As we are well into the third season of ‘Junior Masterchef Australia’, new judges Melissa Leong, Andy Allen, and Jock Zonfrillo talk about sustainability among the next generation of chefs and their ongoing friendships

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A striking difference between mainstream Masterchef Australia and Junior Masterchef Australia is not the obvious age discrepancies but the vast difference in energies. In the adult series, there are considerable measures of anxiety and heated competition with doses of politics. While not featuring the stress, Junior Masterchef Australia has cemented itself as equally formidable.

The first two seasons featured a mix of judges: Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, Matt Preston, Anna Gare and Matt Moran. But the third season has consolidated a new iron line-up of chefs and restaurateurs: Melissa Leong, Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo.

In the eight episodes we have watched so far, they have already revamped their familiar on-set aura. They were also the judges on Masterchef Australia: Back to Win — the 12th season of Masterchef Australia — which features appearances from Gordon Ramsey, Matt Stone and Katy Perry.

‘Back to Win’

  • Andy says having Gordon Ramsey on the 12th season of Masterchef Australia put him, Melissa and Jock at ease. “He also set a standard; that was our first day of work and we were getting coached by a guy who’d done it all. It got rid of my nerves in tasting a dish and someone not agreeing.”
  • In terms of mentorship, Andy actually points out that audiences will see the least amount of it in Back to Win, given the contestants had been through the competition already and had already carved their paths in the food industry. Whereas on Junior Masterchef Australia, Andy was able to help shape what the contestants’ cooking means are like.

The trio speak with MetroPlus about the new season of Junior Masterchef Australia, which premièred this year.

Melissa, 38, is no stranger to reality cooking shows; she has been a judge on The Chef’s Line on Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service.

“There are lots of similarities that set me up to take on the huge role at Junior Masterchef: celebrating the cultures of food, family, and stories… and also knowing that presenters come and go but the real star of these shows is food! These are an extension of my foundation,” she says. For her, Masterchef has been a disruption in the best way, offering an experience of mentorship for the future of the culinary world. “The learning, though,” she states, “goes both ways on Junior Masterchef.

The three experts come from very different parts of the food industry. Andy says teaming them together was “quite a gutsy move” on Masterchef’s part.

“The funny thing is we hadn’t met in person until we met in person; there was no chemistry meet — we first met at a press meet for the new judges’ announcement,” says Andy. Many fans of the series will remember the 32-year-old who won the fourth season in 2012.

Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen in ‘Junior MasterChef Australia’
 
| Photo Credit:
Disney+ Hostar

“There’s something to be said for the chemistry,” comments Melissa, who is a notable food writer and a cookbook editor, “We are all very close now having not known each other well before, and we speak every other day! A lot of what you see on screen is a real-life dynamicbecause we have fun being ourselves, support each other in that commitment, and we all know what good food is. There are no forced moments!”

Jock points out, “There are moments we don’t agree on the approach, the level of spice and balance, or the aesthetics. But we all know what good food is, yes. And people know, I’m a clown so I mess around all day long; if I wanted to mess around all day long on set, I would, but filming gets in the way of that. [laughs]. There’s a lot of joviality on set.”

Greener generations

The essence of the Masterchef Australia universe is its focus on sustainability; it is deeply rooted in cultural ethos and has permeated itself from Australian cuisine.

In Jock’s case, this school of thought is also inherently part of Scottish and Italian cuisines, highlighted in his restaurants including the multiple-accolade-receiving 17-year-old Restaurant Orana in Adelaide.

Awards aside, for him, it is all about culture. “Breaking down the preconception of what culture is, and listening are part of Masterchef. All of the contestants — junior or mainstream — are deeply proud of where they are from. We look for authenticity and there’s pride in that.”

Andy, who has five restaurants in Australia including the decade-old Three Blue Ducks, chimes in, elaborating, “One of our restaurants is in the heart of Sydney and has a little veggie patch and a beehive in the back garden. We take all our green waste scraps to a public school’s compost heap. We don’t preach, we do it by actions. That does not stop when we go to a film set, and it’s amazing to see the kids care about that too. If I can get people entering cooking as a profession, that is the ultimate goal.”

Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen in ‘Junior MasterChef Australia’

Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen in ‘Junior MasterChef Australia’
 
| Photo Credit:
Disney+ Hotstar

Melissa, too, is a champion of zero-waste. She recently shared a post to her Instagram about turning roast chicken and vegetable leftovers into a chicken, mushroom, leek and cheddar pie. For her as a judge and a host, it’s about imbibing this into a new class of chefs who’d, sooner than we think, be leading a movement of greener kitchens, greener gardens and more planet-conscious supply chains in between.

“Sustainability should apply to all of us who are fortunate enough to eat regularly and nourish our families,” she states firmly. She came across a statistic, is a fact, that disturbed her: the average family of four in Victoria, Australia, throws away AU$2,500-$3,000 (upwards of ₹1.3 lakh) of edible food annually, adding, “this can be avoided through planning what you’re going to cook, sticking to a shopping list, meal planning, and responsibly minimising food waste and try composting. To be part of a show that encourages that message and to be with young contestants who understand it better than some adults do, is a reminder to listen to the newer generations as well.”

Cooking under lockdown

The global lockdowns have nurtured newer means of home-cooking, and reality cooking shows have been proponents of this movement. Melissa agrees, explaining, “We are all connected by watching these types of food shows. It helps us forget about the woes of the world. Watching Junior Masterchef Australia also inspires because, in some ways, these Juniors cook better than adults which is incredible!”

She also explains the younger chefs’ approaches to failure are more inspirational than we realise; “They’re really serious about giving something a go and they accept that sometimes things don’t work out and we can start again or move forward in a way they didn’t expect.”

Melissa Leong and Andy Allen in ‘Junior MasterChef Australia’

Melissa Leong and Andy Allen in ‘Junior MasterChef Australia’
 
| Photo Credit:
Disney+ Hotstar

“There was a point where everyone was making sourdough bread,” chuckles Jock, 44, “But I never had to do it at home because we did it at our restaurants. So seeing this happen everywhere, I tried to create an easy recipe. This translates to Junior Masterchef Australia; we never want our contestants to fail. With everyone unable to travel, people have been getting homesick, myself included. I had a yearning for Scottish things and Italian dishes, so I’ve been making Scottish bread rolls and Italian handmade pasta, and sharing them online with everyone.”

Would the judges offer a tidbit into the season finale, as things have started to get a little competitive? Andy surmises: “ It’s going to be shocking, fun, intense, life-changing for the winner.” Well, we guess no spoilers here — only fresh and tempting food.

Junior Masterchef Australia is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium, with new episodes every Tuesday.



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