'Top Chef' Winner Melissa King on Finding Her Confidence Between Seasons 12 and 17 (Exclusive)

Melissa King - Top Chef S17
Ernesto Ruscio/Bravo

Speaking with ET after the finale, the chef talks about the moment she won and her personal growth between seasons.

Top Chef season 17, All-Stars: Los Angeles, drew to a close in classic fashion, with the final three contestants laying it all on the line as they tried to impress the judges, including host Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, by cooking the best meal of their lives. Melissa King emerged victorious over fellow contestants Bryan Voltaggio and Stephanie Cmar to take home a cash prize and as Lakshmi says every episode, “the title of Top Chef.” 

Speaking with ET after the finale, King recalls taking a moment to herself after she won. “I just kept thinking, ‘Oh my god, I just won Top Chef.’ Everything, all the energy and emotion and everything that I put into it, all the hard work paid off in that moment.”

Of course, it would be months before she could share the news with anyone. The season, which premiered in March and ran through June, was filmed last year, with their trip to Italy in the finale taking place in the fall. “It’s very difficult to hold onto a secret for this long,” she says. “I feel so relieved that it's out in the open and that I can actually celebrate the actual journey with family and friends.” 

For King, that journey started in 2014, when she first competed on season 12, Top Chef: Boston, where she finished in fourth place. “I was a much younger chef,” she says. “I was still finding myself and being comfortable with my style of cooking and my confidence as a person. Even applying for the show, like, completely terrified me.”

Despite not taking home the title, she says that it was an amazing journey of self-discovery and she came out of it a much stronger person. “I really just took that energy and carried it over the next five or six years. And the point where you see me now, I feel I very much have found my voice in food and the type of cooking that I want to do and present to the world.”

So when it came to competing on season 17, King says she told herself to “just believe in yourself, cook your food and don't let the game or the competition get into your head too much.” A prime example of that was during their first competition in Italy when she decided to cook the prosciutto they were given to compete with. 

“Everyone was telling me not to cook the prosciutto,” she recalls. “But you know what? I’m going to cook the prosciutto because it’s going to be great and it’s going to taste good. And so I think just staying true to that, staying true to my gut was what really carried me through.”

Also helping her confidence was being out and proud this season, joking about having her own version of Roman Holiday with “a cute girl on the back of the bike.”  

“The first time around, I was only out to my parents and my sister and friends, but I was not out to my grandparents, aunts and uncles and extended people in my life,” she says, adding that when they watched season 12 in real time, “that was the moment they were really learning all of me and seeing all of me.”

“I’ve certainly gained so much confidence in being a queer Asian American woman,” she says of “feeling much more confident and in my skin.”

But as a queer person of color, she’s also acutely aware of what’s been going on around her, from the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in racist attacks against Asian Americans to the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and Pride. So, before it was also announced who won the Top Chef fan favorite competition -- which she did by the way -- she said she would donate the $10,000 prize to the Black Vision Collective, The Trevor Project, Asian Americans for Equality and the Asian Youth Center in Los Angeles.

“It was so important for me to do that, knowing the climate that we're in,” she says. “The culmination of everything that’s been happening in the quarantine world is what really made me feel I need to do more.”

And when it comes to the future of Top Chef, which Lakshmi previously told ET will go through necessary changes to reflect the realities of the coronavirus outbreak as well as the ongoing protests against systemic racism, King says the number one thing it can do is continue to focus on diversity.

“That’s really the one thing I love about the show. I do feel, from my own experience on my seasons, they’ve done a very good job diversifying the type of people you see in this competition,” she says. “I would like to see more of that, more representation of marginalized communities.”