Monica Galetti: Mixing Michelin stars with motherhood

by Tom Vaughan, Monday 29th October 2012 11:25

Monica Galetti, sous chef at Le Gavroche, talks to Tom Vaughan about combining the pressures of motherhood and working in a top-end kitchen

Six years ago, Monica Galetti was on the brink of buying a dream restaurant in France when life got in the way. Galetti, who was sous chef at Le Gavroche at the time, and sommelier husband David returned from a viewing with CDs and sums to run past boss Michel Roux Jnr when shock news broke: she was pregnant.

"I never saw it happening," she recalls. "People would say, 'You're married now, it won't be long before children', but I could not see how I could cope with a child and continue working in this industry. We had to completely rethink things."

Today, Galetti remains sous chef at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant, having shelved the plans for her own place. However, in the past six years she has become a famous face among a new generation of female chefs, largely thanks to her TV work (more of which later). Yet Galetti stands apart from the likes of Angela Hartnett, Clare Smyth and even her day-to-day boss at Le Gavroche, Rachel Johnson, because she has to cope not only with life in a top-end kitchen, but with the constant pressures of motherhood as well.

"A lot of female chefs think that motherhood will get in the way of their career. Although a lot of women in the industry have children, when you want to go to this level of cooking it is a problem. Working in a top-end kitchen and having a kid is hard to make work."

For the Galettis, the situation is not made any easier by the fact that David is head sommelier at Le Gavroche, and subject to the same lengthy hours as his wife. "If David worked a nine-to-five job it would be a lot easier. Plus I am from New Zealand and he is from France, so we don't have a network of family around us. If I was the kind of mum who was happy to hand my child over to a nanny it would be easier, but I am very passionate about raising my daughter."

making it work

Despite the initial surprise, motherhood has clearly come naturally to Galetti, and her ability to juggle five days a week in the kitchen and yet still spend evenings and weekends with six-year-old Anais is testament to her belief that female chefs can "make motherhood work", as well as to the hugely supportive environs of Le Gavroche.

And make it work is exactly what she has had to do, working full-time up until she was seven months pregnant. "It was incredibly hard being in a hot kitchen with swollen ankles," she recalls. "In the early stages, every bit of food I touched seemed to make me run and throw up, and all the other chefs kept telling me I had food poisoning."

Maternity leave proved almost as hard, with a woman used to working 60-hour weeks suddenly at home all day with a baby. "David would get home and I would have cooked loaves and loaves of bread," she says. "I managed to redecorate the entire house in that period."

Galetti's strong relationship with Le Gavroche's owner, Roux Jnr, and director, Silvano Giraldin, has proved the bedrock on which she has been able to rebuild her career despite having a young child. Roux Jnr was keen to make sure that he kept her in whatever capacity possible, and the two have devised ever-changing rotas that have allowed her and David to juggle home and work life. At present she works part-time five days a week, which still amounts to 32 hours, and manages to keep evenings and weekends free. One invaluable part of her rota includes working for free one day a week, allowing her to accrue lieu days for use during Anais's school holidays.

Does she worry that these part-time, flexi hours will prevent her from taking a step up in her career, to head chef level? "Michel has definitely made it possible for me to keep my foot in a Michelin-starred restaurant but who would employ me as a part-time head chef?" she says. "There is a reason why there are not many mothers at this level of cooking."

If motherhood is to be a permanent barrier to attaining head chef status, it would be a crying shame for a chef who has arduously worked herself to the top of the London dining scene since moving here from New Zealand.

Born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand, on finishing school Galetti opted for a two-year hospitality diploma in the capital, Wellington. The course required that she spent eight weeks in the kitchen and it was there that she stumbled upon her calling.

"I walked in and that was me - I found what I loved," she explains. After switching to cooking, she worked at a teacher's fine-dining restaurant and started entering competitions. Natural talent and hard work soon saw her take home winners' medals, before she began travelling to take part in contests further afield. She ended up in London in the mid-1990s for a competition.

"I realised that this is where I wanted to be," she recalls. "When you hear about London back home it is always in the same breath as the Roux brothers, and the books we used to learn from were all written by them."

le gavroche

She returned to travel around Europe in 1998, sending out her CV to Le Gavroche, the Waterside Inn and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. "Michel Jnr was the first to respond and I replied immediately accepting the post, even though I didn't know what a junior commis chef was."

It wasn't long before her one-year visa was up, and she returned to New Zealand early because of a family bereavement. Yet feeling she still had unfinished business, she wrote once more to Roux Jnr and he agreed to sponsor her to return. Her marriage to David two years later, held at Le Gavroche, allowed her permanent residence.

As a woman in a then very male-dominated environment, times weren't always easy. After being consigned to pastry - "where women back then were sent to" - she managed to convince another chef to let her into the meat and fish section, and slowly learnt her trade in a Michelin-starred kitchen, "crying many a tear" along the way.

After a year heading up Roux Jnr's Mauritius restaurant Le Gavroche des Tropiques in 2004 and two years at London's Clos Maggiore, both ventures alongside David, the husband-and-wife team returned to Le Gavroche in 2007, where they have remained since.

But it is not just her kitchen career that Michel Roux Jnr has assisted with - Galetti has the celebrity chef to thank for getting her a break on TV, where she has become a recognisable face. Her main presenting role is on MasterChef: The Professionals, which has made her famous for her stern, almost withering, gazes - a trait that belies her natural warmth off camera. She is also set to join the team of chefs on this autumn's Great British Food Revival on BBC2. While she remains a chef at heart, she is starting to feel more comfortable in front of the cameras, she says: "I'm definitely enjoying it now but those first few times were very daunting."

This year also sees the publication of her first book, Monica's Kitchen. Juggling writing the book, which includes a mixture of simple and more elaborate French and Pacific rim recipes, and her other responsibilities was far from easy.

"It was a labour of love," she says. "I'd put Anais to bed, then work on the book until 1am, go to bed then get up at 5am to go to work. I didn't see my friends for a long time."

As for the future, one way to make life as a mother and a career as a chef compatible would be to realise that dream of owning a restaurant, and employing a head chef. With David perfectly poised to take over front of house, are those plans to come off the shelf any time soon?

"It would be the easiest way to look after Anais and stay in the industry, and we've seen places we like but there are no plans in the near future," she says.

Famous on screen for coming down hard on incompetent chefs, would she feel that people might want payback once she put her own cooking to the world? "If that day ever comes people, critics especially, may come down hard on me," she agrees. "But if it's good enough, how picky can they be?"

10 tips for managing maternity leave

● Keep those on maternity leave updated with what's going on at work (check they want to be before they go off, though)
● Invite them to attend social events and bigger company meetings - make sure they can feel comfortable saying no
● Be flexible - often people don't know how they'll feel until the baby has arrived, so be prepared to change plans
● Don't assume - keep their role intact with same responsibilities should they want that
● Communicate well and be open to discussion
● Treat them normally - they're still the same person
● Make returning to work structured, yet supportive and sensitive
● Involve the team - ask for their views around working hours and/or working from home
● Make provision for people who want to express/breastfeed
● Remember flexible work = loyalty, productivity, less stress, more healthy and happy employees

An employer's guide to new mothers

By Jane Sunley, CEO of talent retention specialist Learnpurple

Sadly for some employers, maternity - and in a few cases paternity - leave is viewed as an inconvenience. However, it's a fact of life supported by robust legislation; businesses should do all they can to embrace family changes; thus reaping the rewards through heightened loyalty and the ability to retain core talent; introducing a more flexible mindset; allowing your business to grow and succeed.

A real "no-no" when it comes to maternity leave is the assumption that people are less capable or will want less responsibility when they return. In our experience it's often quite the opposite - those returning from a period of leave come back with a fresh look on the business, they want to get stuck in and are able to offer new ideas which make a difference. They want to prove they can contribute both at home and at work so allow them the opportunity to do so. And remember you may need to be open to ways of supporting this.

Pacific island style cured fish (serves six as a starter)

"This is one of my earliest memories of Samoan cuisine, and to this day it is still one of my favourites. If you are unable to buy stone bass, opt for sea bass or bream instead. Freshness is the key."

650g very fresh stone bass fillets
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
5 medium tomatoes
3 celery sticks, de-stringed with a peeler
3 spring onions, trimmed
400ml coconut milk
Sea salt
Lime leaves to garnish

Remove the skin from the stone bass fillets, trim if necessary and check for pin bones, removing any with kitchen tweezers.

Dice the fish into small cubes, about 1cm, and place in a bowl. Season with three generous pinches of salt. Add the lemon zest and the juice of one lemon. Toss well, then cover and place in the fridge to cure for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, immerse the tomatoes in a bowl of hot water for 30 seconds or so to loosen the skins, then drain and peel. Halve and deseed the tomatoes, then cut the flesh into 5mm dice. Cut the celery into similar-sized dice. Slice the spring onions thinly on the diagonal.

Fold the tomatoes, celery and spring onions through the cured fish, then fold in the coconut milk. Taste and adjust the seasoning with the remaining lemon juice and a pinch of salt as required.

Leave to stand for five minutes before serving, and garnish with lime leaves if available.

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