If you’re any kind of food lover, chances are you’ve crossed paths with the exceptionally talented and dynamic Melissa Leong. Even prior to charging MasterChef into its groundbreaking new era, becoming the popular reality series first female and first Asian Australian judge, there wasn’t a piece of the food industry Leong hadn’t yet put her mark on. Her extensive career — which includes completing an Economics degree, working as a professional makeup artist and a stint in the advertising world — spans just about every corner of the food industry, from food and travel writing to broadcasting, cookbook editing and of course, television. In Her Black Book’s latest Up Close series, Leong shares insights into her newfound fame (including the good and bad), how food continues to open her mind, and a peek at some of her favourite fashion and beauty picks.
In everything Leong does, it’s clear she has a natural passion for food and the universally bonding experience it provides, something she proudly credits to her rich cultural background.
“I always like to say that my first and possibly most vital qualification for being in food is my Singaporean heritage,” Leong shares. “My family and my culture value food highly; sharing, cooking, eating — it’s how we communicate our love for each other and who we are.”
Leong’s time within the food industry has opened her up to a flurry of unique experiences, including travelling the world exploring different culinary cultures — be it, “getting lost in the back streets of Ho Chi Minh looking for the perfect banh mi” or “living on an abattoir and a sheep dairy in rural Tasmania for two years in order to better understand agriculture first hand.” As she says, those experiences have provided both “great food experiences” and “important life lessons.”
“Every travel experience is valuable and lends a different perspective to life, culture and food. Food is often the easiest way to learn something about a culture that is unfamiliar, and it helps to keep an open mind in all things.”
Despite Leong’s years spent perfecting her craft and expertise in the world of food television, co-hosting The Chefs’ Line alongside Dan Hong and Mark Olive, regularly appearing on Justine Schofield's Everday Gourmet and Matt Sinclair’s The Cook’s Pantry, her role on the Channel 10 series MasterChef — a series watched on average by 1.2 million viewers — opened up her personal life to the public domain tenfold.
“I promise you it’s not that interesting,” Leong jokes of her personal life. “Certainly not interesting enough to have strange men in cars with long camera lenses following me while I do my groceries.”
While the television personality could have shied away from her newfound fame, her fierce personality and strength wouldn’t allow that — instead, unknowingly becoming a passionate advocate for being unapologetically yourself.
“I choose sometimes to share what I feel is common to the general human experience – if something I am going through helps someone else or makes them feel less alone, then I’m all for it,” she says. “The rest, I try to keep to myself, which isn’t always easy when media make incorrect assumptions or copy and paste factual errors which perpetuate a false truth.”
Opening up to the world as candidly as Leong has, of course, comes with its own set of challenges, including relentless scrutiny over her every move. But Leong notes that the ultimate reward has been the evident sparking of hope for those that had otherwise never felt seen or heard.
It’s made all the easier, Leong adds, by being paired with fellow MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen, who each allow one another to be unequivocally who they are.
“I can only be me. There was no pressure to be anyone else, or to be compared to what has come before. Jock, Andy and I are lucky in that way. We’re all unapologetically ourselves and we back each other to do that, every single day.”
With a career as demanding as Leong’s, learning to take care of herself has been a key and integral part of her success. Especially considering her past experiences with burnout, something the television personality has been incredibly candid on.
“Rest, boundaries and self-care are crucial, as is surrounding yourself with the right people: I regularly see a doctor for Eastern medicine, an integrative GP, a therapist and a pilates trainer. And the friends that have stayed with me through thick and thin as just as important.”
“Awkafina, Tracee-Ellis Ross and Samin Nosrat. Three super smart, successful people who have built their careers and lives on being themselves as well as being completely awesome at what they do. I’m always interested to know how women of colour find their voice in the world right now and how they feel about a litany of things surrounding that theme.” “Bassike, Oroton, KitX, Sir, Maticevski.”
“Work hard, don’t be a dick. – myself.”
$500 has been donated to Children’s Ground through the making of this article.
Image Credits: @fooderati, Channel 10