MasterChef judge tells female contestants to choose between kitchen and family

‘No BS, put career first to do well,’ says Monica Galetti – but not all female chefs agree, and fear promising talent will be put off

It doesn’t, to borrow a well-known phrase from MasterChef, get much tougher than this. Or at least that is what chef, presenter and judge of MasterChef: The Professionals, Monica Galetti, would have aspiring female chefs believe.

She appears to have done her best to dampen the enthusiasm of any young woman minded to follow in her footsteps. Ahead of the launch of the new series of The Professionals on Tuesday, she told the Radio Times that women who were really serious about a successful career in a professional kitchen should probably think about putting off any thoughts of having a family – or possibly even a boyfriend.

“At a certain point, women have to decide how much they want their career versus having a family and spending time with family,” she said. “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?”

Monica Galetti with fellow judges of Masterchef: The Professionals, Gregg Wallace, left, and Marcus Wareing.
Monica Galetti with fellow judges of Masterchef: The Professionals, Gregg Wallace, left, and Marcus Wareing. Photograph: BBC/Shine

But is Galetti right? The evidence would seem to suggest so, given the relatively small number of high-profile female chefs. Behind the glitz and the glamour of the professional cookery shows, it seems the industry is struggling to keep pace with the times. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that, while there are 250,000 professional chefs in the UK, only about a fifth of them are female.

But Emily Watkins, for one, is having none of Galetti’s negativity. The chef-patron of the Kingham Plough, an award-winning pub-restaurant in England’s Cotswolds, was back at work last week, two days after leaving hospital following the birth of her fourth child.

“Although there are times when my husband would say that I’ve put my job before my family,” she says, “I’m happy with my career. I don’t think I could put any more into it or take any more out of it. I always wanted to be a chef and I always wanted to be a mum, but the business was my baby and I’d never missed a serving.”

Watkins feels that Galetti’s words will do nothing to encourage women into an industry that is still dominated by men.

“What she said is a little off-putting to girls because it makes you feel that your family and your career are mutually exclusive. People need to have more confidence in the industry and realise that you’re not going to be repelled for being a woman. Good chefs are very scarce. The demand for good chefs is so fierce that it’s an employee’s world.”

For Watkins it wasn’t so much a question of balancing her career and her family as of the two colliding. She went into labour with her first childwhen she was at work, and with her second and third children she worked until the day before they were born.

“With this [fourth] one I was able to have a week off before giving birth,” she says. “I’ve got a bit more of a balance now, although there have definitely been hard moments when I’ve had calls from the childminder saying one of the kids has got a runny nose and I haven’t been able to go.”

Three hours drive north-west in the more remote reaches of the Isle of Anglesey, Claire Lara, the chefwho won MasterChef: The Professionals in 2010 and now works as head of food at The Oyster Catcher, Rhosneigr, points out the irony in the fact that, while some people are quick to suggest women should be in the kitchen, there are hardly any in professional ones. Lara, one of only two women to win the series, now has two young children, and moved to Anglesey partly to enable her to have a better work-life balance for her children.

“I was pregnant doing MasterChef but I didn’t realise,” she says. “I was feeling sick and stressed out, but I just put it down to Michel Roux Jr [a former presenter and chief judge on the show].”

Lara balances family and career with the help of her mother and her husband Marc, who also works at The Oyster Catcher as a sous chef. She says that, if women chefs do decide to have children, then it is better to make as much progress with their culinary career as they can before they take a break.

Rachel Humphrey, head chef of Le Gavroche, London.
Rachel Humphrey, head chef of Le Gavroche, London. Photograph: PR company handout

“I was fairly career-driven,” she says. “I’d just made a decision to put off having children. The better the position you have in the kitchen, the more flexibility you have. The older you get and the more experience you have in the kitchen the better.”

Many chefs point to the hard, physical work and the long hours as deterrents to advancement for female chefs. Others, such as Tom Kerridge, whose Hand and Flowers pub, in Marlow, Buckinghamsire, was awarded two Michelin stars, have suggested – much more controversially – that women don’t have the necessary “fire in the belly”.

Rachel Humphrey, head chef at Le Gavroche in London, says that she did choose to put her career first, but was aware of the consequences. “I made a choice to pursue my career when I was younger,” she says, the sound of the kitchen being cleaned between servings at Le Gavroche drowning out her voice as we speak. “I’m aware it’s a sacrifice I made, I’m not unhappy with it. When people I grew up with were meeting their future husbands and getting married, I was at work. I wouldn’t moan about it, that’s my choice.”

She acknowledges the long hours are problematric, but not just for women. “I’m here all the time. I leave home at seven in the morning and get back at half past midnight. If you do this job at this level, the hours are antisocial for everybody, for the lads and the girls.”

Marianne Lumb, owner and executive chef at Marianne in west London, is sympathetic to Galetti’s viewpoint: “To be any good in the kitchen you have to dedicate your life to it. You have to eat, breathe and sleep it, especially having your own restaurant. The hours are very long and to have a relationship is very difficult because the other person always has to come second. The more successful I’ve become, the more understanding men have been of that.”

She says that now, at the age of 40, if she were to have a baby she doesn’t think it would be fair on the child. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve started to think about it. But I don’t get down about it, because I’m sure I was put on this Earth to cook.”

Marianne Lumb of Marianne’s in London
Marianne Lumb of Marianne’s in London Photograph: handout


Head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship Royal Hospital Road restaurant, Smyth is one of only three chefs in the UK – and the only woman – to hold three Michelin stars.

A former MasterChef semi-finalist, the 34-year-old is the first woman chef to run the Savoy Grill in London in its 126-year history.

Launched her Murano restaurant in 2010 after a career with Gordon Ramsay; she has an MBE to pin next to her Michelin stars.


Dan Glaister

The GuardianTramp

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