Video Extras

'Expect Joy': Melissa Leong Admits She Was Blown Away By Junior MasterChef Talent

Returning to the MasterChef kitchen, our judges Jock, Andy, and Melissa were expecting big things from some very small chefs.

Just a few weeks after wrapping up MasterChef: Back To Win, the three judges were back in the kitchen with a whole new crew of chefs - this time competing for the title of Junior MasterChef Australia.

Fourteen young chefs between the ages of 10 to 14 will compete in challenges familiar to any MasterChef fan.

"Any junior that wants to apply for a show like this, of course they know how to cook, of course they have a sense of confidence over the skills they possess in the kitchen," Melissa told 10 play.

"We had high expectations but, at the same time, some of the dishes that the juniors busted out just blew me away. They were so sophisticated, so well-conceived, so finely balanced that they would never have been amiss in a regular season of MasterChef.

"In many ways, I was shocked and so pleasantly surprised and it's yet again a reminder to expect joy. Expect great things when you least expect them."

Like many of the contestants this season, Melissa said she has felt like she's always been in love with food from a young age.

"Because I'm Singaporean, it's a tiny island so you learn how to eat and you learn how to enjoy the sport of eating from a very, very young age. Even though I grew up in Australia, my parents are obsessed with food - understandably - and passed that onto me.

"Mum is such a great cook so the kitchen was always a place where we were welcome and so that exposure to not just eating but also how our food was made was always part of the conversation, even very young."

After judging Back To Win with returning contestants, Melissa said she along with fellow judges Jock and Andy had to adjust the way they would communicate about food, but when it came to handing down judgments - there wasn't much they needed to change.

"The way that Jock, Andy and I always judged is to be positive and highlight the high points of dishes," Melissa said, "and to be able to provide feedback on elements that could be done better so that people could always go away and work on things, rather than feel dejected about any elements that didn't quite work out.

"But kids are resilient. I think we forget to give kids credit for being resilient and being great listeners. i don't think we had to change too much of what we had to do."

For some of the contestants this year, MasterChef has been on-air for almost as long as they've been alive. They've quite literally grown up with MasterChef.

"That's scary," Melissa said, laughing.

"Food programming really exploded in the last decade or so, and there's just so much information to absorb and so many new places to learn skills... I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that they could produce what they could produce."

One resource that has become hugely popular with younger chefs has been the rise of food content on social media, with YouTube, Instagram and even TikTok providing easily accessible food tips, recipes and inspiration for younger generations.

"You can see such sophistication, you can see the influence of great chefs and trends from restaurants in some of the food that they've produced. It really goes to show how accessible good food is these days."

While many younger chefs are heading online for inspiration, Melissa said there's still a heavy dose of family-inspired recipes throughout.

"Regardless of whether or not this is a Junior season or a regular season, it's always a privilidge to experience people's family heirloom recipes."

Though the trio had a blast during their debut season as judges, Melissa admitted that Junior MasterChef brought out the inner-child in the three of them.

"I shouldn't say we had more fun, because we always have fun, but it's a different kind of fun when you have kids on set," Melissa said.

"When you're outnumbered by children you're forced to find extra joy in things, which is pretty great."

Junior MasterChef Australia premieres 7.30 Sunday, October 11 on 10 and 10 play