MasterChef judge Melissa Leong had her fingers, toes, eyes and everything crossed that they would be able to finish the season of the popular Ten cooking show.
Leong and fellow new judges Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo were barely halfway through filming the Back to Win series as COVID-19 started to really make its presence felt in Australia.
Fortunately adopting strict new conditions, including judges not eating from the same plate, more space between the contestant’s benches and dedicated hand washing stations, separate from any food preparation, meant the show could continue.
Viewers will see the new-look MasterChef episodes from Monday. Leong tells Hibernation strict hygiene had always been top of mind on the food show.
“That bit was easy,” she says. “The hardest things are with the social distancing. MasterChef as you know and love is a deeply emotional show. Moments happen where you want to hug or high five someone. Even just giving a reassuring pat on the back becomes difficult when you can’t be within 1.5m of people.
“It puts the impetus on us to use our words and connect emotionally and intellectually with our wonderful contestants. We bring other elements to the table apart from high fives or hugs. We’ve had to lean on the way we articulate our judgments and the way we feel towards our contestants and the tremendous effort they put in. That’s definitely not lost, in fact that’s amped up even more.”
Leong’s also hoping the MasterChef effect extends beyond introducing us to quenelles and macarons and phrases such as plating up infiltrating our vernacular. She’s confident it will help the hospitality industry which has been smashed by corona restrictions.
“I know MasterChef has the power to impact in a positive way – look at the fact that (chef) Peter Gilmore cooked a pork belly dish and pork belly sales spiked,” she says. “When I put chicken feet in my Mystery Box challenge, delivery searches went up by 5000pc because it does have a huge impact.”
She laughs as she recalls that people have been questioning why she hasn’t been cooking in the Master Classes.
“I absolutely can cook but what I love is I have the ability to bring in talented friends and colleagues showcase what they do,” Leong says.
“They have restaurants that require patrons in order to keep their doors open. In hospitality margins are so slim. I don’t think people who don’t work in hospitality understand that. – so to drive business into restaurants is crucial.”
The food writer explains she wouldn’t be where she was now without this industry.
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now without that love of dining out and that love of picking people’s brains that create these ephemeral works of arts. It’s the best job in the world.
“And I do feel tremendously sad and worried that people I know may not be able to reopen the doors after this because of the tremendous financial impact that has been wrought upon by this unexpected pandemic.”
These uncertain times have caused many to take stock of their lives, and Leong’s been focusing on gratitude.
“I’m grateful for what I have around me – to be able to go to work every day and make a show that makes people happy,” she says.
“I’ve been freelance for nearly 15 years and had I not been in this position this year, my life might have been very different. Those small things make you happy and grateful. Those small quiet moments at the moment are mattering more for everybody.
“And, of course, to be part of a show that gives people a little break from the world and to focus on joy and connections and food – that’s a good thing to be a part of. It makes me feel very fortunate to be involved.”
MASTERCHEF SUNDAY-THURSDAY, 7.30PM, TEN