A lot has changed for writer and broadcaster Melissa Leong since we first featured her on The Design Files almost a year ago. Back then, she’d only recently moved to Melbourne from Sydney, and was working as a host on The Chef’s Line on SBS, as well as freelance writing and consulting for a wide variety of different publications. Fast forward to only a couple of weeks ago, where Mel burst onto TV screens across the country, as Masterchef Australia’s eagerly anticipated new host and judge – and the first woman in this role. And it all went down right in the thick of COVID-19 panic.
There are few people in Australia more connected to the restaurant and hospitality industry than Mel, and this time of massive excitement for Mel has been tinged with a bit of heartbreak, as she has watched so many of her friends’ and colleagues’ careers and businesses left decimated in the wake of COVID-19. But Mel is not one to keep quiet about the things she cares about. Her energy is infectious, and right now she is doing everything in her power to draw attention to and support the hospitality industry through this challenging time.
This has been such a massive time for you personally, with the lead up to this new season of Masterchef compounded with COVID-19 hitting – how are you feeling about it all?
It was such a bizarre thing to watch the world go into lockdown while we were trying to stay focused on this very big next chapter, but I think being a freelancer for over a decade has set me up to deal with the unexpected. You just don’t know what’s going to happen around the corner all the time, so you end up becoming very grateful for the good things, more accepting of when things don’t go according to plan, and being a bit more flexible about life in general.
So, as much as there have been some very unexpected and quite significant things going on in 2020, being well practised at rolling with the punches has definitely helped.
It is weirdly kind of a perfect time for Masterchef to be beamed into the homes of Australians, when they are looking for cooking inspiration, and entertainment, and a sense of ‘normality’. Has isolation made people more engaged, in a way?
For everything to just shut down in the hospitality world means that people don’t have the benefit of just being able to go and meet their friends at a restaurant and have a big night out or enjoy a wonderful meal.
So yes, we now all need to cook more, do more with less, and not waste food. That was already a growing theme in the food space and in the world in general, learning to be a bit more responsible with food, how to get the most out of it, how to compost edible waste and how to be better as humans.
So this situation, as undesirable as it is, and as sad as it’s been, the good thing to come out of it is being grateful for what we have, and learning to be more responsible and resourceful just as humans in general, but especially when it comes to cooking.
What has struck you the most about the way that the restaurant and hospitality industry has dealt with this?
The one thing we know about our hospitality industry is that it is made up of the most resilient, hardworking, wholehearted people. And so what happens in a crisis is that we band together. We do our best to support each other.
I feel for so many people in the industry, because they’re used to working huge hours and being very focused on their business, and all of a sudden that has had to stop, but what it’s also shown us is everyone’s remarkable ability to think laterally and be creative to keep their businesses alive. Whether that’s through creating groups to lobby the government, to be able to help staff survive financially, or even turning to create at-home experiences for people to be able to eat food from their favourite restaurants. It’s about that celebration of hard work and resilience, and a real sense of community.
So what are your work days looking like at the moment, are you still filming Masterchef?
Yes, we’re still filming. We’re very grateful to have the opportunity to film this season until the very end. It would have sucked if we had to stop halfway through but at the same time, if that’s what we needed to do to keep our friends and family and communities safe and be responsible, then that’s what we would do. But as it stands today, we’re still filming.
Obviously this has meant a lot of changes on set, so social distancing and hygiene are huge. Being a food television show, hygiene is at the top of everyone’s consideration all the time anyway, but there have been even more extensive practices put into place to ensure that everyone is safe and healthy when we film the show.
You’ll see on the show a change in the visuals at the point where COVID-19 hits, because we can no longer high five and hug each other, and stand next to each other as closely as we would normally. And that’s an extra challenge for us to connect with people through our words. There’s definitely more of an emotionally charged state, because physical proximity has played such a huge part in what we do, but we’ve had to be able to change that in order to continue.
We film 3-4 days a week, and normally have a day or so in between to rest in order to be fully present and have that conveyed onto camera. Regardless of what you do for work, rest needs to be a huge part of the equation.
What have you been doing to rest, find comfort and stay sane?
Exercise is really important to me, and it’s a huge part of my rest and recuperation. Over the years of travelling a lot I’ve collected a bunch of workouts that I can do in small spaces, so I continue to work out at home. And sleep is massive – I’ve battled with insomnia from time to time through the years, so I take sleep whenever I can get it. My call time is usually around 5.45am and so I’m in bed as early as I can be.
What about Joe [Melissa’s husband Joe Jones is the co-owner of ROMEO LANE cocktail bar in Melbourne’s CBD] – how has he been dealing with it all?
One of the surprising things to come out of this is cocktail delivery at Romeo Lane, which has become a huge thing! A lot of people have really loved what they do, so Joe makes cocktails to order. They’re vacuum sealed and delivered to people’s home with instructions and a little paper doily and a candle to recreate the whole Romeo Lane beautiful intimate feeling. I think is really gorgeous and very considered.
I’m not going to lie, I’m very grateful to be in iso with a chef who is also a bartender – it doesn’t suck.
What have you guys been making?
What we’ve been doing once or twice a week is making double of what we’re eating and dropping it off to someone. Yesterday it was a huge eggplant lasagne, so we had that for dinner and also dropped it off to a friend of ours who is not doing so well at the moment. Last weekend I made a huge dish of Hainanese chicken rice for a friend who has just lost their Dad. Cooking isn’t just for us, but it’s also a way of being able to be connected to our friends still by feeding them.
I’m very lucky to be working on a show like Masterchef with a low waste policy. Not a lot of people know about the sustainability aspect of Masterchef Australia, it’s a huge part of what we do every day. We have closed-loop composting and we work with Second Bite, so there is no waste. Nothing gets thrown away that could have another life. So some of the produce is also distributed to cast and crew as well, we donate money to charity and then we can kind of go shopping at work every so often.
I didn’t know that about Masterchef, it’s great to hear that sustainability is such a priority behind-the-scenes.
We have a full-time sustainability officer who works on the show, so a lot of the waste that can’t be rescued for hygiene reasons ends up going into the closed-loop organic system.
What happens is that it gets ground down and cooked into compost, and that goes back into the gardens at Masterchef because that’s a huge part of the show, the fact that we grow fruits and vegetables and herbs that the contestants can use. Everything has a place and even just things like packaging, the choices that are made are highly considered and very much mindful about minimising waste.
My only note on my rider is no single-use plastic – I don’t care what’s for lunch, as long as there is no single-use plastic. We are all very committed to making sure you do the responsible thing. It’s about setting an example.
What are you hopeful will emerge from this time?
I hope that we all are a lot more grateful for who ends up being able to service us and take care of us in a hospitality capacity later on.
I predict that we will emerge from this hopefully better connected as a community, that we will be a bit more grateful for the small things that are good in life.
We live in a very fast-paced world that has literally forced us to slow down and examine who we are, and how we live our lives. So I feel like this time of reflection will allow us to be a little more considerate and grateful for all the good things, and hopefully learn to take care of each other and especially the more vulnerable part of communities that really need us.
This is a time to show each other the best of ourselves, and not to be paranoid about our fellow humans.
Catch Mel on Masterchef Australia Sunday – Thursday at 7.30pm on Network 10, and catch up on all the episodes on 10Play.