Frill seeker: The woman bringing style to the MasterChef set

When Channel 10 unveiled its three new MasterChef judges late last year, the country replied with a collective 'who?'.

Unless you'd watched The Chef's Line on SBS or are a serious foodie, you'd probably never heard of Melissa Leong.

Unlike her new partners in crime, chefs Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo, she'd never even stepped foot on the reality cooking show's set before.

And when a negative comment she tweeted about MasterChef back in 2012 resurfaced she was immediately forced to go on the defensive.

But it's going to take a lot more than that to ruffle the feathers, or the impeccable styling, of this woman.

Masterchef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen at the Materchef 2020 season launch. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
Masterchef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen at the Materchef 2020 season launch. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

Melissa's life experiences are as varied as her taste in food and her enviable shoe collection.

"Food is my job that I love and fashion is like my sport," she says from Melbourne, where an entire wall of her trailer on the MasterChef set at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds is taken up with dozens of pairs of heels.

"It's a different way of expressing creativity and personal style. I'm a huge admirer of people who have a really strong sense of style, and can really express who they are through what they wear and how they wear it. There's no greater achievement in life than feeling like you've reached a point where you're comfortable in your own skin, and that includes personal style and fashion as well. I don't see it as being a frivolous thing.

"People keep saying to me 'You have really big shoes to fill (on MasterChef)'. I say I have a fabulous shoe collection and I wear my own shoes thank you very much."

From growing up in a culturally Singaporean household and dreaming of being a concert pianist to graduating from Sydney University with a degree in economics and social sciences to climbing the ranks of the advertising world and then embarking on an entirely new career as a food writer, the common thread that has run through Melissa's life is creativity - be that with food, fashion or the written word.

Melissa Leong is a familiar face to viewers who watched SBS’s The Chef’s Line. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Melissa Leong is a familiar face to viewers who watched SBS’s The Chef’s Line. Picture: Jonathan Ng

"I was working as a makeup artist to pay my way through university and when I graduated I was being offered extreme sums of money to work in hair and makeup in advertising. As a young, 20-something would you rather get to play with hair and makeup products all day or get an internship in an office somewhere? I leapt at the opportunity to be creative," she says.

"Forming a strong idea, being able to build the structure of research and legitimacy around it and bring that idea to life and have it be clearly understood by people is something I did in my former job and I'm still doing now."

But even though she had the perfect life "on paper" - working in digital advertising with big brands such as Coca Cola, Nokia and LG - Melissa felt something was missing.

"I said to myself you either take this opportunity to reflect and refocus or you may maintain a course of life you may not be so happy at the end of," she says.

"I didn't want to be just fine. I wanted a life that makes me happy and challenges me. I'm a believer we only get one go at this, and I'd rather be true to myself and explore the discomfort of uncertainty for a while to end up in a better place eventually."

 

MasterChef Australia's new judge Melissa Leong at the Delicious 18th Birthday held at the Museum of Contemporary Art at The Rocks. Picture: Christian Gilles
MasterChef Australia's new judge Melissa Leong at the Delicious 18th Birthday held at the Museum of Contemporary Art at The Rocks. Picture: Christian Gilles

She packed up her car and drove to Tasmania, where she took a break and got back to basics, living with friends on a dairy farm and an abattoir - not the backdrop most would choose for an Apple Isle getaway.

"Food has always been centric to who I am," Melissa says.

"Culturally my parents are from Singapore and it's just a centric part of who we are as a nation of people. We talk about food, we cook food, we serve food; it's a really important way we connect with each other."

But what started as a three-month sabbatical turned into two years of rural living. She got her hands dirty learning how to hunt, milk sheep, grow vegetables, care for livestock and make cheese.

"Those two years put in place the wheels of motion that allowed me the life I have now," she says.

"The farming community are much like the hospitality community. They are extremely kind and open-hearted. People who live on the land are a lot better at calling bullsh--. If you are not being real, they let you know pretty quickly how they feel about that.

"That time in Tasmania was really crucial in me being able to sand back the veneer that we build up as adults when we go through life and to get back to being real and being able to connect properly with people - not just on a superficial level, but to see people and be seen."

Book deals with celebrity chefs Dan Hong and Colin Fassnidge followed, but just as her food career took off her health forced an unwanted break.

Melissa Leong and Dan Hong. Picture: Richard Dobson
Melissa Leong and Dan Hong. Picture: Richard Dobson

What felt like a bad cold dragged on for months and she was finally diagnosed with Pyrroles, a stress-induced auto-immune condition.

"It stemmed from burnout," she says. "Now I'm back to as healthy as I can be.mThe most important things for me now are rest and making sure nutrition is at the top of my considerations.

"It seems like a bit of a counter-productive choice of job to take on something as huge as MasterChef, but it is about balance and knowing what your limits are. When it's a busy week I don't do a lot outside of working. I go home, I might do a workout and cook something for myself, and then I have a shower and rest. Rest is something we don't highly prize in this society. We hero hard work and being too busy; I don't believe in being too busy. If you want to make this a long game you need to find a way to allow yourself to rest and recouperate throughout that."

Melissa appears to be ahead of the curve when it comes to society's forced slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The more grounded you can be as a human, the better prepared you can be for what life throws at you" she says.

"A friend of mine, Kate Pascoe Squires, started The Slowdown a couple of months ago. It's an online magazine with interviews about how slowing down and tuning out is a crucial part of success. Just because you're high profile or perceived as tremendously successful doesn't mean you should push yourself to the extreme. Honour your body and do what's right for you."

When MasterChef: Back to Win premieres on Easter Monday, there will certainly be no shortage of culinary inspiration.

The new format features 24 returning contestants from all 11 seasons of MasterChef, ranging from season one runner-up Poh Ling Yeow to pastry wunderkind Reynold Poernomo and 2019's runner-up Tessa Boersma.

"When you're finished reading books and listening to podcasts and working out and cooking dinner, there's definitely a role for TV and we're very happy to provide that … you will see some truly extraordinary food," Melissa says.

"Life will deal us things we don't necessarily want but we all need to rise and show community spirit; cook for yourself, your friends and your family."

MasterChef: Back To Win premieres Easter Monday at 7.30pm on Ten/WIN.


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