Rarely has a Top Chef competitor looked like such a lock to make the finale from the very beginning as Melissa King did this season. She debuted at number two in my weekly power rankings and never fell out of the top five, all while seeming insanely chill and utterly unflappable. She strolled through this competition like she was at a Sunday Farmers’ Market. In the final episode, she made a dessert so good it brought an Italian butcher to literal tears.
You could make a case that hers was the greatest Top Chef performance of all time. All the more impressive considering that this was an all-star season, in which all of her competitors were chefs who had been runners up or high finishers in their own seasons.
I nicknamed King “Valedictorian” for the air of effortless achievement she has about her. As it turns out, she was something of a prodigy — assisting in her mother’s kitchen from the age of five or six and handling whole dinners alone by 11 or 12. This in a family that had homemade stock on the stove every night and where they ate whole roasted fish multiple times a week. On the show, King managed to assert her unique perspective, growing up as an Asian kid in Southern California, even while cooking Italian food for Italian chefs in Italy — successfully combining Szechuan chilis and XO sauce with Italian ingredients for a brain trust that has long considered “fusion” a dirty word.
King also put the lie to the idea that a reality show needs big drama or divisiveness to be interesting. She was happy, healthy, confident, competent, openly queer, and content to let her food speak for itself most of the time. And it did. She’s so seemingly put together and well-adjusted that you wonder if she’s found life’s cheat code.
In an industry that’s notoriously tough on its culinary professionals, with grueling schedules, late nights, low pay, substance abuse temptations, and needle-thin profit margins, Melissa King has managed to be a name brand chef without the responsibility of running a restaurant. Instead, she owns a company focused on culinary events and experiences. Which is to say, she sets her schedule, rather than being at the mercy of the market.
Do I wish I could go to a Chef Melissa King restaurant right now? Absolutely, but if you were her, would you rather have a varied calendar of special events or a 60-hour weekly grind of making many of the same things over and over again? No contest. Of course, both business models are in jeopardy these days — as the industry rethinks what being a chef means and how they go about it. But maybe that discussion was overdue.
I spoke to Melissa by phone this week. Just like the experience of watching her on the show, it felt like a vacation from my worries. There aren’t many people with that kind of contagious chill.
How did you celebrate?
I watched the East Coast feed at my mom’s house, and my mom made a huge Chinese feast to celebrate, and we had just some small family members come over. It was like a handful of us, but we did that, and then at 10:00, I did a Zoom party with all my personal friends. A lot of tears and stuff.
Is that a bummer not being able to invite a bunch of people over and celebrate with friends?
I mean, a little bit, for sure. I know the first time I did Top Chef, we were in the real world, so I could have parties and cook a lot of food, and that was sort of the way I would celebrate each episode, but this time it’s been very small, intimate, just a lot of Zoom parties. But yeah, it’s really a different experience. I remember last night on the 10:00 showing with my friends, I said … because I started crying at the end, and then they are all congratulating me. So the first thing I said was, “I wish you guys were all here so I could hug you and we could do this in real life.” But we’re all looking forward to that in the future.
What did your mom make for your big winner’s feast?
So you know the Chengdu episode, where we drove around East L.A. And I went to Chengdu, and there’s that Szechuan fish dish that we ate. My mom basically made that. It’s a whole fish with Szechuan chilies, a lot of chili oil on top, and then she made the Shanghainese… they’re these pork meatballs, they’re called lion’s head meatballs, that’s what it translates to in Chinese. We had Cantonese-style braised abalone with bok choy, which is a very celebratory dish. You usually eat it at weddings or graduations.
Where’d you get the abalone? It’s kind of hard to get abalone these days, isn’t it?
Yeah. I mean, she finds them at all these Chinese places. I don’t know, and, usually, they come imported in dried form, and you have to rehydrate them.
So does winning change your career plans at all?
I mean, it certainly helped my career plan. But I think just even going on the show was something I was really proud of myself for, and I’m excited for the future. I know I have a lot of goals and ambitions and things that I still haven’t achieved that I want to do. So hopefully, winning really helps get me to that place.
And what are some of those (goals)?
Let’s see here, so many things. So I launched a small batch sauce line, that I actually just created. It was inspired by sitting in quarantine all day long, and I was like, “How can I continue to get my food out there to people even though I can’t connect with them?” And so I batched up three or four skews of sauces that I’ve actually made on the show, like a Szechuan chili sauce, an XO sauce, and the fish sauce caramel, and launched that, and literally sold out several hundred units in 25 minutes. So I started thinking, I would love this to be a bigger thing and invest some money into really building a product line. And then cookbook opportunities. I think I’ve always wanted to have a cookbook and be an author and go and have something that’s a little more concrete — something that I could hold of my work. I’m never going to say no to a restaurant. I think it’s more of I’m being cautious of the where and the when, and just trying to be smart about it and make sure that where I build it and when I do it, it’s sustainable and it’s in the financial perspective of things. I know restaurants are having a pretty difficult time, especially right now. And then I started doing a lot of these virtual cooking classes that also kind of came from COVID, like virtual cooking webinars, and I would actually really love to continue doing that. I’ve been enjoying it. It makes me feel connected to people and able to kind of bring something to your home.
I think we see owning a restaurant as the goal of this show in some way, but when I look at it from a chef’s perspective, if you can still be a chef without having to have that stress level every day, that seems maybe a preferable lifestyle in some ways?
Certainly. I think owning a restaurant, there is so much… it is a very high risk and overhead and things you got to consider for your lifestyle. And so, certainly, yeah, I’ve managed to build my career since my first Top Chef, where I’m a chef without a restaurant, and I am able to continue to connect with people with my food. So I’m proud of that. And I actually feel … I mean, I would be happy continuing as is, but of course, I know a lot of people out there would love to try my food somewhere. Part of my goal since I was a child is like, you need to own a restaurant and like have a place for people. And that’s still part of the dream package, but there are so many things.
So what job were you doing before you got on the show?
So I own a company and it’s really focused on culinary experiences and partnerships. I love collaborating. I think that’s my strength and something I just truly enjoy doing, whether it’s collaborating with a dinner party or collaborating on a larger scale with a company and really trying to provide a way to bridge together food and whatever it is that brand represents. But I think I’ve always been so interested in connecting with, like music and food. I love going to food festivals and cooking there because I think artists, we all have a similarity of wanting to create an experience for people, so why not do it together and find a cool way to do that and put that together? So it was all very in-person facing. And then with COVID, it’s sort of, I’ve managed to adapt things to a virtual experience and bring that experience to your home.
Was there anything that you did or that happened on the show that your friends roasted you for?
Let’s see here… I mean, that salad was horrible. That sad salad from the Pali mountain challenge, I like never want to think about again. It’s the most embarrassing salad I’ve ever made in my career or my life. But really, it was just so half-assed and thrown together. So yeah, just time was ticking and all the ingredients were gone. But yeah, that salad … I think if anything, I was roasting myself about the salad more than anybody else.
How guilty do you feel about giving Bryan Voltaggio his third finale loss?
Now you’re making me feel guilty. I mean, I try not to think too much about it. In that moment, I was just like, “You know what? Whoever wins here, I’m just so proud of all of us, because we’ve worked so hard.” And everyone was making perfect food, and it was just kind of so hard for the judges to really like narrow down the finest details of why they didn’t like your dish. So I know Bryan has really worked so hard in his career. And I actually am amazed at how he was able to do this three times because it is something none of us, I don’t think, will ever want to do again. It’s so stressful. So I really commend him and respect him for having such ambition and willpower to do it again and strength.
Were there any specific points, either being there or just watching, where you disagreed strongly with something the judges said or a decision that they made?
No. I guess, keep in mind when you watch, you kind of see like a glimpse of the judges’ table, but in reality, it’s a much longer experience. So they really get through the very fine details of everything, and they see everything, they see every detail of what we did wrong and what we did right. And it’s all information that we, as professional chefs, agree with and we also know we messed up on. So everything they said to me, I always took it more as feedback rather than criticism, and I tried to really apply that to the next challenge.
Do you have a first food memory?
Let’s see here… I mean, I’ve been cooking since I was five or six, or at least like helping in the kitchen. Some early food memories are … it was always like helping my mom wash rice and then steam it. I think that’s every Asian kid’s first job in a kitchen, you’re the rice cooker. And then making Chinese bone broth was something that my mom would do nightly. She would make a big pot of bone broth with chicken bones, goji berries, jujubes, and ginseng. She would boil that for four to six hours. And then we would drink that, usually after dinner.
I would be the one responsible to grab the bones from the freezer and put them in the water and get it all sort of set up for her, so that’s always a very like fond memory. And then congee is another one that is very much ingrained in my emotions. And because every time I was sick, my mother would make congee. And I would say a lot of Asian kids, that’s usually the dish. It’s like the chicken noodle of Chinese culture is like you’re sick, this is what mom’s making you. So there are some early food memories.
Wow, and you guys would drink the broth every night?
Yeah. My mom would make the soup and then we would drink that every night. We’d also have a whole steamed fish on the table, usually a couple of times a week. A whole fish with the head and the tail. That was very normal for me to see. What else? The dumplings… anytime we had a family gathering of some sort, there would always be a table of aunties and cousins, wrapping dumplings.
I have a theory that whenever I eat a new cuisine or food I’m unfamiliar with, I always go dumplings. It seems like dumplings always have the most, I don’t know, knowledge that goes into them.
It’s a good one. I mean, I think it’s got the most love, if I were to pick one adjective because it takes so much work and effort to wrap one singular dumpling. And so, to make a whole table of them, it really takes a lot of love, and you feel that when you eat it.
What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a chef, as a lifestyle?
It was such it was just a hobby, as I mentioned, from like age five or six, and I was putting dinner on the table by 11 or 12 and kind of doing that by myself. I mean, I wanted to be a chef since I could remember, honestly. It wasn’t until maybe high school where I started recognizing that this could actually be a career. I tried to push to go to culinary school right after high school, but my family and my parents were basically discouraging me and saying you need to get a quote-unquote real degree and go to college and get your undergrad degree. I think secretly they were hoping that going to college would switch my direction of life, because there was some resistance on being a chef professionally. And there were a lot of talks of like, “Why don’t we just keep this as a hobby?”
But I think once I stepped foot in my first kitchen, which was at the Getty Museum, that was my first job when I was 17. I was like, “You know what? I want to just pick up a job in a real kitchen, just to see what it feels like, to see if this is something I really want to do with my life.”
And of course, family resisted, but I did it anyways and fell in love with it, with the environment and the camaraderie that you find in a kitchen. You get to play with food all day long. So yeah, I was like 17, thinking, “This is the best job in the world! Why are people telling me not to do this?”
In retrospect, are you happy that you didn’t go to culinary school right out of high school? Or do you wish you had?
In retrospect, I’m very grateful that I listened to my family and then I went to a traditional college. I think there’s so much value to that and life experience that I gained from going to college. So I did my undergrad at UC Irvine. I did two years at UC Santa Barbara, transferred to UC Irvine, and finished my degree in cognitive science. But of course, I didn’t pursue cognitive science and literally never use it in my normal life, but I am very grateful that I made that decision, and then I went to CIA.
I don’t know, you do seem very mentally, even keel and stable…
So you guys have to live with each other on this show. Was there anybody who had strange personal habits that stand out in your mind?
Let’s see here. Well, Malarkey, he wakes up… say we have a 5:00 AM call time or something. He’ll wake up at 3:00 AM. And I’m like, “what are you doing? Get as much sleep as you can.” But the guy is just like the Energizer bunny. He doesn’t stop, and he has so much energy. So he would wake up two hours before everybody else, jump on a treadmill for an hour. And then he would jump on the elliptical for another hour. And I’m like, “This guy’s a beast.” So that was funny to see. Who else? I mean, I stayed in the room. My roommate was Gregory as you guys know. And we roomed together in the Boston seasons and we just got along so well. And our personalities are very similar in the way that we like kind of like a zen, quiet space. And we like to wake up and stretch and do yoga in the mornings. And so I’d wake up in the morning, and he’d be on the floor, like a little frog, laying there doing frog poses and yoga poses, so that was kind of his routine.
Do you still live in San Francisco? What keeps you there?
Oh, so many things. The people, I think is one thing. There’s such a sense of community there and the people are so … I don’t know. People are just very unpretentious. And Northern California is a beautiful place, and I always joke that the produce keeps me there because it kind of does. I’m obsessed with beautiful produce and having access to the local farmers. And it’s just different than… I live in Los Angeles too, parts of the time, and it’s just different. I don’t know. Like it sounds beautiful and fresh.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. Read more of his cooking commentary in UPROXX’s Cooking Battles and Viral Cooking. For past Top Chef Power Rankings, go here.