Melissa King's Journey from LA to "Top Chef" Champion
The LA native talks about her "Top Chef" experience, growing up in LA, and her favorite LA restaurants.
In the third episode of Top Chef: All-Stars LA, guest judge Ludo Lefebvre describes Melissa King's Rococo-inspired dish as “a Michelin star wonton soup” that he would put in his own restaurant. And in the season finale, King's dessert literally moves a special guest to tears. King's world-class culinary skills earned her the title of Top Chef and $250,000 - the largest grand prize in the show's history. On her road to the championship, King racked up more wins than any other competitor in Top Chef history.
Previously a finalist on Top Chef: Boston, King competed against 14 other cheftestants during Season 17, which debuted in March 2020 and took place across Los Angeles for 11 episodes before traveling to Italy for the final three episodes. The all-star lineup includes finalists, front runners, and fan favorites from previous seasons.
Along with Top Chef, King was also named Fan Favorite - in an Instagram post she announced that she would donate 100% of the $10,000 prize money to the Black Visions Collective, Asian Americans For Equality, Asian Youth Center, and The Trevor Project.
After the finale aired, host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio appeared on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. Colicchio said that he would put up King's four-course finale meal as "the best we've ever had on the show. It was really fantastic. She did something that was really interesting. She took her sense of self and her heritage, her background of cooking and just perfectly wove it into where we were — we were in Tuscany — using local ingredients. It just was spectacular."
Melissa King spoke with Discover LA about her Top Chef experience, growing up in Los Angeles, and her favorite LA restaurants.
Born and raised in Los Angeles and currently based in San Francisco, Melissa King has helmed several Michelin-starred kitchens in SF and has cooked for notable figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore.
Describing her cuisine as "modern Californian cooking with Asian flavors," King collaborated with Humphry Slocombe on a line of ice creams sold exclusively at Whole Foods Market. She also created King Sauce - a small batch sauce line that's handcrafted in LA and sold at her online shop.
As a proud Asian American queer woman, King has worked with numerous non-profit organizations and LGBTQI charities. She was honored as a Celebrity Grand Marshal for San Francisco Pride and has modeled for Levi's Strauss Co. in a global campaign advocating for the LGBTQ community.
Growing up in Hacienda Heights had a lasting influence on King's culinary career.
"That's what I love about LA and that's the part that's still with me as a chef, is all that authenticity of these rich flavors and the diversity of culture. It's like no other city, at least from a culinary perspective."
"The parts of East LA that my family and I are from are very Chinese populated - sort of these Chinese suburbs. I remember being exposed to so many different flavors within the Chinese realm of cooking - things I didn't necessarily grow up on. My mother is from Hong Kong and my father is from Shanghai, but there was Chengdu food, and Sichuan, and Beijing food."
"You can find it all in LA," King continued. "That's what I love about LA and that's the part that's still with me as a chef, is all that authenticity of these rich flavors and the diversity of culture. It's like no other city, at least from a culinary perspective."
"I come up to San Francisco and I feel the food here can be a little more "hybrid-ed" (sic) and you lose a little bit of that authenticity. LA is like, if you want the best Korean barbecue, you go to K-town and you'll get it. You want the best Mexican food, you go to East LA. It's very pocketed, but in such a beautiful way."
Like many Angelenos, going out to restaurants is at the top of King's agenda once things open up again. "Every time I fly home I eat locally within [the San Gabriel Valley] … because I miss Chinese food and it's not the same as San Francisco, especially the authenticity of what you can get in Los Angeles."
"I often go to Lunasia for my dim sum. There's another place called King Hua. Those are my two favorite dim sum spots that I go to with my parents and have been going to for years. There's so many memories of going to these dim sum spots on Saturdays with grandma and family members."
Back in May, King posted an Instagram of "the most perfectly crafted chirashi box" from the Michelin-starred Kato in West LA. King said, "Jon Yao is a good friend of mine, but also he's an extremely talented chef. He's creating very forward thinking food - he's really bringing in a lot of his Taiwanese background and creating modern Taiwanese cuisine but with a lot of Californian techniques, French techniques. It's my favorite place to eat in LA. Every time I go I feel like I'm just getting spoiled by him. [laughs] When things go back to normal, I do hope that I have a chance to dine in, sit and relax, and actually enjoy a tasting meal experience and that hospitality." Asked if she would ever open a restaurant in LA, King said, "Absolutely! It's definitely not off the table - I would certainly want to go back home, especially since my family's there, I have so many friends and people that I grew up with. There's certainly a community that is waiting and excited for me to come home and create something there."
"I'm very proud of what has developed in LA currently - where we are and where we're going with food culture. There's so many amazing places to eat at now, and again every neighborhood is different, but you really see this resurgence - even having Michelin come to town, I felt very proud of that as well."
Outdoor activities like going to the beach are also high on the to-do list: "I went to Manhattan Beach right before I came up [to SF] just to hang out and stroll the boardwalk. There was so many people I started getting a little bit of anxiety, but it would be nice to just be able to go and do the things that we love about Los Angeles."
"Driving to each beach is so different - Malibu to Manhattan [Beach], to Marina del Rey, Santa Monica, you just drive down the whole coast and every beach is very different than one another. And the feeling you get when you're in those areas. There's a lot. Which is great."
When she comes home to LA, King goes straight to her parents' house. "I never really stay in hotels out there. But I wanted to do more of that!" [laughs] King said she was close to booking a room at the Proper Hotel in Santa Monica - King notes the on-site restaurant Onda is helmed by "two really powerful female chefs." Though she didn't book a room, King said that the Santa Monica Proper "would be the one place I'd really want to go to just to have a staycay, get away, enjoy the food, and just be by the beach."
"You can really feel very immersed in someone else's culture by just visiting a neighborhood of LA because they are so different from one another. I always tell people, if you're gonna visit LA, drive around. Go everywhere!"
For locals and visitors alike, there's always the opportunity to explore LA's diverse neighborhoods. "I would love to check out more of Venice and Silver Lake, Los Feliz, those areas that have come up over the past few years. … When I go down [to LA] unfortunately I don't spend enough time away from my family to go and venture out into those areas, but I would certainly love to."
King continued, "You can really feel very immersed in someone else's culture by just visiting a neighborhood of LA because they are so different from one another. I always tell people, if you're gonna visit LA, drive around. Go everywhere! Because it's a big city and oftentimes it's easy to just go to Santa Monica and stay in Santa Monica. But what about Highland Park and all these other parts? There's just so much of it that really requires a lot of time to get to know the city and all the pockets and the beauty of it all."
Melissa King shares her memories of Top Chef: All-Stars LA, from the opening seafood cookout at Cabrillo Beach to the emotional finale in Italy.
World-famous Los Angeles locations are featured throughout Top Chef: All-Stars LA, including the Griffith Observatory, Union Station, Getty Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King said, "We really went to a lot of different pockets of LA, from the Eastside to the Westside. Even for my fellow Top Chef family members that aren't from Los Angeles, I felt that they got a very rich understanding of LA after our Top Chef experience."
Episode 1: "It's Like They Never Left!"
The season premiere opens with a Quickfire Challenge at Griffith Observatory. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are split into groups of three and cook a family-style seafood feast at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. The catch is that they can only use the fire pits - no electricity or appliances. The famous guests include Michael Cimarusti, Josiah Citrin, Suzanne Goin, Nancy Silverton, Caroline Styne, Marcus Samuelsson, and guest judge Jeremiah Tower.
King said, "I thought it was so much fun to start off the season and jump into our first challenge cooking on the beach. I remember doing bonfires in high school and going to the beach, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs on sticks, but this was a whole other experience, to be able to go to San Pedro and cook this fancy meal for Padma, Tom and Gail! So it was very memorable. It was very HOT, too, I gotta say."
Episode 2: "The Jonathan Gold Standard"
The second episode is an homage to Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times food critic who died in 2018. With Gold's final 101 Best Restaurants list as their guide, the chefs fan out across the city to visit some of the beloved writer's favorite dining spots and find inspiration for the Elimination Challenge dishes they'll serve at Union Station.
King drives fellow cheftestants Karen Akunowicz and Lisa Fernandes to her hometown of East LA. Their first stop is Chengdu Taste - surprisingly it's King's first visit, even though her parents' office is across the street. She explained, "There's always so many people, crazy line out the door, you wait for two hours to get a seat. But that happened because of Jonathan Gold - he really put this restaurant on the map, which is so fantastic that he was supporting so many immigrant communities and restaurants that most of the mainstream world don't get to hear about."
"The food was fantastic, very spicy, and also these flavors that I didn't necessarily grow up on as far as my home cooking. It was so rich, a lot of that Sichuan chile pepper flavor that numbs your mouth. I highly recommend people go there after quarantine!"
The trio also visits the original Mariscos Jalisco food truck in Boyle Heights and enjoys "angelic" biscuits at Manuela in DTLA.
Episode 3: "Strokes of Genius"
The chefs draw knives to see which one of four historic art movements they will interpret for their Elimination Challenge dish - Melissa gets Rococo. For inspiration, the chefs visit the Getty Center in Brentwood. Touring the Getty is very nostalgic for King - it's where she had her first kitchen job at age 17. "To go back there now was this whole other 'circle of life' type of experience. It went back to my roots and where it all started, so that was very memorable for me."
King's winning dish is Lobster Wonton with Shellfish Consommé, which wows the judges. Tom Colicchio says, "It's just absolutely stunning to look at"; Gail Simmons describes it as "pretty close to perfection"; and perhaps the highest praise from Ludo Lefebvre: "It's a Michelin star dish for sure. I would put it in my restaurant."
Episode 4: "You're So Fresh!"
For this episode's Elimination Challenge, the chefs split into two teams to serve a six-course, progressive vegetarian meal at Birdie G's. They source their ingredients at the famed Santa Monica Farmers Market, where King said she really fell in love with the produce of Los Angeles: "It was really amazing to see the relationship with the farmers down there." King earns her second consecutive win with her Coconut Corn Soup.
Episode 10: "Colossal Coliseum Kaiseki"
This episode's Elimination Challenge takes place at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which will be the first stadium to host the Summer Olympics three times: 1932, 1984, and 2028. Each of the six remaining all-stars prepares a course of the kaiseki meal that's served to a group of Olympic athletes and guest judges Niki Nakayama and Carole Iidi-Nakayama, co-owners of the two Michelin-starred n/naka in West LA.
King said, "I remember thinking, 'How did I not know this was here?' [laughs] I just don't watch sports - I'm not a sports person, not a football person. I had no idea this giant stadium was in the middle of LA, so I was really discovering [Los Angeles] from a new lens through Top Chef."
Episode 14: "Finito!"
Three finalists compete for the title in Italy: Melissa King, Stephanie Cmar and Bryan Voltaggio. On the terrace of their villa, Padma gives them their final Elimination Challenge: "Each of you will be responsible for making the best progressive four-course meal of your life. That’s it. No twists.”
All three chefs bring their A game to the finale, earning glowing praise from the judges and acclaimed guests from around the world. King's dessert - Hong Kong Milk Tea Tiramisu - elicits the strongest response of the meal, from eighth-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini: “Melissa made an interpretation of one of our traditions and she made it from the heart. It makes me very emotional.” He dabs his tears with a napkin and says, “I know, a butcher who cries! How embarrassing!”
King said, "In real life I only heard through the judges that Dario cried and those sort of moments, but I didn't feel it fully until watching it as a viewer the way everyone else was watching. I cried a lot on that episode, there was just a lot of emotions."
King's ice cream line includes a Hong Kong Milk Tea with almond cookies folded into it. "Hong Kong milk tea is so near and dear to my childhood - it's really something my mom drinks every morning, she makes it for herself with condensed milk."
"When it came to the competition and deciding on what I wanted to create, I knew I wanted to somehow put that flavor together. It didn't really come to me fully how I was going to do that until we got to Italy and I started researching a lot about what's a really traditional Italian dessert - of course, tiramisu."
King connected the dots between the San Gabriel Valley and Italy: "[I'm] thinking there's coffee, why not make this with tea, both are caffeinated and this is true to me and my culture. Let's try to keep the technique of this very traditional Italian dish the same but put a little twist to it. That's kind of how it all came to life in my head."
Tom Colicchio was asked on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen who created the most original dishes this season: "Melissa without a doubt. The last three challenges, boy, she was on fire," he said. "I just remember certain dishes going, 'This is just spectacular.'"
King said, "For me it felt very validating as a chef to be so seen and heard by my fellow chefs that were tasting the food. I felt they really understood me and understood the journey that I went on throughout my life, and they understood that through my food, through the dishes that I presented that day. I felt very proud of myself."
The recipes for Melissa King's winning four-course meal are available at the Top Chef website.
Top Chef: All-Stars LA is currently streaming at Bravo TV.