, you started these jobs in these kitchens because you had a bigger career in mind, and it’s a shame that [for] young chefs you get these days it’s all about watching the clock and then what do I get in exchange. A lot of them don’t look at going into a place as a step toward what you do next.”
Television, she says, happened “by pure chance”. The BBC came to Le Gavroche looking for someone who could do a short spot on one of its shows; 14 years later, she’s still there with MasterChef: Professionals. She has also co-hosted the travel series Amazing Hotels since 2017.
Galetti has faced hurdles as a foreigner, as a woman, and as a woman of colour. (“My colour was never an issue until I got to Europe,” she says. “Some people think it’s being racist but no, I think it’s more ignorance.”) But those she could overcome with determination, confidence, a formidable work ethic and, she says, a dry Kiwi sense of humour.
What has been perhaps more difficult is the issue of work-life balance.
Galetti met her husband, French sommelier David, when they were both working at Le Gavroche. They married in 2004 and, a few years later, welcomed their daughter Anais. In order to have more time with her family Galetti, whose career had been on a steep upward trajectory, stepped down a rung in the kitchen.
“In a way, I was really fortunate I could still have a foot in a two Michelin kitchen for a bit,” she says. “Balancing it was tough, but it was even tougher for us as a family when we opened our own restaurant.”
Mere, named for Galetti’s late mother, opened in London’s leafy Fitzrovia neighbourhood in 2017. For five months after that, Galetti didn’t take a single day off.
“It was the first time I’d spent so much time away from my daughter. That was tough. I remember Anais, I think she was about 9 when we opened, calling and crying and asking when I was coming home and I’m in a hallway saying I can’t come home, maybe I’ll see you in two days.”
During that time, she says, the two mainly saw each other over WhatsApp video calls. “But it was with the understanding that it wasn’t going to be forever. It was only going to be a few months like that before Mum could get her weekend off.”
That happened. For a couple of years there Galetti managed to juggle running her acclaimed restaurant, television shoots and writing books (her most recent, At Home, was published last year) with family life.
Then it was 2020, and the balance went out the window again.
When Covid hit the UK, it hit hard. Mere closed for five months from March 2020; another two lockdowns followed.
“I’ve gone from running around headless 24/7, from running a restaurant, looking after my team, to filming, and travelling, and doing dinners and what have you to an absolute standstill,” Galetti recalls of that time. “Being at home. And it took me a while to even learn to cope with that.”
Eventually, she came to appreciate the downtime, spent gardening, or going on long family walks, and of course cooking.
“The poor dogs were walked to within an inch of their lives,” she laughs. “The dishwasher was constantly going, and the washing machine too… That family time we had we’ll never have again.”
Now, Galetti has some sense of that balance back again, though she has been putting in more hours at Mere as staff go down with Omicron. But she has the space to do different things too, like judging the upcoming Queen’s Platinum Pudding Competition, celebrating the Monarch’s jubilee (her impression so far is there are “lots of recipes with gin in it”.).
Mere is listed in the Michelin Guide. People recognise her on the street. She has met the Queen. “I was so starstruck, honestly. I think I’ve never been so worried about saying the wrong thing as when I was meeting Her Majesty,” she says. When she left New Zealand half a lifetime ago, Galetti says, she never could have dreamed where she would be today. Her half-Samoan, half-French daughter is being raised in Surrey and has, at 14, Galetti reckons, probably eaten at more Michelin-starred restaurants than anyone in Mere’s kitchen.
“My plan was to be here for a year when I left New Zealand and then come back and do something back home. Twenty-three years later I’m still here so it’s home. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it, because I call this home, but I’ll always call New Zealand home, like I always call Samoa home. It’s a weird one.”
Kiwi, Samoan, British: Yes, yes, yes, she says. Galetti’s all of the above.
But talking to her as she hunkers down in that hallway, one eye always on the kitchen, it’s clear she’s one thing above all.
“People annoy me when they come in [to Mere] and they say ‘Oh, you’re actually here?’” She says. “People are quick to forget, or don’t realise I guess, that at the beginning I was a chef before I did any television, and I’m still a chef when I step off that.”
For Galetti, it’s never been about television, or books, or any kind of fame. All of that is a sideline. Take it away, and she’d still be the thing she was born to be: a chef.
We leave the Zoom call. Galetti is heading back to the kitchen.