Melissa King, who was just crowned the Season 17 winner of “Top Chef,” says that participating on the Bravo reality cooking show twice has sharpened her skills as a chef: “We do find so much community among each other, and we learn and exchange information and teach each other new things constantly, even at home in the cast house.” That make the show “like a chef’s summer camp and you get this experience where you are surrounded by so much talent. Why not absorb from each other?”
She hadn’t gotten her $250,000 grand prize yet when we recorded our interview, but she also won another $10,000 for winning the viewer-voted Fan Favorite prize, which she’s donating to various causes. But even though she participated on the show and, of course, knew how it ended, she still “watched every Thursday” while it was airing. “I was on a lot of Zoom calls with friends and family cheering me on.” She eventually beat out her final two rivals, Stephanie Cmar and Bryan Voltaggio, completing a dominant run during which she won a record-breaking 10 challenges.
King was on a roll especially towards the end. She won three elimination challenges in a row before the finale. But in those moments before the winner was revealed, did she feel like she had it in the bag? Not quite. “It’s always anyone’s guess,” she admits, “because every challenge is not graded on a cumulative scale. It’s really judged how you do in that moment on that particular challenge … I knew that Stephanie and Bryan had cooked at their best. I knew I was cooking at my best … I think all three of us felt so proud of what we had served them and what we created.”
The 36-year-old Los Angeles native is based in San Francisco. She acts as a consultant internationally, appears at food festivals, does speaking engagements and pop-up dinners and has brand partnerships such as one with Bay area ice cream maker Humphrey Sloan (newest flavor: Hong Kong milk tea ice cream, an ingredient that was featured in her tiramisu dessert during the “Top Chef” finale). She also is an advocate for LGBTQ chefs and she sells a line of Pride caps on her website that supports the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youths.
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And she’s also passionate about supporting the struggling restaurant industry at large. While Season 17 was filmed last year before the coronavirus caused eateries to shut down, King is well aware of the current struggle. For others looking to help, King suggests, “I would encourage anyone that’s out there, if you do want to help, do some research, look up some websites on how you support and donate. I know that saverestaurants.com is a good place to start as well as the James Beard Foundation. If you can’t do that, order some takeout or delivery.”
While in quarantine, she has been keeping the culinary world alive by making small batches of sauces that were featured in her dishes on the show and are sold on her website; several hundred units were snatched up in two minutes. She also has a virtual webinar series on her site in which she cooks such dishes as her challenge-winning coconut corn soup. You can’t keep a Top Chef down, even in a pandemic.
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