Queer 'Top Chef' Winner Melissa King on Representation in the Culinary World

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 3, 2020

Calling all the single ladies. "Top Chef: All-Stars LA" winner Melissa King is ready to ride through the Italian countryside on a Vespa with her future girlfriend. King recently won top honors on Bravo's hit TV show, which reunited 15 of the series' most competitive chefs for a thrilling and decadent culinary showdown throughout LA, followed by a mouth-watering trip to Italy.

EDGE chatted with King via phone about how coming out helped strengthen her culinary viewpoint, role models who empowered her to cook and live her most authentic life, and overcoming fear in the kitchen.

EDGE: Congratulations on taking top honors on "Top Chef All-Stars LA." I imagine it was a difficult secret to keep since you wrapped filming.

Melissa King: Yes, it was very hard to keep a secret for seven months!

EDGE: Your culinary inspiration leaps from your Chinese American family. What were the different influences from your parent's culinary heritage, being both Cantonese and Shanghainese.

MK: My mom did all the cooking at home. She was a working woman and had a day job and at home had to turn into a mom and switch gears. That was my time to hang out with her in the kitchen as she prepared dinner. I remember learning a lot about Cantonese homestyle dishes: steamed whole fish with scallion and ginger with sweet soy sauce, Chinese bone broth made with chicken bones, goji berries and ginseng — pretty homey things.

Because I grew up in a dominantly Chinese population suburb of Los Angeles, I did have a lot of access to different types of Chinese cuisine from Shanghainese to Cantonese to Taiwanese. I grew up with a strong understanding of the different dishes that come from these areas.

Both of my grandmothers were big influences. I learned a lot about Shanghainese cuisine from my father's side. My aunt and grandmother were amazing home cooks. We'd have almost like a tamale filled with sticky rice and pork and wrapped with a lotus leaf. Then I'd have Cantonese dim sum with my other grandmother.

EDGE: What I love is that your food is unapologetic in its amalgamation of different influences. You said at one point on the show that 'fusion food gets a bad wrap.' Why do you think that is?

MK: I watched Padma Lakshmi's new show, "Taste the Nation" on Hulu, and there's a whole episode about chop suey. Do Asian people even know what that is? I don't even know what that is, it's not a traditional Asian dish, but one created to please the American palate. But now, from a food perspective, we're evolving so quickly to learn and understand new flavors and specific regional dishes of other countries. We're in an amazing time right now.

EDGE: You didn't initially set out to become a chef, earning a B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of California, Irvine. First of all, I have no idea what that is, but secondly, has that education impacted your approach in the kitchen?

MK: Cognitive science is essentially a little bit of neuroscience, biology, psychology all put together.
It's helped my people skills and just going to college built my social skills. I'm grateful that I went to college. When I was younger, I resisted that. I wanted to go to culinary school right out of high school. My parents are rather traditional and said you need a degree and then you can do whatever you want.

EDGE: You've described the importance of representation as a triple minority on "Top Chef." How has becoming more empowered and in touch with your own identity impacted your cooking?

MK: It impacted it so much, especially from the first time I was on the show. I wasn't close to my father during most of my adolescent life or at that point in my career. At that point, I had only come out to parents, sister and friends — not extended family. It wasn't until the debut of the show that I was unapologetically me and let it all out there. Coming off of the show made me realize how much strength I had in myself. I found so much confidence, not just in my cooking but for me as a person.

Been six years since I was on "Top Chef: Boston," and I feel like a completely different person. After the first time, I received messages from kids that were saying, 'I'm Asian American, I'm gay, I'm scared to come out, but I just did it because I saw you.' I was receiving so many of these messages and felt like there was something bigger. Yes, I'm a chef. But I'm a chef with a platform, and I should use that voice that I'm given for my community. That was a big reason why I decided to go back a second time. I wanted to represent all the things I happen to represent: being an Asian queer woman in a kitchen — so many people can relate to my story.

EDGE: You're donating 100% of the Fan Favorite prize money to the following charities: Black Visions Collective, Asian Americans for Equality, Asian Youth Center and The Trevor Project. So many people are advocating for change, but I'd love to know who some of the positive influences have been in your career thus far, chefs who welcomed you into the kitchen as an equal and nurtured your growth. Who can we look to as examples of how to lead a modern kitchen?

MK: I feel fortunate because a lot of the kitchens I trained, and chefs that I worked for were very welcoming. In my earlier years at the Getty Museum, a lot of that kitchen was run by queer women. I was 17, and I wasn't out. This was my first kitchen job, and I remember feeling amazed to see someone like them that felt very similar to me. I looked up to the women in that kitchen. They encouraged me to go to culinary school.

I also trained under Dominqiue Crenn, who is a very powerful, queer woman. She gave me my first job on a hot kitchen line. She hired me as a cold cook, I was making salads, but she gave me a chance. I asked her, "Hey chef, is there any way I could just try to work the hot line?" And she said, "Sure, let's do it. Let's give you a chance." I was so grateful, I felt at that moment, maybe she saw herself in me. I was there for two-and-a-half years. She really empowered me to grow.

After that, I also trained with Ron Siegel. The entire kitchen that we worked with were all minorities and mainly women, and we were all amazing at what we did. I highly respected that kitchen.

EDGE: Besides being savvy in the kitchen, you're also quite entrepreneurial with a pretty robust website. What's in the works for the coming months?

MK: COVID shifted a lot of restaurant world. I'm a chef without a restaurant. I'm an independent chef and very proud that I've been able to create a world outside of a restaurant. But my work is still very dependent on events. I remember panicking, but I learned to evolve as quickly as I could. I brought everything more to my website and drove into a virtual experience.

A lot of what you see on the website is newly created. I've learned to love it and found inspiration, and hope to continue to create more product lines. I created small-batch sauces that I decided to create one day while bored in quarantine. People are cooking at home and wondering, 'how can I make my food better?' There was such high demand; I want to invest my winnings into that project and take it to a larger scale and bring it to retail. It's hard to keep up!

EDGE: So many people love to cook but lack the essential skills of how to use knives, basic cooking techniques, and the balance of salt, sweet, heat and sour. What's the number one lesson to be a better home cook?

MK: You've got to get yourself in there and be very hands-on. Don't be afraid to test a recipe you've never tried before. If it messes up, it messes up. Cooking is about making mistakes. None of us who you saw on "Top Chef" is who we are today unless we made a lot of mistakes on that journey. A recipe can be a guideline. Don't take it so seriously. You don't have to have every ingredient. A lot of it is intuition and understanding your palate.

EDGE? What are a few of your favorite pantry items that do some of the heavy lifting for a home cook?

MK: If you see an ingredient you're not familiar with, buy it. You have to be curious to be a better chef.

EDGE: So... single or taken?
MK: I'm single. I made that comment about finding a hot girl for the back of the Vespa on "Top Chef"! The offer is still on the table.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.