Meet Melissa Leong

As one of three judges on MasterChef Australia, Melissa Leong’s passion for food is well known. Coles magazine editor Jacqui Kwong spent the day with Melissa to find out more about her family, early memories and top cooking tips.

Melissa Leong

Melissa Leong: My passion for food comes from my Singaporean-Chinese family. We’re all about food.

Jacqui: “Let’s talk food! Where does your passion for food stem from?”

Melissa: “I love talking about food! My passion for food comes from my Singaporean-Chinese family. We’re all about food. From home cooking to eating out and choosing from a range of cuisines and cultures, it’s in our DNA to love good food. When I was growing up, food was central to so much in our family. My mother is an excellent cook and the earliest memories I have are of helping her pluck roots from bean shoots, mixing dumpling fillings and watching the steam rise from a pot of soup or stew. You don’t forget those experiences.”

 

Jacqui: “So did you have a favourite recipe when you were a kid?”

Melissa: “Believe it or not, it was pikelets. I remember going to a friend’s house around the age of 7 or 8 and her mother let us sit on the kitchen bench while she mixed pikelet batter. We watched as they bubbled and cooked in the pan. We ate them with butter and jam and, when I went home, I begged my mum to make them every weekend for a long time after.” 

 

Jacqui: “Was it your mum then who taught you to cook?”

Melissa: “Yes, you can tell the theme of the discussion so far! My mother has been such a defining force in my life, especially when it comes to food and cooking. I also loved watching Elizabeth Chong cook on Good Morning Australia as a child. I learnt that Asian women know what’s up when it comes to food.”

 

Jacqui: “What’s your ultimate comfort food?”

Melissa: “I have a few, but Hainanese chicken rice is definitely up there.”

 

Jacqui: “Can you share some of the secrets to making a great Hainanese chicken rice?”

Melissa: “It’s about attention to detail. Scrubbing the skin with salt to make it smooth, packing the carcass with ginger, garlic and shallots, and constantly skimming the consommé. The genius of the dish is its simplicity. Respect that, and it will pay dividends.”

 

Jacqui: “Speaking of food with a lot of meaning, what dishes from MasterChef Australia have really stuck with you?”

Melissa: “Poh’s Nyonya chicken curry, Depinder’s green curry chiffon cake, any of Minoli’s curries, and Laura Sharrad’s yoghurt ice cream with bay leaf oil.”

 

Jacqui: “It must be incredibly special to be part of people’s lives and food journeys on the show. What does it mean for you to be a judge on MasterChef Australia?”

Melissa: “More than I can express. Not only professionally, but personally in seeing what my being there represents to others. I’m appreciative and respectful to those who’ve supported my presence and I hope to do them justice every episode.”

 

Jacqui: “Has there been a standout moment being a judge on MasterChef Australia during the last three years?

Melissa: “Feeling all the emotions of Covid isolation in eating Poh’s Nyonya chicken curry was a watershed moment for me. It illuminates just how vital food is to our stories and cultures, and reminds us that ultimately, to be human is to be connected.

 

Jacqui: “From emotional lows to emotional highs, can you share a funny moment from this year’s show?”

Melissa: “I don’t have TikTok, but there’s a group moment where a TikTok trend was executed en masse with the contestants. I’ll have to let you tune in to find out what that was!”

 

Jacqui: “You must’ve picked up a few genius cooking tricks during your time in the MasterChef Australia kitchen, too. What have you learnt that you now use in your everyday cooking?”

Melissa: “I find the classic techniques the best and most time-honoured. I’d probably say what I’ve learnt the most is how to plate and replate with more consideration, thanks to Jock especially.”

 

Jacqui: “So you’ve gathered some tips yourself; what’s your advice to the show’s contestants, both for their time on the show itself and for their future in the food industry?”

Melissa: “Be true to who you are. You can’t produce food that doesn’t come from the heart and expect it to resonate with anyone. This industry is tough, and you need to earn your place in it, so listen, learn and do what you do with conscientious intent.”

 

Jacqui: “What’s your advice for people who are keen to apply to be on MasterChef Australia?”

Melissa: “Just do it! It’s an honour to share the stories and cultures of everyone who joins us, and it would be fantastic to be able to tell yours.” 

 

Jacqui: “With all the cooking that goes on in the show, there must be lots of food that gets uneaten. As we know, it’s becoming increasingly important to be sustainable in the kitchen – what happens to food waste on set?”

Melissa: “We take recycling very seriously. Everything from plastic – we’re a single-use plastic-free environment wherever possible – latex safety gloves to batteries and non-rescuable food scraps are responsibly managed. We have recycling methods for all of it, including a semi trailer sized closed loop composter that cooks organic scraps into a nutrient-rich compost that goes onto the gardens that grow some of our produce for the show. Salvageable items are given to [food rescue organisation] SecondBite to create meals for the most vulnerable in our community, while we have a crew market for any other produce leftover to take home, of which the proceeds are donated to charity.”

 

Jacqui: “What do you do at home to reduce waste in the kitchen?”

Melissa: “Composting is a passion of mine. I have two worm farms and a closed loop composter for things that are harder to home compost like meats, fats and bones. It’s called a foodcycler and it cooks organic waste into a nutrient-rich eco chip you can put on your garden. As a result, my garbage contains little if any food waste.”

 

Jacqui: “Now, we know you recently turned 40 – how did you celebrate?”

Melissa: “I was deep in filming mode for MasterChef Australia, so I’ve deferred any big celebrations until we’re done for the season. Once that happens, you know it will involve good food, good wine and of course, it will involve cake!”

 

Jacqui: “Any tips for throwing an unforgettable party?”

Melissa: “Don’t let it overwhelm you. Delegate key responsibilities and keep a checklist so everything is ticked off before the day so you can relax and enjoy being with people you love.