MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

MasterChef judge Melissa reveals her top cookbooks

Melissa Leong says her collection of cookbooks "are front and centre in our house and life".

"Our shelves are groaning with the amount of cookbooks, it's scary," she laughs.

"We have an open plan kitchen and living space so it's really easy to go between the cookbook shelf and kitchen if we're referencing something."

Having ghost written a number of cookbooks, including chef Dan Hong's Mr Hong, the MasterChef judge says there is a wealth of knowledge contained within the different styles of cookbooks in the home she shares with husband, chef-turned-barman Joe Jones.

Melissa Leong, MasterChef Australia's first female judge
Melissa Leong, MasterChef Australia's first female judge

"I'm not cooking from the Quay cookbook, you know what I mean! We have different sections of cookbooks. (There are) those to be admired - some really gorgeous books out there like Quay by Peter Gilmore that are more about the story and the magic about what can be created through a love and obsession with food - then there are the other books that we'd reference for a starting point for a recipe. Being married to a chef it means it's more an information point than copying verbatim," she says.

MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Andy Allen. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

Leong says using cookbooks is a great way to gain confidence in the kitchen and "once you've got a good foundation of knowledge, you can make recipes your own".

"You can Frankenstein a different mix of recipes (to create a dish). You don't have to follow every recipe to the letter."

Here are her 10 favourite cookbooks she goes back to time and again.

Mr Hong by Dan Hong

This was the first book I was asked to co-write. As a ghost writer, many words I have written have been for someone else. Everything from the artwork on the front, book structure, integration of artist Sonia Rentsch and Hugh Ford, even the shoelace bookmark - it was an honour to play a really hands-on role in the making of what is still to me, one of the best cookbooks published.

Dan Hong is the chef behind must-visit locations such as Mr Wong in Sydney.
Dan Hong is the chef behind must-visit locations such as Mr Wong in Sydney.

At Elizabeth David's Table by Elizabeth David

There really is something to be said about the classics. British cookbook author Elizabeth David led the most adventurous life but is widely credited with bringing to the fore the importance of home cooking. Her foundation in the basics of European cooking has influenced everyone from Julia Child to Alice Waters, who have gone on to perpetuate the beauty of simple and soulful cookery.

Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan

Uncle Tony! I love this man so much. When I moved to Melbourne, he was the first Asian friend to bring me to places like Box Hill and say, "This is where your people eat and shop." I had felt very disconnected from the community since relocating and his generosity and kindness really opened up a whole other aspect to my life in this amazing city. His book, like all his recipes, is so gently and lovingly written, and most of all, goddamn tasty.

Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan.
Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan.

Community by Hetty McKinnon

When I had a PR consultancy in Sydney in Surry Hills, I was thrilled to hear of a story of a lady who would make delicious vegetarian salads and lunch wonders, and deliver them personally by bicycle. And that's how I met this incredible human. She continues to write, shoot and connect with such vibrancy and joy and this book is a regular go-to for simple, nutritious, textural and delicious dishes.

Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi

I was introduced to Yotam by Christine Manfield at the launch of her book, Dessert Divas. Chris has long been a mentor and supportive friend, and I flew up to attend the release. She said, "Have you met Yotam?" and then shoved me in his direction. It was the first time I have ever been speechless. His gentle nature, overwhelming intelligence and effortless way with food is something everyone should admire, and his recipes are full of sunshine, history and heart. This book is a fantastic round up of deliciously achievable recipes, and is a regular go-to at home.

Igni by Aaron Turner

To me, this book was a game changer. Not only in format but also in Aaron's unabashed honesty about what it took for him to open his restaurant, Igni. Aaron is one of the most clever, thoughtful chefs in Australia and his brutal honesty and the way he communicates narrative is unlike anyone else. You may not cook from it, but in many ways, that's not the point. A powerful read.

Igni is a book for food lovers.
Igni is a book for food lovers.

Mission Street Food by Anthony Myint, Karen Leibowitz

It's sad, but books and restaurants like Mission made me feel like Asians could be cool in the Western world of food. The looseness and honesty in the narrative was at the time for me unlike anything else I'd read, and that style went on to influence the way Dan and I wrote Mr Hong. The stories that provide the framework for the recipes add extra context, and I love the step-by-step masterclasses on how to break down cuts, the comic strip breakout, and the general free-form nature of it all.

Monday Morning Cooking Club by Lisa Goldberg, Merelyn Frank Chalmers, Natanya Eskin and Jacqui Israel

The women of the Monday Morning Cooking Club are some of the most open-hearted, generous and tenacious women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Lisa and Merelyn in particular have over the years become friends and people I can trust to interview when it comes to communicating the importance of roots, community and the keeping and telling of stories. This is the book that started it all, and the recipes are sound, soulful and straightforward. From one of the best chicken soup recipes I've ever used, to honey cake and the juiciest brisket, this book proves that the most crucial ingredient is love.

The recipes from Monday Morning Cooking Club are full of love.
The recipes from Monday Morning Cooking Club are full of love.

The Great Australian Cookbook

I couldn't not put this one in. I coedited this book with my food writing mentor Helen Greenwood, and produced the shoots around Australia, featuring beloved cooks, chefs and producers. It's based on the very simple premise: what do you cook for those you love? It is a heartfelt book that showed me not just Australia, but just how very crucial and unifying food is for every human, regardless of life experience or culture.

Plenty by Gay Bilson

Some people may not know the name Gay Bilson, but if you want to take a deep dive into the history of Australia's food evolution, her name and her contribution is crucial. I found my copy in a second-hand bookstore and it felt like I had found gold. Gay's cerebral and cuttingly witty words filled in a time in food before I was around, but because of her account, I feel like maybe I could have been.

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Originally published as MasterChef judge Melissa reveals her top cookbooks


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