'Top Chef' Finalist Melissa King Cooks Up a Feast

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Sunday March 1, 2015
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San Francisco cuisine fans will have an opportunity to toast - and taste - the success of chef Melissa King on Monday, March 9, in her first local public event after rising to the final four in Bravo's "Top Chef" earlier this month.

Along with the season's champion, Mei Lin - who became a fast friend over the course of the competition - King will host and prepare a five course feast in the latest monthly edition of her locavore pop-up, CO+LAB at Nico Restaurant.

Born in Los Angeles, King, who lives in the Inner Sunset, feels that after a decade here, San Francisco is her true home. King's girlfriend of two years works for ticketing website EventBrite, which is selling the tickets to CO+LAB.

"San Francisco is a place of calm and connection for me. This is where I've really established roots of my own."

King's mother and father immigrated to southern California from China when they were 18 years old, and both have had long successful careers in engineering.

"I was always a science geek growing up," says King, 31. "I was into biology, anatomy, and chemistry." It was easy for her parents to assume she would follow in their footsteps and pursue a science-driven career.

"My wanting to cook for a living was a struggle for them," says King. "That was tougher for them than my being a lesbian. They're very loving and supportive about my being openly gay."

Since the time King first mounted a kitchen stepstool at age five to stand at her mother's side and help fry vegetables in a wok, she developed an unshakeable passion for cooking that never let up.

"I remember getting the first knife of my own," she says, eyes sparkling as others' might when reminiscing about first puppies or kisses. "It was a small Chinese meat cleaver. I must have been 11 or 12 when my mom bought that for me."

"Until high school, I only really cooked Chinese food, but from a very young age, I was watching cooking shows on TV. As a kid, I never watched 'Sesame Street' on PBS, I watched 'Julia & Jacques.' In junior high, the Food Network came on the air, and by high school I had started to experiment with more American food."

With graduation looming, King began to feel convinced that cooking couldn't just be a hobby for her.

"I was sure I wanted to pursue it as a career at that point, but my parents were insistent on higher education and persuaded me to go to college."

At UC Irvine, King studied cognitive science - combining courses in neuroscience and psychology - while extracurricularly taking her first steps into the restaurant business.

"I worked as a line cook at the Getty Museum," says King. "It was good experience, but when you're in a restaurant day-to-day your head is really down. You're cutting. You're cooking. I wanted to understand more. I started recognizing that while I loved the creative aspects of food, which could also be a medium for my interest in science. When you think about cooking techniques, about evaporation or carmelization, it all comes down to formulas, in some sense."

Her bachelor's degree earned and her passion for food still burning, King finally convinced her parents to give their blessing to her attending culinary school.

King says that attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York led her to value a careful balance of creative expression and precise technique.

"I don't think I would really enjoy being a pastry chef; the math and conversions are so exact that if you make one small error, you have to redo everything. I very much value technique, but one of the most enjoyable things about being a savory chef is that I can really play around and tweak and adjust things as I go."

It was at C.I.A. that King also began to tweak and adjust her own identity by coming out.

"I think that having my parents' okay to finally focus on cooking helped me feel freer about being openly gay," she says. "It's as if these two true parts of me got to blossom at once."

"We used to call it CI-Gay," King says about the chef school. "I would say that 40% of the school was gay. People were very comfortable with others' gender and sexuality. What mattered was that you were hard-working. And since school, I've found that true in most of the culinary industry."

That impression has likely been reinforced by the fact that King's 10 years since C-school have all been spent in San Francisco, where she has refined and expanded her skill in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Campton Place, The Ritz-Carlton, and Luce, as well as Delfina.

"When I worked at Delfina," King says, "It was an all-female line. We were all really proud to have all these talented women chefs working side by side. That's something you wouldn't have seen twenty years ago."

In addition to her restaurant jobs here, King has taken up foraging, bread-baking (leaning heavily on Chad Robertson's Tartine sourdough recipe), and indulges her early love of anatomy.

"My friend Brittany Davis hunts up in Anderson Valley. Whenever she comes home with a deer or a wild boar, you'll find us spending a day butchering it together."

King praises the melting pot aspect of the Bay Area culinary scene.

"The ethnic communities aren't as segregated as they are elsewhere, and food seems to really have evolved to incorporate multiple cultures. I use Asian ingredients in my cooking, but I stay very true to French and Italian techniques."

It was a desire to do more cooking in her own personal style that led King to step away from jobs in established restaurants a little over a year ago and begin hosting pop-ups, teaching cooking classes as an employee benefit at Evernote, and working as a personal-chef-for-hire through Kitchit.com.

"I wanted to spread my wings a little and explore some new opportunities."

The timing was fortuitous, as the biggest opportunity of her career was about to come knocking.

" 'Top Chef' was totally unexpected," King recalls. "I'd applied a few years back. I made a video, filled out a 40-page application, but never heard back. Then, just as I was leaving my last full time job at Luce, they called out of the blue and asked me to apply again."

"Top Chef: Boston" was shot over an intense, sequestered seven weeks last summer, with King and her competitors swept off the radar. Due to the Bravo network's non-disclosure agreements, King couldn't reveal that she'd made it to the finals until her final show aired, more than six months after filming.

Now, the opportunities are flying fast and furious, with invitations to cook at food festivals and special dinners around the country, and her CO+LAB San Francisco pop-up going monthly.

She's contracted to do "Top Chef"-branded appearances for Bravo throughout the year. But when the post-TV frenzy settles down, King hopes to helm her own local restaurant. She points to Castro favorite Frances, helmed by colleague Melissa Perello, as an inspiration.

"I'd like to have a restaurant where you'd feel comfortable going on a weeknight after a hard day's work, but served food that might bring you back for a special occasion as well. I want to serve food that's comforting and accessible. But, if you care to analyze it, you discover there's a lot of careful technique involved. Technique plus heart, that's absolutely my style."

Melissa King with Mei Lin. March 9, 6:30pm. CO+LAB at Nico, 3228 Sacramento Street. www.colabsf.eventbrite.com