Top Chef's Melissa King On Winning Pre-Quarantine, The Most Stressful Moments And Her Restaurant Wars Dream Team

top chef all stars winner melissa king
(Image credit: bravo press)

Every season of Top Chef gives viewers a wide variety of culinary masterminds, jaw-dropping dishes, and Tom Colicchio's enigmatic smirks, but Top Chef All Stars: L.A. in particular ran on all cylinders. Some of the most talented runner-ups in Top Chef history were in contention for the crown, but only one chef's name was called out in the end: Melissa King. Having first joined the show in the Boston-set twelfth season, King oozed more confidence than ever against her fellow All-Stars, steadily honing her ever-intriguing style of fusing Chinese and Italian flavors and techniques.

Clearly, Top Chef's judges and globally renowned guest diners felt that Melissa King's food soared that much higher than those of fellow finalists Bryan Voltaggio (Season 6, Top Chef Masters Season 5) and Stephanie Cmar (Season 11), and she went home the latest Top Chef champion. CinemaBlend was lucky enough to talk with Chef King after the big win, so read on to see what she had to say about the show's importance during self-quarantining, what stressed her out, and what her ideal Restaurant Wars team would be.

top chef melissa, padma, gail and nilou

(Image credit: bravo press)

How Melissa King Feels About Winning During The Pandemic

The joy in watching this season of Top Chef was drastically different from the emotions that past seasons were able to induce, largely because much of the U.S. has been in self-quarantine mode for the entirety of the all-star season. Viewers have gotten to live rather vicariously as contestants were traveling across L.A., running around Whole Foods, and hosting social gatherings where no one needed to worry about social distancing. I asked Melissa King for her thoughts on pulling off this huge victory before the world went into lockdown mode, and here's what she told me:

I mean, the show is just so wonderful, and I'm so grateful that we got to just launch it in general. And I think launching it during this time, as you mentioned, gave people something to tune into. It gave them hope and it brought brightness to their life. I think it was beneficial in ways to have people watching, and then they would kind of find me on Instagram and see what I was up to. So yeah, I've been able to adapt my model of work to do kind of more virtual experiences and give people a place to come and try my cooking, but in their own home, through virtual cooking webinars. So yeah, it's been really far. [Laughs.]

Thankfully, the quarantine process didn't stop Top Chef viewers from reaching out to contestants in order to show support. In fact, it sounds like Melissa King has been able to interact with her growing fanbase in ways that she wouldn't have been able to before. With the restaurant industry having taken a sharp downturn, King found other ways to make money and put her skills to use, such as by giving virtual cooking instruction to those seeking hella tasty dinners. As well, she started crafting her own line of sauces, which she is selling in small batches.

Not that everything has been 100% positive. The global spread of the novel coronavirus has led to a seemingly sizable uptick in xenophobic behavior from those who actively blame China for the virus getting out. Given that Melissa King's parents both immigrated from Hong Kong to Los Angeles before she was born, I asked the Top Chef winner if that socially heinous side of the pandemic factored into how she felt about taking the top prize. In her words:

It's so important to me that – I mean, I knew I was going to win – but I'm grateful that this show aired during the time of quarantine and this pandemic, because I know the pandemic has brought a lot of anti-Asian sentiment, and there's some anti Asian racism happening in the world. It breaks my heart to hear stories from personal friends saying that they were at the grocery store and they were called a "c----" and told go back home to China because of COVID, and they're American-born Asians. So I'm glad that the show is airing during this time so that people can see that, you know, here's an Asian-American who's doing her thing and crushing Top Chef, and there's nothing to be afraid of. We are all the same.

I certainly hope that victory keeps inspiring and propelling Melissa King to greatness, considering it was precisely her Chinese-Italian fusion concept that secured her the victory. Her dessert even made the iconic eight-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini cry as he tried voicing his appreciation for how much she respected her Italian influences while also elevating them with her own flavors. That maybe be the one exception to King's "we're all the same" sentiment, since I definitely haven't had that experience...yet.

top chef all stars L.A. restaurant wars teams

The Most Stressful Thing (And Hardest Cook) Of The Season For Melissa King

The Top Chef powers-that-be are always coming up with unique and interesting challenges for the chefs to try and conquer, and All-Stars L.A. was no exception. Among other nerve-rattling elimination challenges, the chefs had to cook a Sunday brunch for wine-loving hundreds of moms on vacation, and also had to prepare meals for the widow of the world-renowned restaurant critic Jonathan Goldman, as inspired by the restaurants he loved the most. For Melissa King, the most stressful aspect of the season wasn't a particular elimination round, but rather trying to survive the entire shebang while up against the lofty pedigrees of her fellow contestants. Here's how King put it:

The whole thing, it just pushes you on so many levels, like emotionally creatively, physically. I mean, I'm five or six years older than I was the first time I did it, so that alone was a challenge for all of us. We joked that it was Top Chef Seniors or Top Chef Geriatrics. Our bodies were hurting. But I think just the whole thing, again, it's such a challenge,  knowing that we're up against the best of the best of all seasons of amazing, talented chefs that just have really built careers for themselves. They've built empires; [Brian] Malarkey is insane with his restaurant branches. But you know, I think just knowing that these were very established chefs coming in, that was going to be the biggest challenge and stress of it all.

Though several chefs had already unsuccessfully competed in multiple seasons of Top Chef and its spinoffs, that probably didn't make Melissa King much more confident about taking them all down. After all, can anyone feel legitimately comfortable when cooking against Bryan Voltaggio or Lee Anne Wong in any situation? (Not that Top Chef hasn't had its share of unfettered egoism among all the kind-heartedness.)

It would be easy to think that Melissa King's biggest culinary hurdle this season was the four-course meal in the big finale, considering that was the one that earned her the victory. However, when I asked about the hardest cook actually was, the chef barely hesitated, saying:

Umm, the hardest cook is always Restaurant Wars. [Laughs.] But it's also a lot of fun. You know, as much as we are stressed and running around trying to build restaurant, it's the whole idea of, 'We're trying to build something, and we're building it together.' I think that's where we we end up really enjoying when we work together as a team. The whole thing, it feels very real, like you're really launching a restaurant in real life. Because we really are. So I think it's the most challenging episode of the season, of all seasons, but it is very fun.

As a longtime Top Chef fan, I look forward to the Restaurant Wars episodes more than any other ones, since it tests the chef's culinary skills, their creativity, and their ability to work well with others on the fly. Naturally, those episodes almost always feature memorable meltdowns, mini-clashes between team members and extremely questionable thematic choices. This season actually made things a little more streamlined having all the contestants pitch their restaurant concepts in the pre-Wars episode, with the two elimination challenge winners getting to bring their ideas to life. Melissa King told me the chefs were all surprised by that change-up as well, and she enjoyed the opportunity to have all the chefs pitch their ideals in a single episode.

melissa king and brian malarkey top chef all stars: l.a.

(Image credit: bravo press)

Melissa King's Restaurant Wars Dream Team

Once the subject of Restaurant Wars came up, I could have spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the ins and outs of those signature Top Chef experiences. But since nobody had that much time on their hands, I asked Melissa King who her candidates would be for a Restaurant Wars dream team, choosing from anyone that has ever competed the Bravo series' 17-season history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chef drew upon her direct experiences when forming her answer.

And it doesn't have to be winners or anything? Definitely [Bryan] Voltaggio, just because we did it this year, and we had so much fun cooking together on the line, even though we were completely stressed because there were way too many dishes. But we made it happen, and we cranked that food out. And then [Season 12 winner] Mei Lin. I think me, Mei and Bryan would have good synergy. She has, I know, trained under him before, and when I helped Mei with our own Restaurant Wars, and with her season, we just ... we don't even have to talk to each other; we just can read each other's minds. And the same with me and Bryan, I feel like we're kind of on the same wavelength with the way that we cook. Oh, one more person. We need a good front man, so [Brian] Malarkey. I thought Malarkey did a fantastic job in the front.

If there's any justice in the world, Top Chef will one day bring in Brian Malarkey to be an all-time front-of-house representative for each team competing in Restaurant Wars from year to year. Of course, it would currently suffice just to know if there will be more Top Chef seasons in the future, so that Melissa King can return as either a guest judge or a non-stressed meal attendee. Fingers and knives crossed!

Top Chef All-Stars: LA is now over, sadly, so now the wait is on to see what the next season of the show might look like, assuming it does indeed go on in its current form on Bravo. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates and keep track of all the upcoming premieres and TV returns – food-related and otherwise – with our 2020 Summer TV premiere schedule.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.