MasterChef’s Monica Galetti on kitchen punch-ups, female chefs and being mentored by Michel Roux Jr

Michel Roux Jr’s protégé and Marcus Wareing's MasterChef: The Professionals partner says there's no place for bullying in the kitchen

Monica Galetti returns to MasterChef: The Professionals this November alongside Marcus Wareing.

The chef has forged her career after working as senior sous chef to previous MasterChef judge Michel Roux Jr. Here she talks about what she’s expecting from the new series, and explains how she handled the sometimes violent world of the professional kitchen.

What are you looking for on MasterChef?

A love for the industry. It’s all about being dedicated to your craft, thriving on it. It has to be all you think about, all you dream about, especially in your early years. It’s such a selfish industry to be in. 

How important are the basic skills?

Essential. How to make a simple sauce, how to make a quick pastry dish… those are the skills upon which you build your repertoire as a chef. So when it comes down to the skills tests, I do get frustrated when they don’t know certain things, and I feel they are not taking the competition seriously enough. I take it very seriously.

But I’m also conscious of where chefs have come from, the type of restaurants they work in. I’ve been fortunate over the last 15 years, to have worked in kitchens where everything is made from scratch, so the skill base is being refreshed constantly – butchery, fishery, pastry-making… Some of these chefs work in pubs where the budget is completely different and a lot of the meat is brought in, so maybe they don’t have those butchery skills.

What I do expect from them is respect for the ingredient, even if they’ve not handled it before – treat it properly, don’t waste it. Someone has grown that produce, someone has reared that beautiful animal. That animal has given its life so you can cook it, so don’t you disrespect it. 

What are you like in the kitchen?

I am very serious. You know if you’ve p****d me off or if you’ve messed up, so you’d best not. I don’t beat around the bush, but at the end of the day I’ll come and pat you on the back and say, “Well done, you got through it.” And that’s how Michel [Roux Jr] has treated me throughout my time in his kitchen. He’s not a physical chef, he doesn’t beat anyone, and he has stopped many a chef from doing that.

I’ve seen him pull back chefs from that, he’s been a great mentor. It’s about getting the best out of your team, and there is a point where you raise your voice because they’ve messed up during the service, but the next day you start again. 

Are kitchens still violent?

No, it’s not acceptable any more because you have human resources, but it was acceptable back in my day to be hit by your chef de partie or your head chef. Never by Michel. I didn’t accept it when I got hit, and afterwards said, “Don’t touch me again.” There’s no reason why anyone should be burnt with a pallet knife or set on fire for something stupid. Unless they did it to me first…I’ve been so angry that I’ve hit a wall, but not a person. I think it’s been weaned out. You have to evolve from that – there’s no place for bullying. 

Why are professional kitchens so aggressive?

Someone’s reputation is on the line, so you’ve got to replicate his vision and every grain of salt that’s not meant to be in a plate of food, he will taste it. As chefs you challenge each other to be as good, or better, than the guy cooking next to you. If you’re good, you get promoted quickly. 

Are you comfortable in that environment?

Being in a kitchen full of men doesn’t throw me – I thrive on it! I have four brothers and I was a bit of a tomboy when I was younger. There haven’t ever been many women in the kitchens I have worked in, so I would say that 80 per cent of my friends are men.

Why aren’t there more female chefs?

There are more women coming into it now. And in the kitchen we’re all equals – once you’ve got a jacket on, you’re a chef. It’s not about gender – it’s your ability to cook. The problem is that at a certain point women have to decide how much they want their career v having a family and spending time with family. That’s it. There’s no BS about it – the truth is, you’ve got to put it first to do well. I’ve seen many amazing chefs, girls, come into the kitchen and then give it up to be with their boyfriend. Would he do that for her? Hmm… 

Did you find it easy to make that decision?

It wasn’t easy. It hurt like hell to leave my partner out in New Zealand for two years, but I did. My mum always said, “Don’t put a man before your career because they never put you first.” And it was true. Except for the last one!

Saying that, my career took a back seat for the last seven years because I wanted to be a hands-on mother for my daughter. But now I’m switching up to the next gear. I left Le Gavroche earlier in the year and I’m opening my own restaurant next year. I’m working on a book, I’m consulting for massive companies, I teach at a cooking school, and I’m trying to get as much precious time in with my little girl before I go back to 16-hour days.  

Would you like her to be a chef ?

I love the industry, the buzz that I get out of it, and I know she would love it too, but I would hate for her to have to make the decision between family and career. But then again, all women have to make that choice, whether they are a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer…

What made you want to be a chef ?

My parents always worked. My mum worked three jobs at one point to put bread on the table – and they relied on me to cook for my siblings from a very early age, which I enjoyed. I started working in a golf club kitchen at 17 – I went from pot washer to cooking fine dining there. The minute I walked into that professional kitchen, I knew that was where I belonged.

Was TV something that you wanted to do?

It was the last thing on my mind! But Michel recommended four of us from Le Gavroche for a screen test, and I got chosen. I came into it so unprepared and treated it like we were in a professional kitchen, where you say things in the heat of the moment and then move on. I said things that are taken as kitchen banter, presuming everyone understood my world – things like: “If you did that in my kitchen I’d slap you with a salmon.” I wouldn’t literally do it, but viewers thought I would!

Masterchef: The Professionals begins on Tuesday 10th November and continues on Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm on BBC2