Leong in particular has drawn much praise on social media. “Melissa represents something you don’t see too much on TV today: a woman who enjoys food and isn’t scared to eat it,” wrote one Twitter user. Others applauded her extensive knowledge, “razzle dazzle” earrings and warm rapport with contestants, all of whom appeared in previous seasons of MasterChef.
“I always set out to be open-minded and open-hearted in everything I do,” Leong says. “My job is to be critical but also to provide feedback that will help them grow.”
The ritualistic humiliation doled out by other reality show judges is not for her. As a food writer, she prefers to give fledgling restaurants time to improve instead of savaging their early efforts. “I’ve been mentored by editors who encouraged me to be constructive and never cruel,” she says.
Born in Sydney to parents who emigrated from Singapore, Leong studied accounting and economics but quickly pivoted to a career in food writing and broadcasting. Her TV work includes Everyday Gourmet and The Cook’s Pantry on 10, and The Chefs’ Line on SBS.
Most days, she arrives at the MasterChef set around 5.45am. Exercise, meditation and naps help avoid the burnout-induced hair loss and insomnia she suffered during a previous high-pressure job. That experience prompted a realisation: she’d spent too long trying to fulfil some vague ideal of responsible adulthood.
I never imagined the chicken feet would cause such an uproar in a positive sense.
MasterChef judge Melissa Leong
“It’s called ‘being in your 20s’,” she says. “Everyone is trying on different ideas and figuring out who they are.”
Seeking to understand food at a “granular level”, Leong spent two years at a rural Tasmanian sheep dairy and abattoir, learning how to make cheese and pack meat. “We have a growing disconnection with where our food comes from,” she says. “It’s all well and good to know that in the abstract but I wanted to get my hands dirty.”
Among the ingredients Leong chose for MasterChef’s first mystery box challenge this year were Chinese five spice, galangal and chicken feet.
“I never imagined the chicken feet would cause such an uproar in a positive sense,” she says. “In generations prior in Australia, you’d use every part of a chicken but then we did away with recognising the whole beast, so to speak, and chicken feet were relegated to being an ‘ethnic ingredient’.
“I’m glad people could see a bit of their culture on the show but it wasn’t just Asian communities who were excited by the interesting ingredients. A lot of my Australian friends [from non-Asian backgrounds] love going to yum cha and eating chicken feet these days.”
Describing a dish without resorting to cliche, she says, isn’t difficult; she enjoys analysing the language of other writers and expanding her vocabulary.
“I like showing people I can do something they wouldn’t have pegged me as being able to do,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to defy expectations.”
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.