Top Chef Melissa King On Being A Judge, The Show's Fans, & Her Bravolebrity Status

- Top Chef -
Top Chef Melissa King On Being A Judge, The Show's Fans, & Her Bravolebrity Status

Since her first appearance on Top Chef: Boston in 2014, Melissa King has grown into a bonafide culinary queen. At first a shy, hesitant chef, the Chinese American gained confidence in her premiere season and came back to All-Stars L.A. in 2020 ready to dominate.

Her calm demeanor and precise cooking techniques impressed not only judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons but viewers at home, who salivated as she whipped up lobster wontons, beef curries, olive oil pistachio cakes, and Michelin-level broths. Every one of her dishes felt like a discovery.

“It’s hard to compete with that kind of precision and creativity and execution,” Lakshmi told Variety. She went on to deem Melissa's food "flawless."

Now, the reigning Top Chef is joining the Judges’ Table as one of a collection of all-stars lending their taste buds to Top Chef: Portland, set to debut April 1 on Bravo.

Alongside alumni Richard Blais, Carrie Baird, Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry, Gregory Gourdet, Kristen Kish, Edward Lee, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, Dale Talde, and Brooke Williamson, Melissa will be part of the rotating roster of alumni who will have a seat at the judges' and dining table. (Don't worry, Colicchio, Simmons, and Lakshmi will be there, too.)

Following Melissa's win last year, the 37-year-old has thoroughly asserted herself in the food scene, and Hollywood, too, though she's decided not to open her own restaurant just yet. She is, however, owner of King Sauce, a small-batched sauce and spice line that sells out every single time it hits her online shop. (More on that later.)

Below, she talks about her momentous year, putting on her judges’ hat for Top Chef Season 18 and grappling with racism in America.

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The Dipp: How's it going? Has pandemic fatigue set in for you?

Melissa King: Definitely, it's been an interesting year for sure. But all exciting things as we were able to film a show in the middle of it all, so that was pretty amazing.

Season 17 aired during the height of quarantine. Did you notice a little more love this time around as people were home craving content to watch?

I did feel like that happened. A lot more people were at home tuning in and I think it was nice to have such an uplifting season for people to watch, you know with myself, Stephanie [Cmar], Brian [Voltaggio] and all the other competitors. So yeah, it was very well received this year and I'm pretty excited for April 1 and this next one.

You’ve had one of the most poignant journeys on Top Chef, first appearing as a shy cook who had something to prove on Season 12 and then becoming a very successful, imaginative chef and businesswoman after this last season. Talk about that growth. How did the show bring out a new kind of confidence in you?

First of all, thank you for saying that. I think the Top Chef experience from a viewer’s point of view is, “Oh, it's just a cooking competition.” But for the people who are in the competition, it's so much more – at least from what my experience was. It really was this emotional journey.

On top of the culinary expectations of having to really challenge yourself, you also challenge yourself in so many other ways – mentally, emotionally, physically, creatively. And so coming off of my first season I felt this sort of new drive in me and I felt much more confident in myself as a chef and as a person. I was no longer afraid of public speaking and so I kind of carried it with me through the next few years.

I think the person you see on All-Stars really is someone who matured so much through that process, and it kind of proves that when you lean into experiences that really scare you, you really come out on the other end as a much stronger person. So, yeah, it really teaches you how to believe in yourself and take risks.

Top Chef is known to be pretty “real” in terms of reality shows. Is that your experience with the show? Did you find the episodes reflected what was happening when you guys were shooting?

There's no sugarcoating any of it. You know, the unfortunate thing is you do see an hour of what takes many, many hours of filming – it’s condensed into a shortened version of real life. But yeah, I think the personalities that you see are very true to who we are, and the experiences that we go through.

I imagine many of those hours not caught on camera are very intense.

Absolutely. There’s a lot of crying. At some point, everybody cries on Top Chef. [Laughs]

It’s like a drawn-out therapy session.

It really is. That's how it was for me – it felt like a big therapy session.

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How was it to come back for Season 18 and be on the other end of it, as a judge? You've been through the contestant experience so you know what they’re up against.

It's such an incredible experience to, first of all, be asked to come back – that's a great honor. And then to be able to judge and learn this entirely new skill. I got to say, it's really hard to articulate food, you know? You can't just say, “Oh, that tastes good.” You have to dig deeper and because I've gone through it, and I know what these competitors are experiencing from the stress perspective of it all, I feel I'm able to judge in a way that could be much different than Tom or Padma or Gail. And that goes for all of us alumni.

We do see it from a perspective of we used to be there standing right where they are and we know those feelings they're going through. We know the challenges of maybe not finding an ingredient at the supermarket and having to pivot. So those are all things that I think we bring to the show. We’re coming in with a new lens.

I can't imagine eating that much, to be honest. Was it hard?

I’m incredibly impressed with how much food Tom, Padma and Gail put down. I mean, I know that because I see it, but I had no idea until really being on the other side and having to be a part of that judging experience. We have to eat constantly and take multiple bites of everyone's dish in order to really understand it. So yeah, I was excited to not have to compete.

Not gonna lie, I feel like I got to be in a position where I'm retired from the game and now I get to just sit and enjoy it. But it's also hard because I could feel the same anxiety that they felt in many moments because in a sense there's this PTSD behind it all. You never forget Judge's Table and that feeling that you get.

It's probably hard to be honest while judging. Do you have a newfound respect for Tom, Padma and Gail, for the job they have to do throughout the season?

I have the highest respect for all three of them. I always have. And I think being a judge this year has really just amplified that respect even more. It's hard to explain – when you yourself are a competitor and they're telling you these things, in a sense, it's easy to get defensive as a competitor, like, “This is why I over salted something or I ran out of time or that’s why it burned,” you know? You want to defend yourself as a competitor.

But when you're a judge, you see how difficult that position is to really analyze and understand the entire process of the competitor and how they got to that point. The judges really have to pay attention to every detail during Judge’s Table.

The all-star judges are there for the whole season. Did you end up having a favorite where you couldn't wait to taste their food?

It's interesting, you start to gravitate towards certain flavor profiles, but then again it's the competition and every challenge can throw a curveball to that person and completely derail them. So, you can't really have too many favorites because every episode is different and every challenge is different. You can't really hope for too much from certain people. You kind of have to keep a neutral lens throughout the competition.

Somebody could be high in the rankings and killing it at each challenge and then one challenge will just knock them down.

Exactly, and we had all experienced that ourselves in our own seasons of having your moments where you're high and then all of a sudden you're just knocked off with one mistake. So the competition is very real. It's very intense. You always have to really keep your guard up as a competitor.

What does it feel like to be a “Bravolebrity”?

I honestly didn't even know that term existed until yesterday, so it's funny to think of myself as that. At the end of the day, I see my peers as chefs and we're amazing at what we do. I have so much respect for the entire Top Chef family. It's really this fraternity or this secret club that we're in where we get to do what we love and shine.

Are you a fan of other Bravo shows, like Below Deck or Real Housewives?

I'm starting to get to know the Housewives through agents and doing a lot of interviews together. I did an interview with a couple Housewives who are Asian Americans and we were talking about the AAPI hate that's happening in America right now. So yeah, it’s sort of getting glimpses of everybody from Bravo world just through doing interviews and connecting.

It’s great that the network was able to feature that discussion. And I did note that you donated your $10,000 fan-favorite prize money to the Black Visions Collective, Asian Americans For Equality, Asian Youth Center and The Trevor Project. How has it been, personally, for you to not only be a queer Asian American in the culinary industry, but in the world?

The sad part is racism is not new to me. I've faced it all through my life growing up. But I am glad that we're kind of at this point where we're starting a revolution and people are starting to speak up. I think especially Asians, culturally, we are sort of taught to silence ourselves to internalize a lot of our feelings. And so it's been pretty amazing to see that we won't stand for that anymore.

A lot of us are at this breaking point of we need to speak up, we need to use our voices, we need to join together as a community and just, in a sense, fight back, you know? It's been pretty incredible what's happening right now.

Top Chef is a show that not only brings a diversity of food but really, I feel, takes the effort to cast a diverse group of contestants. Lately, that has really added to the whole dynamic of the show.

Absolutely. I would say Top Chef, even before I was on it and just watching it, it was the one show that had someone who was a lesbian or someone who was gay and black or, you know, there were so many diverse people on the show. That was surprising for me to see back in the early 2000s and it's only gotten more diverse. I really respect the show so much for their willingness and ability to continue to amplify voices of other areas or communities. I really do think the show has done such a great job with that.

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Why do you think the show has lasted so long?

It is amazing how there's such a cult following behind Top Chef. First of all, the viewers are just so incredible and the people that watch this show are like diehard fans. The show is not just about cooking, it's about the people that are doing the cooking. And so there's a lot of backstory of where these people come from and it goes back to being such a diverse cast.

I think that's why people gravitate towards Top Chef, and love it so much because they see a part of themselves in the chefs that are competing and they want to root for them and cheer them on. I like to think that’s why it has such a cult following.

You know what else apparently has a cult following? Your sauce line! It sells out immediately each and every time it’s released.

Yeah. [Laughs] It's been really amazing to see how much love there is for it out there and so I’m working really hard to try to get a couple more rounds going. So, yeah, stay tuned.

People just want to taste your food, Melissa.

It’s really nice and just always puts a smile on my face.

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