Like most people, Melissa Leong found herself with some free time on her hands during the Covid pandemic, but unlike most this led to making an impromptu season of Junior MasterChef. The show will return for its first season since 2011 when it premieres on Network 10 on Sunday, October 11.
Leong was part of the fresh contingent of new judges to spearhead MasterChef Australia earlier this year that also included chefs Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo. This saw the trio go on to lead MasterChef to a ratings resurgence, cementing it as the number one TV cooking show in Australia.
Mediaweek spoke to Leong about her success on MasterChef, the unexpected season of Junior MasterChef and what she has learnt from her cooking show packed 2020.
After replacing long-time judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, Leong was glad that the audience was willing to give the new group of judges a chance.
“My first season on MasterChef was an extraordinary adventure and an exercise in saying yes and taking that leap of faith,” Leong told Mediaweek. “We are all so overjoyed that it came together the way that it did, and it encapsulated so much love and resonated with the MasterChef audience.”
“What Jock, Andy and I bring is a dynamic that is entirely our own. I feel so fortunate to be working with such smart, funny, hardworking, supportive human beings. Our relationship developed really quickly, and I think whenever you find yourself in a work situation when the people around you really do care about you it allows you to rise to the occasion.”
When Leong signed up to the new look MasterChef a return of Junior MasterChef wasn’t discussed, but the newfound success of the franchise and the Covid-19 pandemic led to the show coming together this year. Leong said she jumped at the opportunity to be on the show.
“I was utterly thrilled, and I loved the idea from the get-go. Kids bring so much joy and energy to a space. While it has been several years since the last iteration I thought why not, there is always an opportunity to learn from our youth and I think we forget there is so much that we can learn from the generations much, much younger than us.”
Almost 2,000 young cooks aged from 9-14 applied for Junior MasterChef Australia. Leong said that these mini chefs have come into the competition after growing up in a different generation of food.
“The greatest joy with Junior MasterChef is how bright our future is with kids like this wanting to cook from such a young age. These are kids who have grown up with MasterChef for most of their lifetime and this is really a testament to how much our food IQ as a nation has progressed. That fascination with food helps us connect and learn about each other’s cultures because a lot of the time the easiest way to learn about each other’s cultures is through food.”
Leong said that she had high expectations but was still surprised by the quality of cooking that was presented.
“The calibre of cooking and their interpretation of the creative challenges really surprised me in terms of their maturity, their artistic conception, and their execution. I really hope that the audience can appreciate just how special these kids are.”
While judging and providing feedback differs between adults and children, Leong said that ultimately the judges’ style doesn’t change.
“We always make a point of being honest and constructive in our feedback, so that doesn’t change. It is a slightly different crowd from MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, but the sentiment remains and what makes a show like MasterChef so special is the continuing thread of a love for food.”
When asked if these mini chefs will be allowed to compete on MasterChef when they are older, Leong said she wasn’t sure but that it would be a wild ride.
“How crazy would that be if they could go on Junior MasterChef and then MasterChef and potentially win both!”