Melissa Leong is now in her second food competition series, having moved from The Chef’s Line on SBS to MasterChef Australia where she is quickly emerging as a new fan favourite.
The 10 series is also her second in which cooks are under the griller of a ticking clock, frenzied drama and noisy intensity. Cooking competitions are successful around the world and Leong insists it makes for great TV.
“Aside from that, there is no push for them to be dramatic. They are themselves in that moment,” she tells TV Tonight.
“The kitchen gives them every single thing that they need to succeed. We are there to cheer them on. In the same way that professional kitchens run, it thrives off a huge amount of energy and action. Whatever kind of pressure is going on in the kitchen, it’s the heat of service. It’s having dockets on the pass, having hungry people in the dining room waiting for their food.”
“The contestants, I know, feed off that frenetic energy”
But does yelling and running actually lead to a better dish, or would contestants create better dishes given a stress-free situation?
“In this particular situation, it’s about the pressure of producing something on time and having it judged. The contestants, I know, feed off that frenetic energy and I think it really does give them the impetus to cook well. So it’s not a science experiment, it’s not art class. It’s cooking and I think there’s something about action and energy that’s really crucial to cooking well.
“Pressure and action is definitely part of the magic of hospitality whether or not your front of house or back of house. It definitely does set you up for what might be if you end up in a kitchen yourself.”
Leong was invited to join the series when she was travelling down the Mekong River in Cambodia with Aussie chef David Thompson. But the seasoned food writer was firm with producers that she would not be modifying her style. That suited them to a tee.
“It’s just been a very fluid conversation where they’ve always let me be me. That was something that I wanted to make a point of right from the beginning,” she insists.
“I’m pretty upfront about my opinions”
“I said, ‘You’ve obviously done your research to have me here. You know that I’m pretty upfront about my opinions, and I like to be very straightforward about things. I can only do this show if I’m able to be myself.’
“Endemol are wonderfully supportive and they’re masters in this business. So they of course, knew what I would be like and they said ‘That’s exactly why you’re here. We want you to be yourself.'”
The reception to the new team, with fellow judges Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen, has been a dream. The newbies were cleverly introduced by Gordon Ramsay and the familiarity of returning contestants. At 12 seasons, MasterChef shows no signs of slowing down.
Leong has also been praised for adding some spontaneity to the series, including one unscripted moment at a Thai restaurant when she paused a judges’ announcement to answer a ringing phone and take a customer booking.
“I never thought that would go to air!”
“I never thought that would go to air!” she laughs. “I needed to answer the phone, because what are you going to do? We’re working in a restaurant that have been kind enough to loan us the space for the day. So you’ve got to do right by them too!
“The editing has been a little bit looser, a little bit more freeform this year, and I love that. I’m a very spontaneous person. I am who I am, and sometimes that comes across as a little bit chaotic and fun.”
Yet nobody could have anticipated COVID-19 would disrupt plans, preventing public challenges, limiting guest chefs and requiring social distancing on air. Buoyed by the size of their kitchen set, producers Endemol Shine Australia forged on with restrictions heightening the drama, including when contestants faced sad farewells.
“You grow to love each and every one of the contestants”
“It just is such a challenging thing. You grow to love each and every one of the contestants because they just put all of themselves into every single challenge. You can’t help but love them and respect them for that. So when they leave and you can’t hug them or they can’t hi-5 each other, it’s such a strange turn of events in a world where we’re experiencing something like this. But I guess it gives us extra impetus to use our words to convey how we feel about them and give them all the love and the support that we can in that capacity,” she continues.
“But it is a great joy for us that we are part of a show that gives people just a little bit of a break from the troubles of the world. It’s been wonderful to feel that has resonated with Australia and as we start to air throughout the world, that as well.”
“I haven’t actually had much interaction with our wonderful audience in a public setting”
Although her star has risen swiftly as a result of the season’s reception, Leong is yet to bask in the glory of her new broad appeal.
“I guess with COVID being what it is, I haven’t actually been out that much. With filming, every single one of us -cast and crew- have been very careful to only be doing the responsible thing and minimising the amount that we go out. So for a number of months, all I was doing was going from home to work and occasionally dropping into the shops and that’s about it. I haven’t actually had much interaction with our wonderful audience in a public setting in that regard yet.
“I did go up to Sydney the other week and to see my family and I was out and about, having a couple of meals out because the restrictions are slightly more relaxed up there. It was lovely to run into people and have them say how much they love the show and that we do bring something new and different to this much-loved juggernaut. So it’s deeply flattering and it really does make us so happy.
“We’ve given this everything of ourselves. Each of us, Jock & Andy, have spent a long time in this industry learning what we learn and knowing what we know, and we bring all of that to work every single day with us. I truly believe the three of us together are such a great team. I love going to work with these guys. I absolutely love them.
“We’ve become such great friends and they are so knowledgeable, respectful, sensitive humans and I think the three of us together are doing okay!”
MasterChef Australia airs 7:30pm Sunday – Tuesday on 10.