Melissa King: Changing the Face of the Culinary Industry
If you are one of the many devoted and forever-hungry viewers of THE POPULAR CULINARY show Top Chef, you know Melissa King.
Aside from being one of the most successful chefs in the food industry, King’s charming and lovable spirit on-screen made her one of my favorite contestants to watch!
Photo by Susan Yee
As a queer woman in a male-dominated field, Melissa King has definitely utilized her platform to carve a space for herself. Residing in San Francisco, she’s an active advocate for the LGBTQ community and has used her influential voice to speak on panels supporting women empowerment. As if we needed more reasons to absolutely adore her.
She has worked alongside Michelin Star and James Beard acclaimed chefs, she’s cooked for Oprah, she was a face in the Levi’s Pride campaign, and she is now the first chef ambassador for Whole Foods. While the kitchen and the dining table are her stage, she can easily command an entire room. In an industry where so few female chefs — let alone queer female chefs — have managed to rise to the top of the culinary scene, Melissa’s notable endeavors have made her my top pick to shine in the spotlight this week in celebration of International Women’s Day. She is changing the culinary landscape not only through her food, but simply by being who she is — a voice and a beacon of hope for the minorities and the underdogs across all spectrums. Melissa, can you please open up a restaurant already? We’d be the first ones in line. 👯♀️👯♀️👯♀️
Read on and learn about the challenges she faced and how her inspirations and experiences have shaped the incredibly talented, noteworthy, and progressive chef she has evolved into today.
Q - When did your love of food first begin and how did you discover it?
A - Ever since I was about 5 years old, I was always curious about food and hanging around the kitchen while my mom prepared dinner. My parents were both hardworking engineers by day — my mom would come home from work and jump right into “mom mode” as she’d prepare a Cantonese-style home cooked meal for our family. The time in the kitchen was my time to bond with my mom after work hours. My sister had no interest in learning how to cook, so the kitchen became our special place together. I also knew my parents worked very long hours, especially with commuting through LA traffic, and I felt a need to help put food on the table. Eventually by age 11 or so I was cooking dinner for the family nightly partially out of necessity, but also because I completely fascinated by cooking.
Q - Once you decided you wanted to be a chef, what steps did you take to make that dream a reality?
A - I wanted to be a chef my entire life, and was hoping to go straight to culinary school after high school but my parents encouraged getting a bachelor degree before pursuing the creative world. While studying for my undergrad full-time, I thought it would be a good idea to moonlight in restaurants to see if my “hobby” was something I really wanted to pursue as a career. Sure enough, I was hooked. After graduating from UC Irvine with a degree in cognitive science, I attended to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and never looked back.
Q - What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face being a female chef in a male dominated industry?
A - It’s not easy being a female in any male dominated industry, but as a chef I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all. For starters, I’m always assumed to be the pastry chef, even when my hands and knife are covered in blood from just butchering a whole animal.
On my last day at a restaurant, I was pulled into the office by my male chef and lectured on how the industry is “too tough for a woman” and how I should consider instead raising a family and being a housewife.
And I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen a boy (not a man) in the kitchen wave around a geoduck clam or cucumber like it’s his private parts, or make inappropriate comments about the women in the restaurant like they are a walking piece of meat.
It’s mind blowing that sexism in my industry has gone on for so long.
Unfortunately the industry is very militaristic and testosterone driven — we are all bred to show no signs of weakness or emotion.
Any sign of it, you are sure to be ridiculed. It’s the “there’s no crying in baseball” mentality.
But I do feel as more women speak up and share their experiences, and more men stick up to stop the “boy’s club” mentality, we are slowly beginning to move in the right direction. It will take a lot of time and effort on everyone’s part to make a positive change towards equality in the culinary industry.
Q - Do you think being a female presents any particular advantages in what you do?
A - It’s certainly helped in moments when I have to carry a really heavy stock pot!
Q - What is your favorite type of cuisine to cook? Favorite type of cuisine to eat?
A - I’m not sure I have a favorite cuisine to cook, but I really love working with seafood and vegetables. I can eat Italian, soul food, and Japanese food all day long.
Q - What’s your go-to recipe that’s quick and easy when you need to rush out the door?
A - My quick and easy recipe when I’m in a rush is keeping pre-roast vegetables in the refrigerator, so I can put together a quick salad or a veggie rice bowl with avocado and a fried egg on it.
Q - What inspired you to compete in Top Chef? How has being on Top Chef affected your career?
A - I was pressured by friends for several years to apply for Top Chef. At the time, I wasn’t ready. But my curiosity got to me, and one day I woke up and decided to just fill out the application to see what would happen. That turned into several months of interviews and auditions, and next thing you know I was being flown to Boston to compete. I was completely terrified the entire time, but a part of me really wanted to experience it and see how far I could push my limits. I would say that Top Chef brought out my competitive side and my confidence that was always hiding in me somewhere.
It took putting myself in an extremely uncomfortable situation (mentally, physically, emotionally) to come out feeling like I could accomplish anything in the world if I just take a chance and try.
“What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” is so real.
Q - We know you’re an ambassador Whole Foods, can you tell us a little bit about what it is you do with them?
A - As a chef ambassador for Whole Foods Market my work ranges from consulting, recipe/menu development, brand representation at food festivals across the nation, and exclusive ice creams with Humphry Slocombe available in West Coast locations.
Q - How important is it for you to create an experience around and within your food? What are some of the stories you want your food to tell?
A - It’s incredibly important to me to create an experience through food. Food is so temporary, but it can last forever as a memory. I’ve always been a very nostalgic person so when I cook, I try to recreate or reinterpret flavors from my childhood or places that I’ve traveled to. hoping to transport the diner to that very same place. I also enjoy telling stories of the artisans behind a dish — to who grew the apples, to who hunted the deer, to who handcrafted the plate that the dish is being served on — every detail in a dining experience should be a part of the story behind its creation.
Q - Do you like working with local produce? How important is sustainability and the culture around supporting local vendors to you?
A - I’m a big fan of working with local ingredients to whatever city or country I find myself cooking in. Especially as a San Franciscan trained chef, a large part of my food philosophy revolves around getting to know the local vendors and finding ways to support their stories through my creations. I’d rather create with an ingredient grown nearby that has history and roots in that area, than to cook with anything I want and have it flown in from the other side of the world. It almost becomes too easy that way. And most often it isn’t as fresh since it has to travel much further.
Q - What would your last meal on earth be?
A - My last meal would be something simple, comforting, made from the highest quality ingredients but executed perfectly — like perfectly steamed rice with my favorite childhood Cantonese and Shanghainese dishes. The best fried chicken on earth with a side of braised collard greens, mac & cheese, sweet potatoes, and creamed corn. A burger with caramelized thin patties on a toasted brioche bun with melted American cheese, thick bacon, caramelized onions, a side of skinny fries and a cookies-and-cream milkshake. Fresh tagliatelle with a simple ragu and perfectly ripe tomatoes with a gooey burrata, sea salt, good quality olive oil and crusty Tartine bread. A whole fish or animal grilled over a wood fire…maybe this can all be one giant last meal!
Q - What’s next for Melissa King?
I always have many irons in the fire, so hopefully I’ll be able to talk about some soon! One that I can mention is my 5th ice cream flavor with Humphry Slocombe is set to launch this spring so keep an eye out in Whole Foods Markets on the West Coast.
Q - What advice can you give anyone who might want to become a chef?
A - My advice would be to dedicate some time working in an actual restaurant before spending money on culinary school or investing too much time. Hands-on experience in culinary is the best way to know if it’s right for you. I also hope that you love cooking enough to work 12-16 hour days, sacrifice your bank account, weekends, evenings, and every holiday to put food on the table for other people! It’s not a glamorous career but it’s rewarding in its own ways.
Q - Who are the 5 people (dead or alive) that you’d invite to your dinner party?
A - Other than my family, Anthony Bourdain, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Ellen Degeneres, and Oprah…it’d be a hell of a party!