Tasting food all day might sound like a dream job, but be careful what you wish for. “There was a day recently when we ate about 18 pastas and six desserts,” recalls MasterChef judge and food writer Melissa Leong. It’s a unique spin on a tough day at the office. But, behind the scenes, it turns out that Melissa, 39, has a smart approach to staying healthy and not gaining kilos in the course of doing her job well. “I make it a priority to move my body,” she says. “That’s what I need to do to feel good in my skin.” Indeed, anyone watching outtakes of the hit reality show would see Melissa over in the corner bending and stretching whenever the opportunity arises.
“I aim to keep my body healthy in order to have a nice life and live well.” Part of that healthy outlook is borne from having done ballet since the age of four. Though Melissa is now an enthusiastic devotee of Pilates. “My body looks different than it did when I started – I’m longer, leaner and it’s yielded results a lot faster than I thought,” she says.
Even during the dark days of COVID’s lengthy Melbourne lockdown, her commitment to daily Pilates practice did not wane. “My dear friend Cat Webb, who runs Good Times Pilates, loaned out her reformers [exercise machines] to friends, so I had one for about six or eight weeks and I used it every day,” she says. “I loved it and I do often think long and hard about investing in one for home.”
And while food is front and centre in Melissa’s life as a food critic, author and presenter, her approach to eating is joyful. “If I end up putting on a couple of kilos during the season, that’s life. I’d rather eat the cake, eat the pasta, enjoy it and do my job than fret over whether I should’ve eaten that last dumpling or whatever. It’s just balance.” When she’s not consuming multiple dishes in the fancy TV kitchen, Melissa is busy eating up all that life has to o er or, as she puts it on her website Fooderati, “[My] life philosophy is the same as that in food – be voracious.” It’s this delicious spirit of enthusiasm, curiosity and passion to taste all of life’s opportunities that bubble to the surface as she speaks. “Saying yes to MasterChef was probably the scariest thing I’ve done,” she confides. “But I feel like a big part of my life has just been saying yes to opportunities.” Indeed, she’s packed a lifetime’s worth of adventures in her two-decade career, from starting out as a professional hair and make-up artist, before moving into advertising and copywriting, which then ultimately led to her gig as a freelance food and travel writer, broadcaster and editor. “One thing that my very piecemeal career has taught me is that you have infinite capacity to continue to evolve,” Melissa says. “I think that’s a wonderful thing to remember. Growing up, my parents (who migrated to Australia from Singapore) always instilled a sense that good things require work, whether that’s patience or effort. I’m grateful for that, because if things come easily to you, then they become cheap in a way. You don’t feel the value of them as much.” The downside to this philosophy, she admits, is she’s a pretty hard task master. “Yeah, absolutely! I believe in hard work. There’s no buts about it.”
FEELING THE HEAT
This principle was put to the test a few years ago, when Melissa pushed herself to the very limits. While producing The Great Australian Cookbook, a combination of intense work and travel (she spent six months on the road with a production crew) meant she put on a few kilos. “I thought, ‘Let’s get real fit,’ and I discovered the joys of HIIT [high-intensity interval training]. With that all-or nothing mentality of mine, I pushed myself and, sure, I lost the weight and I looked really good, but I woke up one morning and it felt like someone had taken the batteries out of my pack and I was very slowly powering down. “I tried supplements, drinking herbal teas, I went to expensive health retreats and I did colonics. I did all of the things I thought I was supposed to do to fi x myself and nothing worked.” Finally, an integrative medicine specialist diagnosed Melissa with pyrrole disorder, which is associated with an inability to absorb zinc and vitamin B6.
“The big warning from her was: you can never be the same way you were before; you’ve broken yourself. She told me: ‘You need to be very protective of your energy and don’t push yourself to a point of no return,’ because that cliche we see on memes is true: If you don’t stop, then your body will decide for you. I’m living proof of that.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t live a full life and it doesn’t mean you can’t kick arse in your chosen career. You just have to be protective of yourself.” The diagnosis became a defining moment for Melissa, who says her approach to life has changed for the good. “If I look back on it, I think there’s a lot to be said for that gut instinct that we often ignore,” she says. “I’m sure there was a small voice that said to me, ‘Look, go a little easier. Take a break! Be good to yourself.’ But I thought, ‘No, no, no, no! I need to keep going!’ I probably knew on some level that I shouldn’t, but you feel unbreakable. You really do test yourself. I’m a bit more in tune with my body these days and I can feel when I’m starting to be a bit zapped.”
THE QUIET LIFE
Now, Melissa is putting her wellbeing first and hopes sharing her experience will help others avoid burnout. “When you start to feel irritable about things and sounds are louder and lights are brighter, these are warning signs that your body is trying to tell you to withdraw and maybe run a bath or read a book or whatever you do for selfcare,” she says. “I notice those things a bit sooner than perhaps I have in the past and that’s my signal to say no to that social engagement and instead stay in this weekend because that’s what I need to be whole. I’m much more upfront with my friends now and say, ‘I’d love to be at your party, but that’s not what’s best for me right now,’ so I politely decline, send a bunch of flowers instead and stay in.” Home life has become even more key to Melissa. Having split from husband Joe Jones last year, after four years of marriage, her housemates are now her adorable cats, Ghost and Ghoul. “Creating a base that’s a haven is really important to me,” she says. “I like a place that’s quiet and is beautiful to look at, and where I have my favourite books around me. I’ve created a space for myself that I love to come home to. “I like living in a house more than an apartment, for that feeling of being connected to the ground. I’d choose living in the country any day to being in a 50-floor high-rise somewhere. I lived in Tasmania for a few years and it gave me a sense of peace to be in nature and to appreciate quietness and darkness sometimes.”
Indeed, Melissa spent two years living on a sheep dairy and abattoir, learning how to make cheese and pack meat. As she explained last year when her MasterChef role was announced: “We have a growing disconnection with where our food comes from. It’s all well and good to know that in the abstract, but I wanted to get my hands dirty.”
Regular viewers of MasterChef will be familiar with Melissa’s incredible outfits and statement earrings. “I love fashion and all the shoes and clothes I get to wear,” she beams. Melissa’s distinctive personal style garners plenty of attention off-camera, too, with almost 200,000 Instagram followers to her name. Although, she admits that being in the public eye still feels strange and she’s adjusting to the attention – take, for example, her decision to turn off comments on her Instagram. “I don’t find it comfortable receiving a large influx of people’s feelings and thoughts,” she explains. “It’s a lot for an introvert!” she says.
Nonetheless, her style, her street savviness and her sheer passion for all aspects of her multifaceted life come shining through in the beautiful posts she shares. It all comes back to that word ‘nourishment’, in all things, not just about food. Melissa explains a moment that has stayed with her, hearing an inspirational speaker being asked how she approaches each day with positivity. The speaker replied: “Because it’s a choice.” And that’s an apt summation of Melissa’s happily voracious attitude to life as well – a mindset that’s now at the top of her menu.