"The heritage of the show has always been about celebrating our multicultural Australia, albeit different configurations and concentrations over the years," Leong tells Refinery29 Australia.
"We see another crop of home cooks that have their own stories of what it's like to live in Australia," says the food critic. "Bringing parts of their heritage from elsewhere in the world and seeing how it all makes sense to them on the plate is unique and special to each individual home cook."
"With African representation, we haven't had a lot [of it] in the show in the last couple of seasons," reflects Leong, "so that's been a wonderful thing as well".
She also draws attention to 65-year-old contestant Robbie Cooper — a proud Iwaidja man whose ancestry incorporates Asian heritage, including Malaysian, Indonesian and Filipino, along with Torres Strait Islander. He labels his cooking style as 'Aboriginal Asian fusion', and Leong says we'll see Cooper share "the beauty, respect and ancient wisdom of what it is to be from right here".
Leong joined MasterChef as one of three new judges in 2020, alongside Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen. That year, the show made history when five Asian Australian contestants competed in an immunity challenge. They were Jessica Liemantara, Khanh Ong, Poh Ling Yeow, Brendan Pang and Reynold Poernomo. At the time, Yeow highlighted the importance of this Asian representation on Aussie screens.
“THE TIME IS NOW. Growing up as a migrant kid I had so few role models,” Yeow wrote, alongside an image of the contestants in this challenge.
“I dreamt of being blonde and blue-eyed, fantasised about having long legs and was ashamed of the shape of my nose and my face. But today we get to be this for anyone who’s ever felt on the outer."
Both before and after this particular episode, we've seen cast members' cultures shine through the mouthwatering dishes they cook. Whether it's curries, dumplings, soups or traditional desserts, the delectable dishes on MasterChef can so easily take viewers like me back to our home kitchens, where rich ingredients and treasured recipes have been passed down through generations.
We're reminded of our roots and the beautiful and pivotal role that food plays in us learning who we are, and sharing our culture with others.
While last year's season of MasterChef: Fans vs Favourites starred a mix of returning contestants and fresh-faced cast members, this year's season will follow the journeys of 18 amateur home cooks. They are Adi Nevgi, Alice Han, Amy Tanner, Andrea Puglisi, Antonio Cruz Vaamonde, Brent Draper, Cath Collins, Declan Cleary, Grace Jupp, Jessica Perri, Larissa Sewell, Malissa Fedele, Phil Conway, Ralph Kahango, Rhiannon Anderson, Robbie Cooper, Rue Mupedzi and Theo Loizou.
MasterChef Australia: Secrets & Surprises will premiere on Sunday, May 7 at 7:30pm on Channel 10, following a special edition of The Sunday Project which will pay tribute to Jock Zonfrillo from 6:30pm.