The San Francisco-based chef is hoping to advocate for others in the industry and explains how her cat made an impact on her cooking.
This season’s Last Chance Kitchen was a nail biter with California chef Michelle Minori beating all of her challengers and joining the final five chefs in last throes of Top Chef Season 16. On the show, Michelle re-entered the kitchen with newfound confidence in her skills and sailed to the top of the competition with win after win. It seemed like she was going to go all the way until she was sent home on the last week's episode before the finale.
We caught up with the chef once again to find out how it felt to re-enter the competition and what’s next including a dinner with fellow Season 16 alum, David Viana.
FW: How did it feel to re-enter the competition?
MM: Winning Last Chance Kitchen gave me a huge amount of confidence. I was relieved, excited, and proud all at the same time. I felt like a badass for fighting my way back into the competition. I was determined to make it to the finals and show the judges, and the other chefs, what I’m really made of. There’s a shot of me walking into the hotel in Macau where I held my head a little higher and I had an extra pep in my step.
FW: Was it good to see the chefs again? Was there anyone whose elimination surprised you?
MM: You know, I was expecting the chefs to not be excited to see me, but immediately they were so warm and welcoming. Considering that we are all competing against each other, there was still so much comradery amongst all of us. I really value that about everyone on this season. As for elimination surprises, I was shocked to see Adrienne go home for her dish in Macau. If you could’ve tasted it you’d know it wasn’t the dish that deserved to go home.
FW: What was your favorite challenge after you returned?
MM: My favorite challenge after winning Last Chance Kitchen was definitely the mentor challenge. It was so uplifting to see one of my greatest mentors, Kim Alter from Nightbird, in Kentucky with me. Her and her partner, Ron Boyd, have supported me immensely throughout my career. Cooking for all of those chefs was a huge reminder of our culinary pedigree and why we deserve to be on Top Chef. Without these mentors, we may not have ever made it onto this competition.
FW: You said that coming back into the competition "gave you closure" on a lot of things. Can you elaborate?
MM: I learned so many things about myself on this Top Chef journey. It solidified my belief in myself. Proving that I could rise to the top of the competition while still maintaining integrity, letting go of the ego, and being myself, showed me, and hopefully others, that you can do anything if you set your mind to it (and you don’t have to be a jerk to do so!).
It also brought up a lot of personal stuff for me, like my father’s suicide. Cooking the winning dish in Nashville, did not start out as an ode to my father, but when I heard Padma tell me it was a “love letter to my father,” I realized that it had been that all along. Hearing that allowed me to let go of a lot of anger that I was still holding on to, and to find a bit more closure around that tragedy. Letting go of some of that anger and resentment has made me feel more free.
FW: How has your cooking changed over the course of this competition?
MM: Three days into the competition I found out that my 4-year-old cat, Khaleesi, was dying of feline cancer. She was there for me during a really hard time in my life, and I couldn’t be there for her. Having to deal with that while I was away tore me apart. But as soon as I got a call that she was responding to chemotherapy, I began to cook with my heart. I could finally think straight. Knowing she wasn’t suffering brought me a lot of peace. We always cook our best when we are at peace. I found that throughout the competition, when I was free to emotionally invest myself in a challenge, I excelled, and my cooking showed that.
FW: Who are you rooting for in the finale?
MM: I really respect the flavors and stories that Eric brings to the table. He’s so good at incorporating his culture into his food. Plus he’s such a kind and emotionally intelligent human being. I’m rooting for him in the finale and I’m rooting for all of Season 16’s contestants in life. They’re all the best!
FW: What was it like to visit Macau and cook with ingredients there? Did you see or learn things there that you've incorporated into your cooking?
MM: The seafood in Macau was amazing. There were beautiful gleaming fish straight out of the ocean, all kinds of sea snails, giant spiny lobsters, and every part of the animal was there for us to use. I fell in love with many of the homemade condiments I found at the market especially fermented black beans. My favorite is probably the dried shrimp sambal. It’s a condiment of fried chilis, garlic, and dried shrimp. Just a small sprinkle of that, adds so much zest and umami!
FW: Do you still keep in touch with your fellow cheftestants?
MM: All of us from the season have a running text chain where we go to support each other, ask for advice, or make stupid jokes to make each other laugh. In fact, I’m planning to do an East Coast road trip next week to visit several of them in their cities. I’ll also be cooking a collaboration dinner with David Viana on March 24 at his restaurant, Heirloom Kitchen. If you’re in Jersey, come eat with us!
FW: What's next for you?
MM: I’m taking some time away from restaurants for a little bit. I helped opened 4 restaurants for other people before the age of 30. Running a restaurant in San Francisco is a 24/7 kind of job, and I’ve been grinding for 13 years. It’s time for me to take some time to focus on food in a way that I find more rewarding. I plan to do culinary R&D and consulting professionally. My curiosity about food, science and culture is insatiable. I experiment and test lots of recipes at home which I post on my Instagram account (@michelleminori). You can always follow me there and I do my best to respond to people’s questions. In the meantime, I’m also becoming an advocate for women, immigrants, and workers’ rights in the food industry. So often these groups are overworked, marginalized and unappreciated. It’s time things change in our industry. If I ever open a restaurant of my own, respecting these groups will be an integral part of the culture.
FW: Would you compete on a reality show cooking competition again? If Top Chef invited you back would you do it?
MM: Tom and Kevin from the “Pack Your Knives” Podcast called me the “crouching tiger” of this season. I love that metaphor, and I agree wholeheartedly! I come off as calm on the outside, but inside I’ve got a killer cat who’s earned her stripes, and looooves to compete. If Top Chef invited me back, it would be pretty hard to say no...especially since I’ll be an even greater force to be reckoned with!
The 90-minute season finale of 'Top Chef' airs tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. Find interviews, chef bios, and behind the scenes video at bravotv.com/topchef.