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'MasterChef Australia' judge Melissa Leong on the season finale, Aussie cuisine, and dealing with anxiety during these pandemic times

By THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 24, 2021 6:28 pm

As the first female and first Asian judge on MasterChef Australia, every week Melissa Leong dazzles with her wit, her heart, and her bold style. 

The freelance food writer, cookbook editor, radio broadcaster, critic, and marketer — who was born in Sydney but whose parents emigrated from Singapore — was chosen in 2020 as one of the three new judges of the mega-popular reality show, along with Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo and Season 4 MasterChef Andy Allen, and the trio have since brought a dynamic and undeniable chemistry to the show.

MasterChef Australia airs in the Philippines on the Lifetime channel, and the two-part finale of the current season, 13, is set to air on Monday, Sept. 27, and Tuesday, Sept. 28.

The three finalists are Kishwar Chowdhury, a mother of two and a business developer; Justin Narayan, a youth pastor; and Pete Campbell, a tattoo artist. 

These are absolutely brilliant human beings and I think they all have very bright futures and food, so it just will make for such compelling viewing, just to see how they handle the pressure of getting really, really close to the finish line.

Leong, clad in her signature statement earrings, heels and bright lipstick (she was named Who’s Sexiest Person of 2020 by Who magazine), will urge them on until one of these aspiring home cooks finally claims the title of MasterChef.

 The finalists competing in MasterChef Australia’s Season 13 finale: (from left) Pete Campbell, Kishwar Chowdhury and Justin Narayan

We spoke to her one-on-one over Zoom, and even if it was an audio-only call, Leong’s warmth, humanity, and articulate intelligence shone through. Here are excerpts from our interview:

THE PHILIPPINE STAR:  The upcoming season finale will be aired in the Philippines on Sept. 27 and 28. What can you tell us about it?

MELISSA LEONG:  It was a little iffy a few months since we filmed the end of the season, but it just keeps amping up in terms of the skill level and the stakes and the desire to want to win is absolutely incredible. These are four absolutely brilliant human beings and I think they all have very bright futures and food, so it just will make for such compelling viewing, just to see how they handle the pressure of getting really, really close to the finish line.

I love Kishwar and I'm totally rooting for her.

(Laughs) I think that you are in very, very good company there.

For you, what makes Season 13 unique?  What were your most unforgettable moments from this season?

It was a great privilege to come into Season 13 because it was the first set of hopeful home cooks that we got to choose and meet and mentor along the way, so it's a little bit different to the bang and the fireworks of “back to win” and having the thrill of people want to see their favorites across all of the seasons come together and see how they go, so very different season.

For me what I've loved is seeing Andy step into a greater mentorship role because he's the only one out of the three of us that has gone through the full MasterChef experience of being a hopeful home cook and competing and winning and then becoming a hatted chef and then going on to become a judge, so being able to learn from his insight and to be able to see him give these contestants a sense of context and hope from his own personal experience, you can see how much that means to them.

 All dressed up at the season finale, which will air in the Philippines on Lifetime on Sept. 27 and 28 at 8 p.m.

And then, of course, the food: we've been treated to some extraordinary food, lots of dishes that I'm unfamiliar with and have come to love. You mentioned Kishwar before and she was surprising from the very beginning. And as you see her take on more and more skill and more and more information, you can see how she's interpreting that not only within her own cultural context, but within her individual creativity and I think that's really inspiring to see.

Off screen, how do you get along with your fellow judges Jock and Andy?

(Laughs) They’re the brothers I didn't know I was going to have, and I just absolutely love going to work and spending time with them every day. We spend 14, 15 hours a day sometimes together and if we weren't having fun and didn’t genuinely enjoy each other's company you would be able to see that, and even though we've had downtime away from the set at the moment we still text and message and FaceTime each other all of the time and compare notes and compare recipes.

The other day Jock was telling me how much he's missing Singaporean hawker food and he really wanted to make radish cake, so he's at home showing me all of the pictures and of course it's a bit sad that at the moment we can't cook and eat together socially because we're still in lockdown here in Melbourne. But it is what it is. 

 Leong with fellow judges Andy Allen (left), MasterChef Australia Season 4 winner, and Scottish former chef Jock Zonfrillo

We're very fortunate to be safe and to be well, so we're really holding on to that, but I really look forward to being able to share a proper meal with them in the same room before too long. So I'm very lucky to have two incredibly supportive, funny, intelligent, creative, wonderful people to get to work with every single day.

As the lone female judge and the first Asian-Australian, do you feel pressure to represent, to make your voice heard?

When I said yes to the job, I'd been freelancing as a food journalist for over a decade and I said yes to a wonderful opportunity to learn and to grow in my skill set in my career, and I didn't really think so much about representation, I just thought, well, I can do the job and I plan to grow and become better at the job every single day. And that's really what I do focus on from day to day.

Obviously in the broader context of representation, I'm honored to be in that space. I realize when I speak to people that it means a great deal to more than just me and my family, and that's a very humbling thing to grapple with.

As I continue on in this role, I do think about the way that I live my life and the way that I carry myself on the show and what that means to other people that I think there's that saying “If you can see it then you can be it” and I think growing up in this country not having many role models who look like me or had the same background as me, it gives me hope that there will be kids growing up who may not be of the same background as me but just to see diversity means that there's hope. You can be anything that you want to be, which is great.

How has MasterChef Australia helped advance the progress of Australian cuisine?  First off, how would you define Australian cuisine?

I think it's very difficult to define Australian cuisine; it's been something I've been trying to answer my entire career. When you have the most ancient civilization on the planet here, 60,000 years, and then you also have a reasonably new worldview of cuisine in this country, being that white settlement has been for the last 250-odd years, you have this interesting juxtaposition of ancient and new at the same time and we are one of the luckiest places in the world to be able to have access to such authentic expressions of cuisine from everywhere.

 In Episode 36 of MasterChef Australia, the judges confer at the Apollo Bay Crayfish Team Challenge in Victoria.

And I think that what makes Australian food is incredible produce, first and foremost, and the multicultural lens to the way we approach cooking and cuisine and sharing each other's stories. It's not as simple as saying, “Well, it's a meat pie, or it's a salt-and-pepper squid.” And you can’t distill it down to one dish, but you can distill it down to a sense of multicultural richness and I'm very grateful for that experience.

MasterChef Australia has had 13 seasons so far. How do the showrunners keep it exciting?  Do they have anything different in store for Season 14?

They're incredibly clever human beings, and my experience of being on MasterChef has been during a pandemic and it never ceases to amaze me that even with the restrictions of not being able to travel and not being able to shoot outdoors and social distancing, they've managed to continue to create a show that feels fresh and vibrant and fun, and most of all compelling to watch, and that's really testament to their creativity, their ability to think laterally in a way that is continuously surprising and every single time we have a meeting about what's going to happen next,

I'm always blown away by the thought process and the development of ideas and of course it's such an exciting thing to be able to feedback on that and to be able to have our own contribution to that creative process, too.

You’ve talked before about suffering from anxiety and depression.  Here we’re always in various stages of lockdown, and the constant uncertainty makes us very anxious.  How do you deal with anxiety and depression on a day-to-day basis?

As an adult, approaching anxiety and depression as something that is normal and something that is human is something that we need to consider more. We all go through as humans — every single one of us — some semblance of that throughout our lives, and some for at least a period of time, so I think that being able to normalize the conversations about how we feel and how we respond to those feelings is really important.

I also think as adults, it's about taking accountability for our own self-care, so whatever it is that helps us, whether or not that's therapy or a routine that works for us, or exercise, meditation, the onus is on the individual, in many ways — and I'm very much speaking in a generalist context — to figure out what works for you or for the people that you care for and commit to that being part of your every day.

For me exercise is a really important part of keeping my life in context. Especially during lockdown, having parts of the day that are filled with routine, and parts of the day where I can do whatever I want and feel a little bit freer, those two things are really important for me, but that's just me.

I feel like we all need to be a little kinder to ourselves and each other right now for sure, because we don't know what's going to happen over the next little while, but what we can be certain of is we can control our response, and our response should be to be kind to each other.

What projects are you currently working on, Melissa?  What’s next for you?

We've just finished Celebrity MasterChef, that's about to come on to the air here in Australia. We're very, very excited about that because that was a really special project and something we had so much fun making, and we're in pre-production for the next season of MasterChef and we're so excited about what's about to hit the world next year when it comes to that, too, so that's very much first and foremost at the top of my mind.

I've had a little bit of downtime, and I've been going back to what I do in the rest of my life, which is to be a writer, and so I've been consumed with writing columns for various publications here in Australia and a couple of other little creative projects on the back burner that I will reveal in good time.

MasterChef Australia S13 airs every Monday to Friday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime, and the season finale airs on Sept. 27 and 28 (this Monday and Tuesday) at 8 p.m. Lifetime is on SkyCable’s SD Ch. 65, HD Ch. 199.  Lifetime MasterChef Australia S13 is also available on Apple TV: first episode is free.