Chef Melissa King on the “Top Chef” finale and her new culinary adventures
The first part of Bravo’s Top Chef finale airs tonight, and the final 3 contestants are all so wonderful that this season has basically turned into an impossible choice. I chatted with Chef Melissa King today about her Top Chef experience and life as a chef. I also taught her about snapbacks, so it was a good time all around.
AfterEllen: Hey, Melissa, how’s it going?
Melissa King: What’s up, Jenna? It’s good to officially meet you.
AE: I know, same! First of all, congratulations on your Top Chef run so far. It’s been very exciting to watch.
MK: Thank you.
AE: I want to go back to the beginning a little bit. Why did you decide to audition? Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
MK: Sure. You know, I applied a few years ago. Some friends of mine were just like, “You gotta go, you’re talented enough.” But I was kind of shy at the time, and my head was in restaurants, and I was like, “I don’t want to be on TV, this isn’t for me.” But I think as the years went on… Now I’m looking to open a restaurant, and just kind of go bigger, and do things that challenge me more. This year, Bravo approached me on a phone call and were like, “Hey, we want you to give this a shot again.” So it just kind of fit. It all kind of fell together, in terms of the timing of where I was in my career, and where I want to be next. So, I was like, “Sure, why not?” I went through a bunch of interviews [laughs] and, next thing you know, I had my knives and was on my way to Boston.
AE: Awesome. I know reality shows can be pretty heavily edited, so I was wondering how did actually competing on the show compare to what we got to see on TV?
MK: I think what you see on TV is a very accurate representation of my personality and who I am. None of that, at all, was fake. But, I think, when you see things edited in a creative way, it does seem a little more dramatic than what might have really happened. But overall, it is me, and it’s very true to my character. And the situations like the time clock starts at 30 minutes and that’s really 30 minutes for cook time. So all that, the intensity, that you see on TV is very real.
AE: Was there anything, specifically, that you wish had made it on air that got cut? Or anything you saw on the show that you wanted them to cut?
MK: No, no, I’m pretty happy with the way things came out. Initially, going on the show, it was something I was worried about. How are they going to portray me, and how will things be edited? But, overall, I’m very happy with the show and the quality of what I put out. I think they’ve done a great job.
AE: So, I read that you are Court of Master Sommelier Certified, which sounds super impressive by the way.
MK: [Laughs] Thank you.
AE: Did you ever get to pair wine with your food on the show?
MK: No. On the show, we were just mainly focused on the food. There was no wine situation, other than Restaurant Wars. We had some wine involved there, but I was on the back end. So I let Adam handle the front, with the wine. There was no pairing. I think we were too busy cooking to worry about the wine.
AE: Did it ever drive you crazy to see somebody drinking, like, a chardonnay that you thought would pair horribly with your food? Or were you just so in the zone that you didn’t notice?
MK: I didn’t even notice, to be honest. And, hey, if that’s what they want, that’s what they want!
AE: Right on. So, the family episode was a big fan favorite. Your mom is so cute and she was hilarious, and supportive, and she really seemed to take to the cameras like a pro, so I think what you should do is pitch a Bravo spinoff show for our readers today. Are you into that? I really think it could be a hit!
MK: [Laughs] You know, I think my mom would definitely be into it. She was so nervous initially, with all the cameras, and then afterwards she was like, “When are we gonna do it again? That was fun!” She absolutely loved it, and I think that would be a really cool pitch.
AE: [Laughs] So she’s ready to go, whenever.
MK: Oh yeah, she’s ready. She’s on board.
AE: The first part of the finale airs tonight, and I just want to say, this is probably the only time in my whole history of watching Top Chef that I can remember genuinely liking all of the finalists, which is so crazy. And you guys are kind of killing me, because I like you all so much. (I mean that in the best way.) I’m wondering if there’s anything you can tell me about the finale?
MK: I think you’re going to just have to watch and see for that one. You know, we’re in Mexico. The three of us are really good friends, in real life, and I think that’s the challenging part of it all. It’s like after a while you stop competing against each other. At least for me, I felt like it was more a competition against myself, and how far I could push and challenge myself, so it wasn’t really even about the two friends that I’m competing against anymore. I think that was the difficult thing, that we’re all such good friends at the end of the day. So we’ll see what happens.
AE: Yeah, I know that you and Mei recently cooked together for an event in San Francisco, right?
MK: Yeah, I’m working on this collaborative pop-up up in San Francisco and I’m hoping to feature guest chefs every month or so. And so Mei Lin was sort of my first go-to guest chef. I was like, “If I’m going to have anybody come, I’m going to have Mei, because, you know, she’s my girl.”
AE: So, hypothetically speaking, if you and Mei were to open a restaurant together, which I think you should, what would it be called and what kind of food would you serve?
MK: Oh, she’s always talking about, like, Canto-pride, and girl power—M&M (Melissa & Mei). So maybe something along the lines of: M&M’s Porridge Shack. [Laughs] Both of us grew up in very traditional Chinese, Cantonese, families. And we grew up eating a lot of porridge and noodles, so it would be something along the lines of a porridge noodle shack.
AE: So, you’re working as a private chef right now, correct?
AE: Do you prefer that over working in a restaurant? Or is it just totally different?
MK: You know, it’s totally different. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 18, and within the past year and a half I switched to private chefing. It really allowed me the freedom to do Top Chef and pursue other opportunities within the culinary world. For instance, I teach culinary and wine classes at a tech company. I think being a private chef really allowed me the opportunity to open up more doors. When I was in a restaurant, that was my life—which was great, you know, I miss it all the time. I miss working on the line, but it’s a different type of intensity. Like now, I basically do everything on my own, from sourcing the products at the farmer’s market, to creating the menu, to executing the menu, to the cleanup, I do everything. So it’s a different line of cooking, but I do enjoy both. I’d like to eventually go back to the restaurant world when I find the right fit for me.
AE: Speaking of working in restaurants, I’ve heard and read a lot about women facing sexism in kitchens. Have you experienced that at all in your career?
MK: You know, not too much. I think maybe when I was younger, back in like the 2000s, you saw fewer females working in the kitchen. At least, for me, when I was interning, I was one of the few females running the kitchen. But as I got older, I started noticing the trend becoming much more normal to have that and it’s great. I worked at Delfina and it was an all-female line. There were about seven of us girls just cooking in the kitchen, and everyone was amazing. I really feel that nowadays, male or female, as long as you have hard work and dedication, you can be successful.
AE: Additionally, has being out and queer affected your career in any way?
MK: Not at all. I think the culinary industry tends to be much more on the creative end. People have tattoos, and people have colored hair, and they’re much more open and free about who they are. Especially compared to the corporate world, where I could see it maybe being a little more difficult to come out in that sort of setting. But, no, I mean the culinary world has been very good to me, and I’ve been very open about my sexuality to everybody that I’ve worked with. It’s been great—very supportive.
AE: Great. So, as a chef- when you’re just hanging out at home, do you still make really, like, intricate food for yourself? Or do you sometimes just say, “I’m going to have a bowl of cereal for dinner” or something like that?
MK: I’m one of those chefs that still likes to come home to a nice cooked meal. It’s hard for me to not cook the way that I do. So my girlfriend is like, “Geez, we can never just eat a normal dinner.” It always has to be elevated or executed perfectly, so I do kind of uphold those standards. But I mean, we’ll eat sandwiches for dinner or we’ll have pizza night, but I usually go to the local bakery and pick up some pizza dough that’s made with like natural starters. I believe more in higher quality ingredients when I eat at home, but it’ll be simple! At least, to me, I guess it’s simple. [laughs]
AE: [Laughs] It’s, like, four courses… but super simple!
MK: [Laughs] Exactly, I always make enough food to feed, like, a whole Italian family.
AE: Well, as an Italian, I appreciate that.
MK: Nice, I love you guys.
AE: Thank you. So, What is next for you coming up after Top Chef? I think you said before that you might want to open a restaurant in the future? Is anything on the horizon that our readers should know about?
MK: I think currently I’m just working on a lot of collaborative dinners, so I’ve been flying around to different cities. I just got back from Detroit. I was cooking with James, Mei, and Adam, I just got back yesterday. There are a lot of future events with other Top Chef contestants that will be coming up in our respective cities. And, also, my own pop-up that I’m doing in San Francisco. It’s something that I hope can really just introduce people to my food and, in turn, I would really love to open a restaurant. I have a lot of business plan ideas that are kind of on the back burner that I would like to start launching. I think this year is just all about traveling, and cooking for people, and bringing my food to others.
AE: Great- well, if you come back to Boston, you know that I will be there.
MK: Definitely! Exactly! We’ll do a pop-up in Boston, I think that’d be really fun.
AE: Cool. OK, so to finish off this interview I have some rapid fire questions. Are you ready?
MK: [Laughs] Sure.
AE: Okay, favorite color?
MK: Blue. (Author’s note: Melissa redacted this answer post interview via tweet)
AE: Do you prefer breakfast or dinner food?
MK: Breakfast. All the way, breakfast. I love breakfast food.
AE: Good call. Which Top Chef challenge was the most difficult?
MK: I think the team challenges. A lot of the team challenges just, you know, having a bunch of chefs in one kitchen- everybody kind of has their own opinion on what’s right and what’s wrong, and then you end up kind of clashing. [laughs]
AE: You can only cook one dish for the rest of your life—what is it?
MK: Like, to eat? Or just to cook?
AE: Oh, um, I didn’t really think that through. I’ll let you choose.
MK: If it’s one food to eat for the rest of my life- I love burgers. I am sold on a burger every time I go to a bar or a restaurant. Something to cook for the rest of my life? I love cooking fish. I love butchering it, I love cooking it. Everything about seafood and fish—I’m totally into.
AE: Do you prefer wine or beer?
MK: Beer, all the way. I’m a beer girl.
AE: Which fancy kitchen gadget could you not live without?
MK: Vitamix blender.
AE: How do you feel about snapbacks?
MK: About what?
AE: The hats, like snapback hats.
MK: [Laughs] I don’t even know what that is.
AE: They’re like, you know, I wish I had a picture to show you. Like, you know the really lesbian hats?
MK: Oh, like the flat-billed kind of hats?
AE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
MK: Ooooh, um, I’m not into them. It kind of reminds me of Oakland.
AE: Hmm, OK. You might lose some lesbian fans there, but that’s fine.
MK: [Laughs] They’re gonna hate me!
AE: [Laughs] It’s OK. Do you have a favorite musical artist?
MK: Not really an all time favorite, but I have a few artists that I love like: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Future Islands, Lykke Li, Phantogram- I’m just totally into indie bands.
AE: Good answer. OK, I know you have a girlfriend, but, hypothetically, would you date someone with a food restriction, like a vegetarian or someone who is gluten-free, or would that be too hard for you?
MK: I’ve done it before. It’s a little challenging, but I’d be open to it.
AE: Last but not least, is Padma as wonderful and glorious in person as she is on TV?
MK: Padma is incredible. She’s really just a genuine, very friendly, down to earth woman. Gorgeous in real life, like, more than what you see on TV.
AE: That’s amazing.
MK: Yeah, I’m so impressed with how much she can eat, too. Like, girl can throw down. She’s really cool.
AE: Well, that’s all I’ve got for you! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I seriously wish you the best of luck in the finale. So much luck.
MK: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this interview, and thank you for writing such amazing articles about us. We look forward to them every Thursday.
AE: Oh man, the pressure’s on. Now I’m nervous! Thanks again!
Catch Chef Melissa, and the rest of the Top Chef crew, tonight on Bravo at 9/8c.