Monica Galetti knows a lot about following your dreams. Born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand, she left home for London aged 23 and rose up the ranks of Michel Roux Jr's Le Gavroche to become the restaurant's first female sous chef. Seven years later, she opened her first restaurant, Mere, with her sommelier husband, David.
These days, she has a TV career under her belt, too; she's a judge on BBC One’s MasterChef: The Professionals and also hosts BBC Two’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby with food writer Giles Coren. But while Monica might have made things look easy, she's refreshingly honest about the hurdles she's faced along the way.
In an exclusive interview in Good Housekeeping's November issue, she’s spoken of the challenges she's encountered on that journey – not just as a woman, but also as a woman of colour. She explained that during the course of her career, she's experienced racism "but more out of ignorance than straight-up racism".
"I was at a dinner with a group of women once and I was laughing about something with a friend when a woman across the table said, 'Oh, that's what I love about you Asians – you just say it how it is,'" she said.
"And I’ve been in a kitchen where someone has said, 'I don’t know what that is; ask the black girl over there.' And I'm like, "Are you talking about me?" When no one says anything it carries on, so when I hear it happening – whether it's to me or someone else – I call it out. We all have to."
She explained that her advice to other women of colour is not to let anything hold them back, to go out and grab opportunities.
“I want other women of colour to know that it’s anyone’s for the taking. Yes, it’s going to be tough to stay strong in the beginning, but anyone can do what I’ve done.”
Monica also opened up about the challenges of working in TV. In 2009, she made her debut as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals and was surprised at the reaction from viewers.
"At first, I found the feedback quite harsh; having people judge you and say you’re horrible is difficult," she said.
"I was being called the Simon Cowell of the cookery world and the female Gordon Ramsay. I mean, what? From all I knew, that was simply part of being a chef; it was the way we talked in the kitchen. I’ve learned to be a bit more careful with my words since then, so people don't actually believe I'm mean!"
Elsewhere in the interview, she talked about the impact that lockdown had on her earlier this year. After weeks of trying to keep her restaurant, Mere, afloat during the outbreak of Covid-19, she was forced to follow government guidelines and close it, and Monica spent lockdown at her London home with her family.
"The first couple of weeks of lockdown were the toughest. I went from moaning about never having enough time to rest to having nothing to do and I got a bit down about it. I found it really hard to cope and adjust," she said.
But, ever the optimist, Monica found a silver lining. After years of long and stressful working hours, being in lockdown forced her to take a step back and slow down, which proved to be a blessing in disguise.
"I kept saying that I needed to [slow down] and I was going to, but I never actually did – and this forced me to. Once everything was taken away from me, all I was left with was my family. And it was a bit of a wakeup call that I need to put more focus on them and not take anything for granted. I’ve really appreciated having that downtime to reassess everything and what’s important."
Monica and David are parents to 13-year-old Anaïs and, while the pair have done their best to divide the family duties to make their careers work, Monica revealed she's suffered from guilt along the way.
"Being a mum and keeping a foot in the top end of the industry has not been easy. In the beginning, David and I split the childcare between us when one of us was at work, the other was at home, then we’d swap – but we hardly saw each other. Even then, I suffered from a lot of guilt," she said.
"Now that Anaïs is 13, she needs me less, but I have this constant fear that I only have a few more years before she’s going to want to go off and do her own thing."
With Mere open for business again, Monica has now returned to work (and the juggle!) - and we’re sending all the luck her way!
Read the full interview with Monica Galetti in the November issue of Good Housekeeping, on sale from 30 September. It is available in all supermarkets and online at MagsDirect
Monica’s restaurant, Mere, is now open for bookings. MasterChef: The Professionals will air on BBC One in November.
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