She came in third place this year on Top Chef, but Melissa King has no regrets. She won two Elimination Challenges in a row, securing her place in the finals, as well as $5,000 for creating a “mac and cheese carbonara” during a Quickfire Challenge. But the biggest payoff from being on the show came from pushing her own boundaries and forming relationships with the other contestants, she says. We talked with her about cooking with unfamiliar ingredients, life after the show, and whether winning is overrated.

Chefs Feed: Now that the dust has settled, what’s your biggest takeaway from your experience on Top Chef?

Melissa King: I learned that I can really do anything. After pushing myself beyond my limits, I feel like, “wow, I can conquer anything.” I did doubt myself at the beginning, but then grew stronger as the show progressed. I met a lot of great people and bonded with them, too. I left with a lot of lifelong friends, but gaining self confidence was the biggest thing.

What was the most challenging ingredient you had to work with on the show?

The xoconostle. I’ve played around with prickly pear before but not this particular varietal.

How do you go about making a dish on the spot with an ingredient that you’ve never used before?

By tasting it and breaking down its flavor profile and texture, and then thinking about what it’s similar to. It’s tart and firm, yet juicy. I thought, “this tastes like a lime,” and decided to juice it for a bright leche de tigre for a ceviche. It all comes down to knowing your techniques and applying them. But other times you kinda just wing it and hope for the best!

Is there a dish that you’re the most proud of from your time on Top Chef?

Ooh, it was from the episode with the “innovation” Elimination Challenge near the end of the season. I made a seared duck breast with walnut miso, pickled cherries and compressed celery with chocolate mint. I thought it was a playful dish and I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone with those flavor profiles.

Richard Blais recently wrote that “winning is overrated.” Would you agree?

Yeah. It is overrated. Each chef has a different style of cooking but not winning doesn’t mean we’re bad chefs. I may not have won but I was very proud of my performance and feel like a winner. I went out with my head held high.

I’ve had people come up to me saying that I’ve inspired them to pursue their dreams or to come out to their parents. I’m pretty blown away by all of the positivity. My mom keeps rewatching the show, too, even though it’s over! It’s memories like cooking with my mom on the show that I’ll take with me from this experience.

You and Mei Lin (who won the “Top Chef” title) became BFF’s on the show. What drew you to each other?

The first half of the season, we were living on different sides of the house. But as other people were eliminated, we got to know each other more and discovered that our backgrounds are very similar. We’re both Cantonese and would sometimes talk to each other in Cantonese around the house!
Then during the team battles, we started cooking alongside each other and I noticed her work ethic. It’s very similar to mine. She’s very disciplined and organized—and values technique. I thought, if we weren't competing against each other, I could totally see us working well in a restaurant together.

And now you’re bringing Mei on as the guest chef for your next Co+Lab pop-up in March.

There isn’t anyone else I’d want to test this out with! I think with any other chef, it’d be more challenging. But with Mei, it’s great. We work well together and sort of read each others minds!

What’s the inspiration behind Co+Lab?

Co+Lab is my experiment with going hyperlocal. It started with one dinner and evolved as I reached out to my community of talented friends and makers. Each course will highlight a signature product from a local partner in unexpected ways.

Can you give us a sneak peek into the menu?

Yeah! Some of the partners featured are Dandelion Chocolate, Fort Point Brewery, Moon Fox Farm, Bellwether Farms and Philz Coffee. And we’ll be serving Bluxome Street wines.

The menu is online now, too.

I’ve also teamed up with a local ceramicist who is custom designing dishes for one of the courses. I love that each piece has character with little imperfections and variations in color that make them stand out. (They’ll be available for purchase at the end of the dinner, too.)

On March 3, you’re leading a sold out SOUL Food Salon event that’s focused on preparing healthy, seasonal vegetables. What advice would you give an inexperienced home cook when it comes to cooking vegetables?

When it comes to vegetables, people think they’re simple. Play around with technique to get a different experience. Smoke it. Char it. Pickle it. Root vegetables can be boring during the winter but roasting brings out flavors. I play with textures a lot, too. Invest in a Japanese mandolin to shave vegetables really thin and incorporate them into your salads.

So, are you gonna open your own brick and mortar restaurant now?

I hope to! That’s always been the goal. It’s tricky finding the right location and partners to invest with. It’s like dating! But hopefully within the next couple of years.

What about a cookbook?

Absolutely! I really want to put Co+Lab into book form and showcase local farms and ceramics alongside the recipes. I love bonding with the community.

What’s the best way to get updates about all of your projects?

My website: Also Instagram and Twitter. I’m always posting stuff there. Co+Lab will happen every two months, with a new guest chef for each dinner.

Interview by Sara Bloomberg. 

Photo of Melissa King courtesy of Albert Law of Pork Belly Studio.