Melissa King’s experience on season 12 of Top Chef helped forge a path to a successful career—and a season 17 win.

By Hunter Lewis
June 18, 2020
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How do you make an Italian butcher who is proudly and loudly dressed in the colors of his country’s flag weep tears of joy? If you’re chef Melissa King, you make tiramisu—but you make it personal, replacing the bitter espresso with the Hong Kong milk tea memories of your childhood.

To be fair to Dario Cecchini, there were few dry eyes among the Top Chef guest judges by the time we finished King’s final course during the taping of the season 17 finale at a hotel in the foggy mountains above the Tuscan town of Barga. (I’m not crying; you’re crying!) When the TV lights shone brightest, King defeated her two competitors by weaving together the story and flavors of her upbringing, using Italian ingredients and precise techniques, to create a four-course menu that built momentum with each dish and clearly set her apart from the other finalists.

Susan Yee

“I’m getting goosebumps right now thinking about it,” King told me recently. “I channeled the energy of my food and presented my true, authentic self to you all. For Dario to eat it, and for it to trigger that emotion, and for him to understand where I was coming from was so beautiful. It brought everything together.”

Born in Los Angeles to a Cantonese mother and a Shanghainese father, King was raised in the San Gabriel Valley and came up through the Bay Area ranks in kitchens like Campton Place, Luce, and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton with Ron Siegel, whom she credits as the biggest influence on her cooking philosophy and career. After stints as a butcher and private chef, King got a call from Bravo producers and joined the Top Chef season 12 cast in Boston, where she cooked her way to the finals. In spite of being someone who’d led Michelin-starred kitchens and was at top of her class, including at the Culinary Institute of America, she found cooking on camera a big challenge.

“I was painfully shy most of my life,” she said. “I couldn’t give a speech at my sister’s wedding. You see a different side of me [in Top Chef season 17]—someone who has grown up more. I was trying to prove something last time to my parents. This time, I was trying to do it for me.”

I tasted King’s confidence during the filming of episode 11 at the iconic California restaurant Michael’s, where she glazed simply grilled quail with a hot-and-sour sauce cooked down with plums. She’d picked out the fruit from the nearby Santa Monica Farmers Market, and the inspiration for the dish came from lacquered char siu.

“That dish was the most perfect display of where her strengths shine,” said Brooke Williamson, the winner of Top Chef season 14, who sat at the judges’ table at Michael’s. “Her biggest strength is her ability to focus in on specific ingredients or flavors or concepts and have the confidence to follow through without overcomplicating it.”

As fellow California chefs and Top Chef contestants, Williamson and King have formed a friendship that occasionally turns into collaborations at events like Clusterfest, a comedy festival in San Francisco, where the duo got on stage to share how to break down a whole pig.

While Williamson continues to operate brick-and-mortar restaurants around Los Angeles, King has managed to redefine what it means to be a chef right now in one of the most expensive cities in the country, and she’s doing it without the constraints of four walls or a large staff. Her projects include pop-up dinners; brand partnerships like the one she has with San Francisco ice cream maker Humphry Slocombe (newest flavor: Hong Kong milk tea ice cream); a line of handcrafted signature sauces; and—in a proud nod to her role as a trailblazer for LGBTQ chefs­—a collection of Pride-themed hats, sales of which benefit The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention services to LGBTQ youth. (Both of the latter are available on her personal website, chefmelissaking.com, where you can also sign up for her cooking classes.)

It shows that the new economy of events, product lines, and partnerships means chefs no longer have to follow one career track. “My entire life I grew up thinking I wanted to own a restaurant and be a chef and get a Michelin star. It wasn’t until my experience with Top Chef that the world became so much more vast and open. I can do anything I want.” And just like she did in Tuscany during the show’s finale, King is writing her story her way. “I can create my own version of what it is to be a successful chef.”

Hong Kong Milk Tea Tiramisu

Chelsea Kyle

This ultra-rich tiramisu is subtly sweet and well balanced by the lightly bitter tannins in the Hong Kong milk tea powder. Find milk tea powder in Asian grocery stores or online at amazon.com.

Get the recipe: Hong Kong Milk Tea Tiramisu