Catching Up with Top Chef All Stars Winner Melissa King

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 24: Melissa King attend as The James Beard Foundation kicks off the 2019-20 Taste America, presented by official banking and credit card partner Capital One, with a tasting party in New York City celebrating sustainability and inclusivity with chefs from across the country. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 24: Melissa King attend as The James Beard Foundation kicks off the 2019-20 Taste America, presented by official banking and credit card partner Capital One, with a tasting party in New York City celebrating sustainability and inclusivity with chefs from across the country. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for James Beard Foundation) /

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Melissa King not only one of the best chefs in Top Chef history but also one of the show’s most popular competitors. Making that not-so-quantum leap declaration is borne out by the fact that she’s still basking in the adulation of winning Top Chef All Stars last season and taking home Fan Favorite honors as well.

With the official countdown to the April 1 premiere of Top Chef Portland having begun, it only seemed fitting to talk to Melissa about all things Top Chef. Having competed on two seasons of the show and experienced things from a different vantage point as part of an impressive all-star dining and judging panel on the upcoming season, King could share a unique perspective with me.

The affable chef joined such Top Chef alums as Edward Lee, Tiffany Derry, Kwame Onwuachi, and Dale Talde in Portland to film Season 18. And while shooting during a pandemic dictated that producers create bubbles and pods within them, the chefs’ social media posts made it clear that they were having fun.

From the outside looking in, things seemed to have a summer camp feel.

“Oh, absolutely! I’m sure you’ve seen all over Instagram through mine and other chefs that were there with me. It was very much a summer camp feel. We were all there together, and we knew it was safe. We knew that everyone was being tested and that we weren’t leaving our specific pod to go into other pods. So we kind of created this little safe community for us to be able to hang out and occasionally have dinners together. And I think you probably saw us dancing. We were line dancing.”

I imagine that Top Chef Portland will have a different feel for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the involvement of the all-star panel?

“I think it’s a whole different dynamic this season because we do have that all-star panel that’s judging, and that’s the first time we’ve ever done that. I think it’ll add a different sort of twist to the show and a different perspective because you have people that have gone through the competition and we know what it feels like to be in their shoes and to be judging them. So it’ll be a different twist, and I’m pretty excited for that.”

Being just a year removed from competing on Top Chef All Stars, I asked Melissa how it felt to be on the other side of the table.

“Because I’ve been through it, I know how they feel. I know the anxiety and the stress of the competition, and I think all of us do that are on that panel. But being fresh out of it, I think I was even nervous for them. I know exactly what they’re feeling in this moment, which I think grounds a lot of us in our judging because we’re able to sort of empathize a little more with them and with what they’re going through.”

Since Chef King competed during Season 12 before returning for Season 17’s All Stars and her eventual win, I was compelled to ask her to compare the two experiences.

“I had changed so much over that time. I think even the viewers can see that it’s a different person competing. I applied the first time because all my friends were telling me I should apply, and I felt a little peer pressure to do it. I don’t think I necessarily felt ready. And I remember feeling just a lot of fear behind it and anxiety over cooking on national television with cameras in my face. I was much more shy, and I’m naturally an introvert, but I think going through that experience just scared the crap out of me. I discovered that there’s so much power and strength in that when you sort of lean into your fears and you do something like that. I came out a completely different person, and I found my competence,  and I started to discover my voice as a chef and what sort of food I wanted to put out there.

So fast-forward five or six years from Season 12 to All Stars and I remember the producer called and was like, ‘hey, we’ve got All Stars on the table. You want to do it?’ And I felt my stomach drop again. And I felt anxiety in the same fear, but it was in a different way. I think I felt like, you know what, this time I want to go back and do this for me and not for anyone else that’s telling me I should do it because I remember my family asking if I was sure I wanted to do it again. It was pretty, pretty rough the first time around, and you’re in such a good place right now. Why do you want to do it? And I remember feeling, well, I feel a little scared, and I’m hearing names like Bryan Voltaggio and Gregory Gourdet and they’re heavy-hitting chefs, and I felt, you know what, I grew so much for that first experience, let’s just do it again and see what happens. I think my attitude just changed a lot over the past five or six years. I’m just really matured into a stronger person, and I’m more confident in myself as a chef and as a person.”

While the results of Melissa’s return for Top Chef All Stars speak for themselves, it’s hard not to be impressed by the fact that she not only thrived in an intense competition, but did so with such grace and likeability, earning her the aforementioned Fan Favorite title as well. With Fan Favorite honors came a $10,000 prize, which in true Melissa King style, she donated to several organizations that are near and dear to her.

“I’m always trying to look at how I can be a better human. Whatever I’m working on, whatever project it may be, how can I also affect someone else’s life. So I think when it came to winning that prize money, I was like, you know what, I’m going to just donate all this because they need it more than I do. And these people, that is my community. Those are the people that have supported me through my journey. And so I could, I felt it was only best to give it back, especially to those specific organizations; Black Visions Collective I’ve really wanted to support, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the trans community. The Trevor Project within the LGBTQ youth community is another organization that I work with quite often. Also, the Asian-Americans for Equality and the Asian Youth Center. I wanted to support communities that are close to me, and that really have supported me.”

As we count down the days to Top Chef Portland and look forward to seeing Melissa King join other all-stars in taking on new roles, I couldn’t resist asking if another very popular show alum, Portland’s own Gregory Gourdet, was a good host.

“Gregory’s amazing! He’s like the mayor of that city. He knows every chef, every restaurant, you talk to anyone in that city,and they speak so highly about him and talk about GG, they call him GG, GG’s the best. So it’s pretty impressive. I’m always impressed with how many people he knows and especially in his own city. So he’s really wonderful.”

Wonderful knows wonderful, I guess, because Melissa King is precisely that. Whether in the kitchen or  her community, she’s a prime example of what makes Top Chef the crème-de-la-crème of food competition shows. And that’s why Season 18 can’t come soon enough and why I’m looking forward to seeing Melissa, Gregory, and an impressive group of Top Chef all-stars join Padma, Gail, and Tom in the Top Chef Kitchen.

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Was Melissa King your favorite cheftestant during Top Chef All Stars LA? Who was your least favorite chef during All Stars?