MasterChef judge Sofia Levin reveals her go-to cafés in Melbourne

Sofia Levin

MasterChef judge and journalist Sofia Levin talks to BeanScene about the café culture that helped kickstart her food career, and the cultural diversity found through Melbourne’s brunch scene.

Thirteen years ago, an up-and-coming journalist and blogger by the name of Sofia Levin contributed to an article in BeanScene about the influence social media was having on café preferences. Fast-forward a decade of success as a food writer and globally travelled eater, and Sofia has walked onto the MasterChef Australia set as one of the new judges for season 16.

“It’s wild. It’s still not real as far as I’m concerned. I keep waiting for it to stop feeling like a ‘pinch me moment,’ and so far it hasn’t happened,” Sofia tells BeanScene.

“The first time I walked through those [MasterChef studio] doors, [chef] Jamie Oliver was there. Everybody was so energised by being around him and just how wonderful, kind, and generous a person he is. Skip forward nearly five months to the final week of filming; looking at the contestants and seeing how far they’ve come and their incredible growth, not just as cooks but people – and realising how much we’ve been part of that is really special.”

Sofia writes about food for a living, but under the MasterChef spotlight she hopes to make her own mark as a judge by encouraging the contestants with enthusiasm and her philosophy to ‘eat curiously’.

“I want to see them dive in and give it everything they’ve got, and not be afraid to cook dishes that may be deeply personal or cultural, because when they back themselves, the results are incredible,” Sofia says.

“It’s also about the opportunity to learn as judges. If you can feed somebody something they’ve never tried before, it’s such a special thing. You can decipher whether a dish is good or not from how it’s presented and the story behind it, as well as what it tastes like.”

The same can be said for a good coffee, Sofia says. She attributes her love for black coffee – and the occasional macchiato – to Sunday morning brunch with her family growing up, where her parents would order lattes and she would scream for a babycino until she was old enough to understand the complexities of coffee.

“Learning about quality coffee comes from being a Melburnian, and one who, dare I say, loves to eat and is in the lucky position of being able to visit many different restaurants and cafés,” Sofia says. “It feels like I’ve been subconsciously training my palate my whole career. The more you eat and consequently understand flavours, the more you can pick those flavours in food-adjacent categories, like coffee, wine, and even botanicals.”

“For me, the best food has a real pureness and clarity to it – you know exactly where it’s from and what it’s trying to do. And I think it’s the same with coffee.”

Sofia leans towards delicate flavour profiles without bitterness or a strong fruit or acidic profile, but equally something that’s not overly rich and chocolatey.

At home, she uses her AeroPress for her first cup of the day, and maybe an hour or so later will visit local favourite Napier Quarter in Fitzroy for a $2 espresso at the bar.

Sofia Levin
Image: Network Ten

Based in Melbourne’s inner north, Sofia’s list of go-to list places is based on level of enjoyment and proximity. For strictly coffee and nothing else, she enjoys Acoffee in Collingwood, to impress an interstater with interesting coffee and food she’ll visit Industry Beans in Fitzroy, and for the atmosphere and generous food it’s over to Terror Twilight in Collingwood.

“Terror Twilight is probably the only place I’ll order a non-traditional coffee because I like my coffee straight up and down, but they do a coconut cold brew that tastes like dessert. I’ll always ask for a little spoon so I can eat the coconut flakes off the top. I just love it, especially on a hot day,” she says.

Sofia has watched Melbourne’s café scene evolve firsthand. What’s been most interesting to observe in the past decade, she says, is its diversification, with more cafés serving cultural dishes that represent their owner’s identity.

“Everybody’s done the avocado and toast thing with some poached eggs, but I love it when operators answer the question: ‘What’s my version that speaks to my story?’ You will see people offering Sri Lankan hoppers alongside scrambled eggs, for example, or the many cafés serving Japanese food for breakfast, which I think is brilliant,” Sofia says.

The introduction of these diverse cafés are another revelation for Melbourne coffee, turning many travellers’ cherished food memories into a reality, from Vietnamese coffee with its sweet notes and condensed milk, to meticulously made Japanese filters, and rustically presented Ethiopian coffee with burning incense and popcorn served on the side.

“It’s such an amazing ceremony to witness. I love seeing the coffee poured from a height. It’s super strong to drink but so beautifully prepared and served,” Sofia says.

Despite all the interesting and vibrant coffee scenarios Sofia has witnessed around the world, she’s adamant her hometown does it best.

“I could be biased, but it’s also because it doesn’t matter if you’ve experienced great coffee here or overseas, you can get a brilliant version of it in Melbourne. We’re kind of a ‘jack of all trades’ when it comes to coffee, and pretty bloody good at all of them,” she says.

Also pretty good was Sofia’s family’s attitude about trying different cuisines and cultures when she was growing up. With half her family living in the United Kingdom and the rest in Australia, she was exposed to travel and different cultures from a young age, with both families often finding a halfway meeting destination.

“It’s that beautiful cliche where every culture is so deeply proud of their food, and they want to share it. It doesn’t matter whether you speak the language or not, there’s always somewhere you can eat, whether it’s at a café, restaurant, or around someone’s table. I found it completely enthralling,” Sofia says.

A career in food was never part of the plan. Sofia studied marketing and psychology for a year-and-a-half until she deliberately took the second semester off university to backpack for nine months across Europe with a friend.

“We loved it. We went and did all the cultural stuff and saw so much of Europe, so by the time we had done a clockwise loop and popped over to Morocco from Spain, it was like we had entered a different world. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was really affected by that experience and the night markets, the people, and how interesting the food was,” Sofia says.

“I thought, ‘maybe I can do this as a job’. I didn’t know what that meant or how it looked, but I figured journalism was probably the best way to do it. I sought the lifestyle before the study.”

Back home, Sofia swapped the marketing component of her course with journalism subjects. She started a food blog initially to impress her journalism tutor, but it consequently ended up being a handy portfolio of work when she started to freelance.

“I didn’t set out to write about cafés, restaurants, or food. I just wanted to write about the things I enjoyed, which was the way food opens minds and doors, rather than wanting to be a journalist who writes about food,” Sofia says.

“It was amazing timing because as I started to write about the places I visited, everybody was starting to become more interested in food, wine and the city’s coffee scene, and Melbourne was creeping up as one of the major players in the world. It was also around the same time MasterChef started, so it’s all extremely linked.”

The blog is now long gone, and in its place is a website and newsletter called Seasoned Traveller, dedicated to sharing lesser-known food stories from around the world.

“I honestly don’t think there is a better city in the world to set you up to do what I managed to do. We learnt this in lockdown as well, but you don’t have to travel that far in Melbourne to experience such a multitude of cultures. I feel extremely lucky and very pleased with all my decision making,” Sofia says.

“It always warms my heart when somebody comments on Instagram saying that they loved reading [a post], because it tells me there are still people out there who actually read captions and articles.
A picture tells 1000 words, but I’m also more than happy to write 1000 words – or do both.”

This article appears in the June 2024 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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