You bet the iconic food writer, editor, critic and host of MasterChef Australia knows a thing or ten about putting on a feast to remember, and in 2020, Melissa Leong plans to do just that, only in a much more intimate setting.
“I plan to have an extremely low key time this year. It will involve very few people… I think I’ve earned it,” she tells The Latch of her Christmas plans following an unconventional and at times, turbulent year for us all.
There’s no denying Leong has had a massive 2020. Following the success of The Chefs’ Line in 2017 and 2018, an SBS-produced cooking show co-hosted by chefs Dan Hong and Mark Olive (where I first fell under her spell), Leong scored the ultimate gig hosting MasterChef: Back to Win (followed by Junior MasterChef), joining Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen as the long-running program’s new judging panel.
Now, as the Nescafé Farmers Origins Ambassador prepares to slow things down with family in the holiday season, she’s reflecting on lessons learned in the year that was, and letting us in on those special Christmas traditions she’s most looking forward to this year.
The Latch: 2020 has been a massive year for us all, and no doubt we’re all looking forward to sitting down to a Christmas lunch with our loved ones. What are you expecting to see on the Christmas table this year?
Melissa Leong: “The past few years have involved being in Melbourne with my goddaughter and her extended family. Because her parents own beloved Melbourne institution Bar Louriñha, entertaining is classically laid back, full of flavour and made for sharing.
“It always starts with the all-important coffee in the morning while trying to make sense of the big day ahead… I’m loving the addition of an espresso maker at home to go with my Nescafé Farmers Origins coffee capsules for pure convenience and quality — each region expresses coffee in a different way, so it’s fun to choose where to travel to via my morning cup.
“Then we begin. It starts with salumi, Champagne and snacks like Gildas and oysters as people arrive, before moving onto pasta, then easy luxury in the form of things like BBQ’d Scarlett prawns and whole fish. And to finish? More Champagne… and a few dance recitals in the living room, courtesy of Dion and Remy, who are six and eight respectively.”
TL: What is the one sentimental dish that’s never missing from your table?
ML: “Would it shock you to know there isn’t really one? Food is contextual — it bears more meaning when it comes naturally to the people you’re with. I’ve been in Sri Lanka in the jungle, Singapore in the sweltering heat and on the farm in Tasmania.
“A menu should reflect what’s seasonal, local and best on hand in order to create a memorable feast… I don’t like to get caught up on what I MUST have, especially if I can’t get it. The only unifying factor being that it should be effortless and tasty.”
TL: Ahead of the big day, what would be your advice to a host that’s hoping to take things to the next level?
ML: “I think this year has taught us to just do you, and if that means outsourcing it to a restaurant, great! Lord knows our hospitality industry needs it. But if you want to do it all yourself, do it because you want to.
“I would say to stay mainly within your comfort zone, with a few wild stabs at new things because the last thing you want it to add stress to what should be a fun day. Do as much ahead of time so you can be present with the people you’re with.”
TL: How important are those extra elements that add to the meal. We’re talking about music, decor, scents, conversation…
ML: “It all adds to the picture, but don’t feel the need to extend beyond your reach, whether that’s financially or otherwise. I learned a lot from Kirsten Jenkins; master food and interiors stylist with whom I worked on a book on entertaining for Delicious.
“She advises keeping things simple and thematic. If you’re on the coast; use what you have — collect driftwood to make centrepieces, use natural and inexpensive materials like jute and twine. In the Aussie bush? Collect some local leaves for bud vases, light a few candles and play your favourite Aussie artists. In short, use where you are in the world as inspiration and you won’t go wrong.”
TL: Now that Melbourne has eased its lockdown measures, how are you hoping to spend the next few months into 2021?
ML: “At work. We start our next season of MasterChef soon and I am so excited to dive back in. Work doesn’t define me, but it is a big part of who I am and to get to do what I do for work is not only a privilege but a joy.
“I might try to run away to Sydney and see my mum and friends though… a few rosés in the sun with the girls by the beach is good for the soul.”
TL: And lastly, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in 2020?
ML: “The big one for me is to be grateful for what you have. Even if they’re small things. The next one is that it was a year of stripping back to what’s important. When it all falls away, what do you really want to have in your life?
“The answer is usually a lot less than we initially think. Lastly, we are all a lot more capable than we think we are. We have been through the wringer and yet we stand, we care, and we support each other. Humans aren’t so bad at times.”