masterchef diversity

‘MasterChef’ Might Be Our Most Diverse Show, But Australia Desperately Needs To Catch Up

While diverse casting and representation is important, diversity can only go so far if Australia isn't willing to change its white-washed mindset along with it. Words by Michelle Rennex

By Michelle Rennex, 21/7/2020

Last month, acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge implied that that Australia isn’t racist because MasterChef has an Asian judge and Asian contestants.

While chatting to Sky News about China’s claim that Australia is unsafe for international students , Tudge looked to pop culture to refute the claim:

“When you look at pop culture, some of the most successful and popular people have got a more diverse background,” he said. “Such as on Masterchef at the moment, which is the most popular TV show, where one of the judges is Chinese, has an ethnic Chinese background, and many of the contestants, who are hugely popular.”

Beyond the obvious issue of Melissa Leong — the new judge on MasterChef, who Alan Tudge was referring to — being born in Australia to Singaporean parents, Melissa shared that the country still has a long way to go.

“While I am proud to play a small part in the changing face of diversity and inclusivity in Australian media, let me be clear in saying that we are so very far from where we need to be,’’ Leong told news.com.au.

And it’s true, while there has been a beautiful display of diversity on MasterChef: Back To Win this yearthe show itself and Australia’s reaction to the diverse cast are not without fault.

masterchef diversity

Melissa Leong with the Asian-Australian contestants from MasterChef: Back To Win / Credit: Network 10

The Impact Of Having A Judge Who Isn’t A Straight, White Male

Last night we watched, Emelia Jackson win the MasterChef grand final.

Present in the room for the final challenge, along with Emelia and runner-up Laura Sharrad, were the returning top 24 all-stars. Amongst them stood Amina Elshafei, Brendan Pang, Jess Liemantara, Khanh Ong, Poh Ling Yeow, Reynold Poernomo and Sarah Tiong, a total of seven Asian-Australian contestants who undoubtably shaped the season.

Throughout Back To Win, viewers have praised MasterChef for its authentic representation, achieved through its diverse casting and challenges — something that new judge Melissa Leong set the tone for with the first Mystery Box of the season.

Talking to JunkeeMelissa explained that her Mystery Box choices — chicken feet, taro, Chinese five-spice, coriander, Manuka honey, spring onions, cherries, galangal, black vinegar and King George whiting — were all ingredients that helped to tell her story.

Beyond emphasising the importance of nose-to-tail cooking — which is often seen in Asian cultures — each ingredient held special meaning to the new judge. From the chicken feet that reminded her of “Sundays at yum cha with [her] family growing up” to the spring onions that feature heavily in Singaporean cooking, each ingredient Melissa chose had purpose.

And for the Asian-Australian contestants on the show and for those watching at home, these ingredients were one of the first tastes of real representation and diversity on mainstream TV. For those who grew up bringing “weird” foods to school for lunch and for those who were ashamed by their culture because it was not seen as normal, Melissa Leong’s Mystery Box set the tone for what authentic representation looks like on television in 2020.

Masterchef diversity chicken feet

Melissa Leong and Ben Milbourne during Melissa’s Mystery Box challenge / Credit: Network 10

During the challenge itself, Mauritian-Chinese Australian Brendan Pang shared how much Melissa’s presence on the show and ingredient choices meant to him, as the pair bonded over their shared experience of learning to make dumplings with family from a young age.

“It’s really nice to have that connection with Melissa,” Brendan said. “She understands that for me it was such a special time in my life.”

For Melissa, who had never considered television as a career option growing up, this reaction both on the show and from people watching at home wasn’t expected.

“I was overwhelmed by its reception, and it means so much to share such simple and yet significant things with so many,” she told Junkee. “Food is a huge part of how we connect as humans, and it was an honour to connect with so many through my choices and effectively, by just being myself.”

“Food is a huge part of how we connect as humans, and it was an honour to connect with so many through my choices and effectively, by just being myself.”

But it’s these simple elements that Australian TV has long lacked. In this same episode, instances of casual racism demonstrated exactly why this continued representation is still so important in 2020.

As Leong unveiled her Asian-inspired Mystery Box ingredients, fellow judges Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo — both white men — jokingly called the chosen ingredients “evil” and their “worst nightmare”.

These throw away statements, which are often not given a second thought, stick with people. When I was a child, I brought my favourite snack of green mango and bagoong (a Filipino fermented shrimp paste) to school one day. As I excitedly opened my lunch box, kids snickered “ew, what’s that smell?!” and shouted “that’s gross”. I only ever brought white bread sandwiches to school again.

When the episode aired, people shared similar experiences online and remembered how ten years ago, the original MasterChef judges — George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan — turned their noses up at Poh Ling Yeow’s century egg congee dish.

Even MasterChef Has A Long Way To Go

While the food industry has definitely progressed over the years, reservations about authentic Asian food have been a running theme throughout this season of MasterChef. 

During the sushi train challenge, for example, Amina made jumeokbap — Korean rice balls — and noted that she was grateful that Melissa was on the judging panel, because she knew that Jock and Andy just wouldn’t understand the dish. When it came to tasting, Amina was right: Jock described the food as “last night’s greasy fried rice” as Melissa did her best to defend the dish.

This was also seen during the Lotto Mystery Box, when Poh opted to make a lemon sponge cake instead of using durian, an ingredient she loves to cook with. Knowing that Jock and Andy’s palates likely wouldn’t agree with the divisive fruit, Poh decided to laugh it off and say: “Without being racist, I just don’t think Jock and Andy will get it.”

The narrow-minded view of what constitutes as fine dining comes down to the painfully Eurocentric lens that food awards such as the Michelin Star and World’s 50 Best work through.

When Khanh decided to cook an elevated version of gà kho gung — a traditionally “peasant” Vietnamese dish of chicken in a fish sauce caramel — during the fine dining challenge, Jock had reservations and claimed that Asian food doesn’t lend itself to fine dining. Adding to the Eurocentric discourse, guest chef Charlie Carrington explained that Khanh was lucky because “there’s a lot of French influence” in Vietnamese cuisine, which, of course, happened at the hands of colonisation.

But as Season 2 winner Adam Liaw perfectly explained when the episode aired, this narrow-minded view of what constitutes as fine dining comes down to the painfully Eurocentric lens that food awards such as the Michelin Star and World’s 50 Best work through.

Then there was the no-recipe Pressure Test, where MasterChef producers enlisted Chin Chin chef Benjamin Cooper to test the skills of Sarah Tiong, Brendan, Reece and Poh. While introducing Cooper, Melissa described the white chef as a “Thai food master” who “revolutionised Thai dining in Melbourne”, which is a huge call to make of a man who isn’t of Thai descent.

Beyond implying that Cooper was essentially the face of Thai food, using Chin Chin in a challenge was a missed opportunity to champion an authentic Thai chef — a common problem in the food industry where gentrified cuisines overshadow people of colour who make authentic and affordable dishes of their own cultures.

Masterchef diversity fine dining

The elevated peasant dish that Khanh Ong was eliminated with during the fine dining challenge / Credit: Network 10

The Power Of Real And Raw Representation

But this isn’t to say that Back To Win has been a failure of diversity. In fact, this season of MasterChef has celebrated more foreign ingredients than ever, championed some real diverse leaders in the food industry (like Helly Raichura through the Pasta Not Pasta Pressure Test) and has created a platform for important conversations that aren’t happening on other mainstream television programs.

Sure, the under-bench staples — flour, butter, oil, milk, eggs, and vinegar — lean to more Eurocentric dishes, and not having halal meats available at all times for Muslim contestants is an issue, but MasterChef has proved throughout this season that it’s still Australia’s most diverse show.

On what other show can you watch a challenge solely dedicated to “pimping up” two-minute noodles, a staple in every Asian household but something that’s still deemed a sign of poverty in Western society? On what other program can you see a group of highly-successful and talented non-white contestants share their real experiences without censorship?

In the Memories Mystery Box, Khahn and Reynold were given the platform to reflect on the sacrifices that their parents made to give them a better life — a feeling that’s all too relatable for first and second generation immigrants.

Just earlier this week, Reynold broke down in tears as he shared the pressure he feels to make his parents proud while discussing his struggles as an immigrant trying to make it in an already difficult industry. This idea of having to make your parents proud, and really, never quite being good enough, is a feeling that POC watching at home would have undoubtedly related to.

Even Melissa shed many a tear throughout the season as she was moved by stories of familiarity and flavours that transported her back to her own childhood — something that the old judging panel of three white, privileged men could never have connected to.

This collective pride in the authentic representation and diversity during this season culminated when the Memories Mystery Box challenge crowned an all-Asian top five for the next day’s immunity challenge.

After such a moving and emotional cook, the judges agreed that the top four should be increased to five to allow for Brendan, Jess, Khanh, Poh and Reynold to progress to the next round. The image of five talented chefs who were not the token people of colour in a reality show, be rewarded for their talents was moving to see.

Melissa Leong called the image “ground breaking” as she posted it to her 140,000 strong Instagram following.

“I could never conceive of witnessing a moment like this on prime time television in my lifetime,” Melissa captioned the image. “Diversity and representation does not come at the detriment of others, it is for the inclusivity of us all. ⁣⁣To every person who never felt seen, this is for you, may it give you hope. To every person who is yet to feel seen, you are valued and your moment is on its way. We rise together.”

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This image is ground breaking. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Not only did these tremendous humans create the five best dishes yesterday (we judge dishes, not people), but I could never conceive of witnessing a moment like this on prime time television in my lifetime. ⁣Thank you @channel10au. ⁣ ⁣⁣ Diversity and representation does not come at the detriment of others, it is for the inclusivity of us all. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I am proud to be Australian. To be part of a nation whose identity is indigenous and multicultural, we are richer because of ancient and recent.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ To every person who never felt seen, this is for you, may it give you hope. To every person who is yet to feel seen, you are valued and your moment is on its way. We rise together.

A post shared by Melissa Leong | FOODERATI (@fooderati) on

But Australia Just Isn’t Ready For Diversity Yet

For Leong growing up, there weren’t many people who looked like her, which is why this powerful moment and image struck such a cord.

“My TV icons growing up, in terms of people who looked like me, were Lee Lin Chin and Elizabeth Chong, both of whom I still adore, perhaps more so for realising how many rules they broke just by being who they were,” she told Junkee.

This realisation has come, in part, due to the rampant racism that has followed the show. While Melissa says she did not fear how she would be perceived by the public, she was aware that she was different to what people had been used to over the last decade of the show.

“Growing up in my skin in this country, I was aware to some degree that my presence might be perhaps more conspicuous than others, but I proudly join a groundswell of incredible people of colour on Australian television and I am by no means a first,” Melissa continued.

But throughout the season, Leong has been vocal about her experiences with racism since joining the show, and it was the all-Asian challenge win that really kicked the racist commentary online surrounding the show into overdrive.

“Growing up in my skin in this country, I was aware to some degree that my presence might be perhaps more conspicuous than others…”

Suddenly, the amount of diversity on air began to anger people in the ‘MasterChef Australia 2020‘ Facebook group, which has over 51,000 followers. In the group, people started to complain that Melissa was showing favouritism to the Asian contestants and that challenges showcasing more diverse ingredients was simply a way to make the competition harder for the white cooks.

On Twitter, a similar sentiment was shared when the top 24 started to dwindle down and the talented non-white chefs weren’t getting eliminated. Suggestions that the season had become “too Asian” started to do the rounds online when the contestants were asked to revamp instant noodles during a comfort food challenge.

In real life, Sarah Tiong even had to call out the racist encounter she faced during a radio interview, when a host greeted her by saying “Ni hao ma”. Being born in Australia, Sarah didn’t appreciate the assumption that she could speak a certain language based on appearance, and called the encounter “racist, insensitive and tone deaf”. Backing her up, Melissa shared Sarah’s story and added that the incident just “illustrates how deep rooted racial toxicity is in this country”.

The worst reactions have appeared in private messages. Just three weeks ago, Jock publicly dragged a troll who sent him racist slurs about Melissa.

A white male having the confidence to call Melissa Leong a “painful g**k” because of the way she judges the food put in front of her, on a show about judging food, is a painful reminder of how important diversity is and just how much Australia has to learn.

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Where to begin with this… Firstly I can only assume you are referring to @fooderati when you used the term ‘gook’…. She’s actually Melissa, she’s my work wife, my sister, my mate, she drinks espresso like I do, she is able to express and articulate a damn sight better than you can clearly and that is just the beginning Graham. She’s a woman whose origin happens to be different than yours, but why does that make you so afraid? I feel sorry for you that you cannot see past the colour of someone’s skin or actually the fact they are just different than your white ass in any way. Graham, please get educated and be a better human. You owe it to yourself and everyone around you who are most probably too embarrassed by the shit you say to let you know. I’m sick of this type of thing getting sent to me so here’s a heads up… if you send this kind of shit to me it’s getting called out.

A post shared by Jock Zonfrillo (@zonfrillo) on

But this ingrained racism has always been a problem in Australian media. When the revamped Big Brother premiered last month, the first three contestants eliminated by the housemates were three people of colour — Soobong Hwang, a Korean man; Laura Coriakula, a Fijian-Australian woman; and Allan Liang, a Chinese-Australian. After five episodes, the house reverted to an all-white cast after the final POC and fan-favourite, Angela Clancy, was eliminated.

This clear racial bias is ingrained in so many Australians who didn’t see different types of people on these shows growing up. So while diverse casting and representation is important, diversity can only go so far if Australia isn’t willing to change its white-washed mindset along with it.

While diverse casting and representation is important, diversity can only go so far if Australia isn’t willing to change its white-washed mindset along with it.

As Melissa Leong points out, Australian TV is a phenomenon in itself. We don’t create shows that reflect the cultural make up of our population as the US does with content produced in Spanish, or specifically for Black audiences. Instead we sprinkle diversity where we can.

“There is always room to improve, to be more inclusive and to honour Australians from everywhere, our choices, our abilities, everything that makes us, us,” Leong told Junkee. “MasterChef has always proudly represented diversity in its contestant casting, and I am sure long after I am gone, it will continue to do so.”

“As for the rest of Australian media, let us hope we continue to see and hear from more faces and voices, the more we grow as a nation,” Melissa Leong concluded.


Michelle Rennex is a Senior Writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex