‘Top Chef’ champ on food appropriation, rediscovering L.A.

Bryan Voltaggio, from left, Stephanie Cmar and Melissa King compete in the “Top Chef: All-Stars L.A.” finale. (Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)

The following story contains spoilers from the season finale of “Top Chef All-Stars: Los Angeles.”

“Top Chef All-Stars: Los Angeles” came to a dramatic conclusion on Thursday night as the remaining three chefs — Bryan Voltaggio, Stephanie Cmar and Melissa King — were tasked with serving a group of international culinary legends in Tuscany, Italy. On the menu? “The best progressive four-course meal of your life,” said host, judge and executive producer Padma Lakshmi.

The Season 17 champion of the Bravo competition series was Melissa King, who paired her Italian techniques and local ingredients with the Chinese flavors of her San Gabriel Valley childhood: char siu glazed octopus with fennel, squash agnolotti with Szechuan chili oil, grilled squab with persimmon, porcini and fermented black bean, and Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu.

“It’s so nice to finally talk about it freely!” King said of the finale, which wrapped production back in November. The Season 12 alumna emerged victorious by creatively elevating humble Asian dishes to Michelin-star status. Her final dish of the competition brought eighth-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini to tears.

“It respected the traditions of Italy,” he explained. “Melissa made an interpretation of one of our traditions and she made it from the heart.”

The season, set in Los Angeles, aired as the food media scene grapples with its systemic racism and as crowds have misguidedly shunned Asian restaurants for fear of the novel coronavirus. King, who is based in the Bay Area but is currently sheltering in place with family in San Gabriel, spoke with The Times about drawing inspiration from the San Gabriel Valley and combining flavors without committing culinary appropriation.

Lee Anne Wong, left, served as Melissa King's sous-chef in the finale. <span class="copyright">(Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)</span>
Lee Anne Wong, left, served as Melissa King’s sous-chef in the finale. (Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)

How did your life change after wrapping Season 12 in Boston?

Sharing all of that on camera in Boston and how much I was affected by it, I think he just needed to hear that. He’s since flown to San Francisco and we eat around the city. He’s voiced how proud he is of me, which was something I really never heard. The show has opened so many doors of communication with him and allowed him to enter this culinary world that’s a major part of my life.

Was your mindset different this time around?

As a chef who grew up in the Los Angeles area, did you feel you had an advantage this season?

Since my entire career has been in San Francisco and New York, I felt like I was discovering L.A. in a whole new way. L.A. is full of these different, beautiful ethnic neighborhoods, and being able to drive around town and see it from the perspective of a chef was mind-blowing. Jonathan Gold did a fantastic job exposing those places that do that type of food where it’s authentic at its core. It’s what you would eat at your Chinese grandmother’s house or your Mexican grandma’s house.

Nilou Motamed, from left, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons presided over the finale's judges' table. <span class="copyright">(Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)</span>
Nilou Motamed, from left, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons presided over the finale’s judges’ table. (Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)

This season, you often drew inspiration from the flavors of your childhood. What is it about those tastes that excite you?

A lot of people have this perception of Chinese food being greasy and cheap and chop suey — which, I don’t even know what that is. Or that it has to be super spicy, like Szechuan chilies on chilies on chilies. There is that region, but think about it: China is huge! My family is from Hong Kong and Shanghai, so the flavors I grew up on were much more delicate and coastal seafood-focused. I hope people realize there’s so many layers to Chinese cuisine, and you’ve only touched the surface. Even me as a Chinese American, I’ve only touched the surface.

A Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu sounds straight out of the 626.

How do you do that, without it falling into the trappings of culinary appropriation?

King hopes to expand her small-batch sauce line, which includes her signature fish sauce caramel. <span class="copyright">(Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)</span>
King hopes to expand her small-batch sauce line, which includes her signature fish sauce caramel. (Ernesto Ruscio / Bravo)

The culinary industry has taken a big hit due to COVID-19. How have you pivoted?

Once everything happened with Black Lives Matter, it really woke me up and made me realize I need to be a better human and do what I can to support. I’m not out protesting; I’m still being cautious because I’m here with elderly people and young kids. So now the cooking classes are benefiting different organizations.

Now that you’ve won the biggest prize in “Top Chef” history, what are your next moves?

While everyone’s at home, I recently started creating a small-batch sauce line, just to test the market, and I sold out a few hundred units in the first 30 minutes. It’s been really fun to make these, and I might try to get it going into mainstream retailers. I don’t have a restaurant right now, but I’ve certainly thought of opening one. But with COVID, I have to put that dream on pause for a little bit. It’d have to be the right time and the right place. Maybe I’ll open one in L.A. and bring it all back home.