Melissa Leong is chatting to Stuff on her lunch break but, fortunately for her, we’re not interrupting her repast. As one of the judges on MasterChef Australia, she’s already had quite the feast this morning.
“I’ve already eaten a fair few things today. It’s fair to say I will never starve to death in this place, ”she laughs.
If you have ever watched MasterChef, you too may have wondered how the judges manage to eat so many dishes without falling into a food coma. What is their secret? Do they employ a spittoon? Do they have some sort of stomach stretching regimen? It turns out that the key to consuming mass quantities is just extremely good self-control.
“I taste enough to inform my judgment,” says Leong. “Sometimes when something is especially tasty it is very difficult not to go back for a second, third or fourth bite. But part of the job is exercising restraint.
“I’m not going to lie. There are definitely days where I do not need to have dinner or lunch because I do most of my eating on camera. ”
It is Leong’s third season adjudicating MasterChef Australia alongside former winner Andy Allen and chef Jock Zonfrillo. This time around, viewers will get to see some former contestants compete against newcomers with a fans and favorites theme to the cooking competition. Among those competing are Julie Goodwin, who won the first season, and Billie McKay and Sashi Cheliah, who won the seventh and 10th seasons respectively.
* Rebecca Gibney feels the heat in Celebrity MasterChef Australia
* Heartbreak and hope as MasterChef Australia contestant quits amid mental health concerns
* MasterChef judge tells of Covid heartbreak
But given that MasterChef is known for showing the nicer side of reality TV, Leong says this won’t be a Survivor-style showdown.
“Instead of fans versus faves we’ve said fans and favorites because, really, there’s just been this wonderful sense of mentorship of the returning contestants to the new contestants. And in return, the new contestants have reinvigorated the returning contestants in terms of reminding them why they fell in love with food in the first place.
“We always like to say when people leave the kitchen after they’ve competed that they become part of the MasterChef family. We really do mean that. So having these familiar faces back in the kitchen has been really wonderful. ”
Leong says the MasterChef kitchen is a high-energy place to be but also one that is warm and supportive. She says what you don’t see are the 85-90 crew members running around in the background “Making the magic happen. And just like the viewers at home, everyone on set becomes emotionally invested in the contestants and watching them struggle when something goes horribly awry with their dish can be agonizing.
“It is very hard when you see someone that’s in a bit of a spiral or something goes wrong and they’re at a loss about what to do. Because it is television we need to document what’s really happening and we can’t fix everything – we can’t in life either.
“But we’re always there to support them emotionally and give them a pep talk and help them maybe get back on track to the most successful result they can possibly achieve.”
Over the course of the show’s 14-year history, we’ve seen every kind of fad food and culinary trend, from croquembouche to sous vide. The types of cuisine represented have evolved too with more contestants – from a variety of backgrounds – embracing Asian influences in their dishes.
Leong, whose family came to Australia from Singapore, enjoys seeing contestants stepping outside of their cultural comfort zones and experimenting with new flavors.
“And when people cook they are cooking an interpretation so I don’t think we should ever chastise people for cooking outside of their culture. I think we should welcome it. ”
Leong, who has visited New Zealand and hopes to travel here again soon, is also a fan of the indigenous cuisine produced here, singling out Wellington chef Monique Fiso and her restaurant Hiakai for particular praise.
“Monique Fiso is one of my all-time favorite human beings when it comes to the world of food. I think that she’s doing such an incredible job at Hiakai to celebrate Māori cuisine and educate and illuminate on the history and the depth and how special it is.
“So I think that chefs like her are really leading the way globally. And that’s something that all New Zealanders can be proud of. ”
MasterChef Australia, TVNZ 2, Sunday (starts June 12)