Chef Melissa King on the Met Gala, Representation, and Being Real About Wellness
Photo:Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
If you're not familiar with Melissa King, you probably will be very soon. That's because the chef has been making her mark in the food industry and beyond, and she's got so much more planned.
King attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating at the top of her class. She then went on to helm the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants such as Campton Place, Luce, and the Ritz-Carlton dining room. But she got even more public recognition as a contestant on Bravo's Top Chef. A huge fan favorite, she was a finalist on Top Chef season 12, the winner of Top Chef All-Stars season 17, and a judge on Top Chef season 18 and Top Chef Amateurs.
Since then, she's been even busier with food and entrepreneurial ventures, including a company that is focused on partnerships and culinary experiences, a brand of small-batched sauces called King Sauce, an apparel line, and virtual cooking classes. She's even been on Sesame Street!
King also uses her platform to advocate for her communities. As an Asian American queer woman, she works with organizations and charities such as Stop AAPI Hate, The Human Rights Campaign, World Central Kitchen, and more. And when she won the Top Chef All-Stars' fan-favorite prize, King donated 100% of the winnings to Asian Americans for Equality, Asian Youth Center, The Trevor Project, and the National Black Justice Coalition.
Most recently, though, King was tapped by Marcus Samuelsson along with two other women chefs to plan and create the menu for the 2022 Met Gala. She was in charge of the first course, which was a fresh hamachi crudo drizzled with citrus, olive, and Sichuan chili. King also attended the event and walked the red carpet in a look by Thom Browne with the coolest jewelry—Chinese nail guards inspired by the last empress of China, Empress Dowager Cixi.
We got the chance to chat with King the morning after the Met Gala about her experience on fashion's biggest night, her career, representation, and her wellness routine. See what she had to say below.
Photo:Angela Weiss/Getty Images
How was the Met Gala and walking the red carpet? I imagine people go into the Met Gala with a certain idea of what it is. Did anything surprise you?
I mean, yeah, I had no idea what to expect, and you show up, and you get right at the base of that red carpet, and it just starts to feel real and scary, and you're like, "What am I walking into?" But it's exciting. It was a really incredible night full of just connecting with amazing people and seeing the fashion and just the whole thing. Yeah, I'm still on a high from it all.
Photo:Theo Wargo/Getty Images
The nail guards you wore were so amazing. The suit, too. Can you talk about your outfit and how the whole look came about?
I started hearing about the themes of America and white-tie and then the Gilded Glamour. And so everything just started to fall into place of what my original vision was, which was wearing Thom Browne, who is one of my favorite American fashion designers. I think he just does such an incredible job with gender fluidity and allowing a person to feel seen. And that's how I feel in his clothing. It really is something that suits my outward expression of who I am. I wanted to go with the classic tux look, the white tux with the white bow tie at the top, but I also wanted to have fun with it, so I decided to go with shorts and break the rules a little bit, play it up, and have that boyish vibe.
But I also wanted to show up with a little bit of a Chinese element to some degree. … As a Chinese American, it's so important to me to represent where I come from and our community. I wanted to do these empress nails. I just desperately had this idea to do empress nails. There are these nail guards that were really inspired by just the dynasty time eras and how typically empresses or noblewomen would wear these nail guards to protect their hands. And I guess the irony of it is I am a chef. I work with my hands every day. So I wanted to have something that felt the opposite in a way and just play that up a little bit and draw attention to my hands through that piece.
My stylist, Adam Ballheim, found Chrishabana to create this custom piece for us. He nailed it out of the park even more than I had ever dreamed. He turned the nails into more of a glove or a handpiece where the decorations went up the hand onto the wrist. It just turned out gorgeous and beautiful and was that statement that I wanted to make. And Chris is also an Asian man—I wanted to also support that. For me, it was important to build a team that was, again, part of my community and to uplift that. I was very careful with the people I chose to work with and the overall look and progression, but I felt like a little empress boy.
What was the process like for creating the menu for the Met Gala? And what was the inspiration for your dish?
Marcus Samuelsson and Anna [Wintour] selected me, Amirah Kassem, and Lauren Von Der Pool to be a part of this team—a woman power team—to create the menu. We each took a course. I took the first course. Marcus took the entrée. Amirah took the pastries because she owns Flour Shop and is very well known for these sprinkle cakes that you see all over the internet. And then Lauren is a vegan chef, so she handled the hors d'oeuvres during the cocktail experience.
Did you have meetings with the team to come up with the menu?
Yeah. It was a lot of emails back and forth. Because I was the first course, typically, you play off the first course, and you start building the rest of the menu. I wanted to create a crudo of some sort, something that was light and refreshing, knowing that everyone was going to be wearing fancy-dress, tight outfits. I wanted something that also felt seasonal and just hit the core themes of how I view America. I could have easily gone more classic with the crudo, but I took this Italian crudo, made a hamachi crudo, and I paired it with a citrus broth that was more ceviche style and had a lot of Latin influence. Then, I also took a Sichuan chili oil to add that Chinese element, and I made yuzu kosho olive tapenade that pulled in a little bit of that Japanese-Italian profile as well. To me, it was like America in a bowl.
I also wanted to keep it playful and beautiful in the presentation because knowing that we're at a museum, it's got to look like art. It really has to play up to the theme of fashion. And I really hope I did everyone proud with that one. I made myself proud just even being a part of this whole experience.
This month is AAPI Heritage Month, and I know you've done so much for the community as an advocate and for the LGBTQ+ community as well. Do you feel a big responsibility to show up for these communities, representation-wise, in the food world?
I do in all spaces, to be honest. I feel it's so important because when I grew up, I never saw anyone that looked like me cooking and doing what I love. And now that I'm in this position, I feel it's so important to give back to the community and hopefully make some change there where we're going and inspire some younger people to make an impact moving forward with their lives. And again, talking about the team I was building, even my glam squad was Asian. I had Dana Boyer, who was my hairstylist. [I felt it was] really important to create a specific team that was Asian and queer, or both, and women and just to try to incorporate as much of that diversity as I could throughout the team I was building as far as the cooking and the styling team.
How do you feel about that responsibility?
I never thought I'd be in this position. I just decided to cook one day and go on a TV show, and then I just kept going from there. I never knew my life would be so public or that I would have this platform to be able to speak out. But because I have it, I feel the sense of responsibility to—what's the word—embrace it, you know?
And to see the response from the community … I get messages on Instagram of people saying they're proud of me for living my life, doing what I'm doing, and just showing up for the queer community or for the Asian community or for women in kitchens. And that fuels me. It really makes me feel excited to keep going and that I have this community of people cheering me on. And again, it's going back to just giving back where I can and just doing it together. I want to make change.
As an Asian American, whenever I see someone who looks like me representing, I want to root for them. Like, "Yes, Melissa! Yes, anyone Asian!"
And even at the Met yesterday, I was able to connect more with the community, the Asian community. I just felt excited to be in the same space as Michelle Yeoh and Phillip Lim and people in different categories of their work doing what they're doing. It's like how you feel. You see someone that's Asian, and you're like, "Hell yeah. I'm going to support you, and keep doing what you're doing. I'm going to cheer you on." And that's how it felt last night. It was like the Asians had a moment where we were all together and were like, "Wow, really? What is happening? We're at the Met Gala. This is amazing."
I stepped back a little bit and was like, "Wow, there are so many Asian people in this room, and we're all talented at what we do in our crafts." And to be invited to this experience was quite incredible. And as an Asian queer chef, I never thought I'd have an opportunity to go to the Met Gala. It just seemed so out of this world. Yeah, I think we're pioneering this path, hopefully, for chefs to feel that they can do so much more beyond just the restaurant and that you can continue to create and be passionate about something in this world. And you can affect any sector and make change in any sector depending on what your passion is and what your interests are. And I just happened to love fashion too. It came together really beautifully, and I just felt proud to be a part of the experience.
How can you show your most authentic self while also repping for the community?
Going back to starting with the Met Gala food, that dish is just how I would normally cook. It really was drawing from… I didn't want to change my style of cooking to fit the theme too much and take away parts of me as a chef. I really just stuck with "This is a dish that I would make in any restaurant, and I'm going to go with it." And it happens to fit the theme of the Met, and it plays well with the setting and all that. I think not compromising yourself is important, and I felt [I did] that even in my own style of dress in the look, with not compromising my comfort and [wearing] what I felt strong in and what I felt confident in.
At one point, we tried on pants, and I was like, "It's traditional. It feels a little safe, but I don't think I'm that safe of a person at times. Let's switch it up a little." So I threw on the shorts, and I was like, "There we go." You can feel that moment where you think, "This is me, and I feel comfortable in this." And so it's the same in fashion and food—in any category, you have to feel comfortable and confident in the thing that you're presenting.
Let's chat about health and wellness for a bit. I saw on Instagram that you documented your egg-freezing journey, which I thought was so amazing of you to share with such honesty. Why did you want to share it? And what kind of feedback did you get from people?
I remember feeling hesitant at first. I was like, "Should I be sharing this? Is this too much?" And then a part of me just felt, "You know what? There are people out there that don't talk enough about this, and we need to continue to create dialogue. And so why not put it out there and see what happens?" I did the little Instagram post. I pushed enter, and then I hoped for the best. And the response was incredible. I had so many people leaving comments about their own fertility journey and the ups and downs that they had gone through. It almost became a chat forum where people felt a sense of connection and let down their guards. People let their guards down and were sharing these really vulnerable moments about their own experiences. And that, to me, was beautiful to read through and just touching.
For me to share that experience … I felt if I didn't talk about it I would be suppressing it more. And I felt alone in the process, to be honest, going through these shots and injecting myself and doing that every morning and night. It gets emotionally taxing to feel alone in it. Being able to post about it and share that, even with strangers, felt really comforting to me to be able to hear people just tell me, "Hey, I went through that too. It's going to be okay. And you're doing a great job, and we're proud of you." Those messages really made me feel a little less alone.
I know you're busy, and you probably have to travel a ton. What's your wellness routine like? How do you stay active? What do you do to practice self-care and feel good about yourself?
I think the number one thing is I try not to be on my phone the second I wake up. I try to just take the morning to have a routine—make myself a latte, make some breakfast. And I take time to eat something. I think a lot of people don't even do that. They just run out the door and go straight to work. I try to unplug from the news or any social media because it can just be a lot of stress when you wake up in the morning. And so I think for anyone out there—even if it's 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour—take that time for yourself in the morning to just have "me" time and do what you need to have a little morning routine.
I either make a smoothie or a juice in the morning, and I make sure I'm just well fed before I start my day, and then I'm relaxed. Sometimes, I jump into some yoga stretches and do downward dogs and stuff in the morning just to stretch out the body. Then I jump into my workday. Throughout the week, I always try to incorporate some sort of walk or hike or some sort of outdoor activity where I can get out and just get some fresh air, especially with COVID and throughout the two years we were just trapped in the homes. I think moving your body is always good, and you're always going to feel those endorphins at the end of it all. I kickbox. I try to do that once a week and just incorporate a little bit of exercise that I enjoy.
Do you have a favorite comfort food or feel-good dish that you like to make?
I make a lot of bone broths because that's actually the first thing I learned how to make when I was a kid from my mom. I would make these Chinese bone broths with ginseng, chicken, water, goji berries. And you just let it boil for six hours or so. It's super simple, but something about it just feels nourishing, and it reminds me of home when I have it as an adult. I love a good bone broth.
And lastly, what's next for you?
Like you mentioned, we're in AAPI Heritage Month. May 12, I'm working to produce and host a dinner that just brings together the community, and it's happening in L.A. People from different walks of life, whether you're an actor, a musician, or a chef. I want to just pull the community together through this dinner experience and break some bread together, break some rice together.
Will you be cooking?
I'll have a dish here and there. I'm trying to focus it more on the restaurants and the Asian restaurants that are out there. Our first event is going to be at Kato with Jon Yao in Los Angeles. He's a good friend of mine and, again, supporting the Asian community where we can. I'll probably do a tiramisu just to end off the night. I'm also creating a AAPI-focused apron with a company called Tilit. Tilit and I are collaborating, and the proceeds will go toward an Asian charity. That'll be throughout the month of May.
Next, These AAPI Founders Have the Most Relatable and Honest Advice About Success
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