‘It’s just logical to eat the whole thing, every part of the animal, every part of the fish, every part of the vegetable,’ says Melissa Leong. ‘Nothing is wasted. Offal was just part of my family’s diet. But in the first world, to some degree, that is ground breaking.’
Growing up in a Singaporean family, Leong ate everything put in front of her – trotters, pigs’ ears, pork bone soup – so she’s understandably less than sanguine about the snout to tail ‘trend’ doing the rounds, and the accolades Australian chefs are receiving for venturing into this space.
This is just one of the reasons Leong is crushing everything right now – she doesn’t pull her punches. We had the chance to sit down with her recently to talk about the people crushing it in the food industry, racial bias in Australia’s food culture, and her love of unphotogenic food on social media (#uglydelicious).
‘There are lots of people that look up to these to these guys as heroes. Why does it take a white dude heralding it to the media for it to be noticed?’
While she’s keen to emphasise the importance of the conversation, Leong is a little frustrated by the way in snout to tail eating has been co-opted. ‘It’s amazing that it’s happening, but at the same time, it’s always been there.’ she told us. ‘There are lots of people that look up to these to these guys as heroes. Why does it take a white dude heralding it to the media for it to be noticed?’
Being a woman of Asian heritage, working within the Australian food industry, Leong is acutely aware of a range of double standards when it comes to multicultural cuisine. We think nothing of paying $35 for a bowl of pasta at an Italian restaurant, ‘but if you tried to charge the same for a bowl of noodles at an Asian place, people would be outraged – unless it was somewhere incredibly high end and owned by white people.’
‘There’s this schism when it comes to food, and the value we place on it,’ Leong says. ‘Both foods are delicious, and the products are the same cost – why do we feel ok with paying so much for one and not the other? We really do value to the western world differently to everywhere else.’ For a woman who was told to ‘go back to where she came from’, two weeks ago, just feet from where we had coffee together, this inconsistency must feel particularly galling.
Despite such attitudes, however, it can’t be denied that Leong now has a permanent and prominent seat at the table – and she’s using it to raise her voice in the most interesting and important ways. ‘I’m done being silent and I’m done being polite,’ she says.
‘Intersectionality is important, diversity is important. If you think of the stereotype of a typical kitchen, you would be forgiven for saying, well, it’s probably a grumpy white dude as head chef. And then who would you think is washing the dishes in that situation? Is it going to be a white dude? Maybe not. We all have these predilections, we all have stereotypes. I think that the more we are open to our perceptions being challenged, our stereotypes being challenged, the better we will be with things changing.’
Part of that change is speaking up about the importance of eliminating food waste, and respecting the animals we eat. She notes the growing lack of food literacy amongst children in Australia, borne of a sterile food culture where we think pork chops come in a polystyrene container, pink and bloodless: ‘And it kills me that so many kids who grow up in built environments don’t know where it comes from – they can identify livestock in in a cartoon but to connect that with what they're eating? There’s this terrible disconnection. When we disassociate from food, we stop respecting it.’
Respect for food, and where it comes from, seems to be a driving force behind many elements of Leong’s career. Leong’s writing often features people of diverse cultures who have found homes in Australia through their food; her favourite hashtag, #uglydelicious, is about flavour over glitz (‘the most delicious food doesn’t have to look pretty – give me substance over style any day.’)
And, of course, The Chefs’ Line is all about connection – it’s an emotional experience when someone’s work resonates on that deeper level. ‘One contestant cooked a stuffed quail,’ she says. ‘And when I bit into it, the aromas and spices had become this perfume: it was magical transporting experience. It’s that kind of moment that makes me take stock and feel so lucky that I get to do this for a living.’
When discussing her peers in the industry, it’s clear that she also feels pretty lucky to be counted amongst such a creative, talented group. ‘Matt Stone and Jo Barrett are killing it,’ she says, ‘both together and individually. Jo in particular is a living example of someone who is not out to beat her chest and tell people to look at her, but we look at her anyway because she is doing great things.’ Lulu La Delizia’s Joel Valvasori is another contemporary Leong admires as a ‘silent assassin’, as is her husband, bar owner Joe Jones (‘I know I’m biased, but his knowledge and the way he fuses it with natural talent is phenomenal.’). As with the food itself, Leong values substance over style in the people creating it – ‘I have great admiration for people who just quietly go about their work and do it well. They are people with real substance. That carries more weight.’
‘the most delicious food doesn’t have to look pretty – give me substance over style any day.’
In a crowded, vibrant industry, and working as she does across television, writing books and food reviewing, Leong admits that she can get a little burnt out. A self-professed introvert, she is all about learning to say no. ‘When I started, I would go to the opening of an envelope, as it was important for me to build those networks and meet people. Now, I don’t need to go to every event – it causes me great anxiety, so I’ve learned my limits. You don't need to be at everything to matter.’ She’s an advocate of replacing FOMO with JOMO – joy of missing out – and of spending time with the right people when she needs to take things down a notch.
It doesn’t look like Leong will be doing that anytime soon, though. She’s excited about this year’s plans (some of which are secret, so watch this space), but does confide that may be a new TV role, giving her the opportunity to represent a different voice in Australia and broaden the conversation on the things she cares about.
‘We don’t eat food in a vacuum. It’s a part of our culture, like fashion, music and lifestyle. And If you want to be heard, if you want to be part of changing that culture, then you should do your best to contribute in a way that will be constructive.’