Melissa Leong takes a judging break on the set of MasterChef to talk to BeanScene about AeroPress, Vietnamese coffee and the reason you can’t fake chemistry.
Melissa Leong is about a third of the way through filming her third season of MasterChef Australia, and she’s pacing herself for the months ahead.
“It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a very long filming season, something like 60 episodes,” she tells BeanScene. Thankfully, she’s already caffeine fuelled.
“Right now, I’m drinking Padre Coffee a lot at home which I’m quite a fan of, but I’m in Melbourne, you’re spoilt for choices. There’s so many different roasters and brands that are doing great work. St Ali is always right up there as one of my trusted go-tos as a café and coffee roaster.”
While grateful for the variety of good coffee in Melbourne, Melissa says Australians are fortunate to have such a sophisticated and broad ranging coffee culture on their doorstep.
“Being such a multicultural nation, you’ll find really fine interpretations of how to drink coffee have come from so many places around the world, whether that’s really intense bitter Turkish coffee, a really, short sharp ristretto – standing up of course, or an AeroPress and seeing the influence of batch brew, American-style filter coffee coming through,” Melissa says. “I think we’re really lucky because we have all of that at our disposal and there’s always going to be something for everybody.”
For Melissa, that’s a love for filter coffee thanks to the wafting aroma of French Press in her parent’s house growing up. Describing herself as “a batch brew and AeroPress kind of gal”, Melissa admits espresso consumption is something she’s only just discovered thanks to her partner’s Giotto Rocket machine at home.
“These days I enjoy drinking coffee for the caffeine content that’s for sure. There’s no decaf going on in my life,” she says. “I think coffee beans are such an incredible expression of regional and seasonal produce. Anywhere that’s an exuberant expression of the time and place in which it is grown and roasted, then I’m a fan. I like the subjectivity of the differences you experience from batch to batch and what roasters put in via way of their own interpretation of how a bean should taste.”
For a while, Melissa was a Nespresso ambassador where she credits learning about the different coffee belts of the world, and the role it plays culturally and economically in different countries, including Vietnam, the largest producer of Robusta.
“There’s some interesting and nuanced coffee that grows there. For me, the last time I was on assignment in Vietnam, I remember having a really intense coffee first thing in the morning. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is something I hold very dear to my heart,” she says. “There are lots of different ways to take coffee in Vietnam, but traditional Vietnamese coffee is definitely on the sweeter side. I like to have it black, with a little condensed milk on the side. You still need to be able to taste the nuance of the coffee, the fragrance and aroma, and of course the flavour. It’s a really turbo charged version of coffee.”
Another version is the daring caffeine concoction chef and fellow MasterChef judge Jock Zonfrillo has created on set.
“He’s famous around here for the Devil’s Lick, and specifically, I think he’s the only one who can survive doing it regularly. In the afternoon when you’re having a hard one and you need to push on, he brings it out: 10 shots of espresso, half a teaspoon of sugar and a lick of milk – it’s a heart starter and a half,” Melissa says.
“Jock is the espresso obsessive of our production crew. Every single morning, he comes in probably an hour early to make coffee for whoever wants one. He’s so, so good. He put himself through barista training just because he wanted to learn how to pull the best espressos here, and I think he definitely does.”
When it comes to food writing however, Melissa has made a household name for herself as the best of the best, but it was an industry she fell into accidentally. While working in advertising, Melissa was drawn to social media when it was in its infancy and was encouraged to start her own account in different platforms.
“I choose [the medium of] food because I didn’t want to spend too much time researching the subject matter that I was engaging in communities about. I thought I knew enough about food that I could fudge my way through it. Through that experience I ended up starting a blog, an editor read my writing and offered me a column, and it snowballed from there,” says Melissa, who freelanced as a food writer for 15 years.
Melissa is fortunate to be trained by some incredible food editors, travelled the world, and put theory into practice, but knows her skillset and passion for food had to start from somewhere real and honest. And that’s thanks to her mother, whom Melissa says was as much in love with food as she could ever be.
“My mother made us feel very welcome in the kitchen when we were little. It was like a slow emersion therapy of learning how to do things, smelling the smells, being involved in cooking, and helping. Throughout my childhood it was that building on little bits of information and before you know if it, you know how things are constructed,” she says.
“While I have always been an avid home cook and eater, I never wanted to be a chef. I still never want to be a chef. I spend so much time in close proximity to some of the finest chefs in the world. You do learn tips, tricks, and techniques, and that informs the way you’re able to judge [on MasterChef]. You can’t do this job if you can’t cook.”
Today, Melissa identifies her cooking style as “very eclectic”, a sum of her experiences in travel and the cuisines she happens to be interested in at the time.
“I’m very much a low and flow, easy kind of cook. You’ll never find me in the MasterChef kitchen cooking on a 75-minute challenge or something like that,” she says.
“My favourite kind of cooking is a Sunday afternoon set-and-forget sort of thing. Yesterday I did a roasted and braised chicken North African style, rubbed in Ras el Hanout (an aromatic blend of spice) and roasted with tomatoes, green olives and shallots. Once the skin in nicely browned all over, adding in a cup of wine and stock, you pop the lid on and let it braise so that the meat is super tender with this burnish bronze on the outside. For me, that kind of aromatic, textural, easy going, effortless cooking is my favourite style, especially with the kind of work I do every day. I prefer to go in the opposite direction and make it as low stress as possible.”
It is now three years since Melissa was announced as one of the replacement judges on MasterChef, alongside Jock and former series winner Andy Allen.
“I actually said ‘no’ [to the role] quite a few times in the negotiation process. In the end I thought, ‘if not me, then who?’ I can do this. I was never seeking television, but I had done The Chef’s Line. I did find that medium of communication really interesting. Television production crews are some of the most hard-working, talented, wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Melissa says.
“So I said ‘yes’ to the experience, and in the process of being the first permanent female judge and woman of colour in that space, I was surprised by how much it resonated. But then I guess it makes a fair amount of sense. I’m deeply respectful of the way I’m seen and if I am able to contribute something to popular culture by way of representation then I’m very glad to do it.”
What’s transpired is a deep admiration from viewers for Melissa’s extensive food knowledge, poise, and fashion sense. She was also voted fourth in the Australian Financial Review’s most culturally powerful people in Australia in 2020.
“I can’t stress enough how grateful I am for this role and the opportunity to show that women do this work. I hope to see further changes in this industry, and in media and food media as well,” she says.
Behind the camera lens is a comradery between the judges that is charismatic, jovial, at times serious, and something Melissa assures is a chemistry that can’t be faked.
“It’s either there or it’s not, and I pinch myself every day that I have two really fantastic friends by my side, and we have each other’s backs. It’s a tough gig sometimes, you get a little tired, we all have things going on outside this job as well, and we take care of each other. It’s lovely to walk into a nurturing environment every single day,” Melissa says.
Outside the walls of MasterChef however, is a very full plate of work for Melissa that she’s excited to be collaborating on. While still under wraps, she insists it will be fun and consistent to who she is.
“It’s been a really crazy, unpredictable few years. I’m very mindful how COVID-19 impacted so many of my friends, colleagues and loved ones in the hospitality industry so it’s definitely not lost on me that I’m very fortunate to have this role, so I will continue to celebrate food and my peers in doing so,” she says.
And as a knock at Melissa’s trailer door is heard and she says her goodbyes, she adds another thing she’ll continue to keep doing without question:
“Coffee drinking – that’s one thing I never plan to stop.”
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites premieres from Monday, 18 April at 7.30pm on Channel 10.
This article appears in the April 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.