Proof that you should always ignore bad career advice from men

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Ashley Batz

You might know Chef Melissa King as a Bravo star: in 2012, she took part in Best Chef: Boston, ranking as a runner-up, and in 2019, she won the winning title in the show’s 17th season, Best Chef: All-Stars, Los Angeles (not to mention the All-Star’s Fan Favorite award, the $ 10,000 dividend King donated entirely to charity). Originally from California with Chinese roots, King has over 15 years of culinary experience. She has run Michelin-starred restaurants with her cuisine, which she describes as a blend of local Californian produce with modern techniques and Asian flavors. Recognized as one of “San Francisco’s Best Female Chefs,” King cooked for Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore. Most recently, she was invited to the United States Capitol as the Honorary Chef of California. There, King served duck congee to Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers. As a proud queer Asian American woman, the congee was emblematic of her roots and her style: “I used Sonoma County ducks here in the Bay Area,” she says. “Then it was topped with California wild puffed rice, farm-fresh chili oil, fried shallots and cilantro. And then a few other creations inspired only by the diversity and beauty of California.

For King, food is a language of love, a way to provide for the people she loved. “It’s the way I feel seen,” she says. In addition to her culinary accolades, King is passionate about using her platform for AAPI and queer representation and activism, and works with social justice organizations like Asian Americans for Equality, Brave Trails, Stop AAPI Hate, and others. The chef spoke with The Cut about the isolation of being the only woman in the kitchen, the network of West Coast female chefs who have mentored her, the transformative experience of Excellent chef, and how she celebrates great victories.

Upcoming, who did you think of as a mentor?
Growing up, Julia Child – she cooked fiercely and shamelessly. Martin Yan too, whom I saw as myself: Martin spoke Chinese and cooked dishes familiar to those my mother prepared. Dominique Crenn, with whom I trained. Ron Siegel, who taught me California cuisine and seasonality. And Cecilia Chiang, a San Francisco-based chef and the first woman to pioneer authentic Chinese cuisine across America.

What was your first job?
Barista cafe at the mall. After that I worked at Hollister – I was one, I think, of the two Asians there. It wasn’t as diverse as it should have been, so yes, that job didn’t last too long. Then I got my first culinary job at 17 as a pastry assistant. I didn’t know anything about cooking. A pastry chef took me under her wing and encouraged me to apply to the cooking school and get into gastronomy.

You mentioned that you have a lot of mentors who are chefs in California. Do you feel responsible for keeping the door open for others to follow you?
It’s a lot of pressure to hold on and scary to feel that, but as an Asian woman in a very male-dominated industry, I have that voice, and I should be using it to help raise other people in this industry. I want to show them that there are many paths to success. You don’t have to open a restaurant. I don’t own a restaurant, but I still consider myself a successful chef. When I started, there weren’t a lot of women. Now you see a lot more. It is often a question of finding a community and being united.

Was there a time in your career when you felt like you had succeeded professionally?
To continue Excellent chef opened up to me as a person and as a leader. As a result, I became more public and recognized the importance of representation. There is something greater than just cooking and putting food on the table.

Have you ever experienced professional failure?
I try not to remember it. It wasn’t a failure in itself, but I like to take risks, and I wanted to learn something other than gastronomy like rustic Italian, traditional Japanese. I cut my life and my salary and jumped into these kitchens. I shared an apartment with three other people and lived it from paycheck to paycheck, but these experiences opened up my creative brain. Yet there was this struggle of, Am I making the right decision? My parents couldn’t understand why I had left behind my stable job in the restaurant business, where I had health benefits and union membership. But you have to follow your instincts.

Was there something along the way that made you feel isolated?
Many times, whether it’s a woman in a kitchen, or the only gay kid in my school or work. There are so many times in my career when I was the only woman in the kitchen. You feel like you have to stand out in one way or another. I had to put on this facade and run with the boys to survive this climate. I hated it.

Have you ever had doubts about yourself?
I was considered a successful chef even when I felt I was not good enough. A lot of my doubts were about having to develop my own self-confidence and self-esteem.

How to celebrate a victory at work? And what do you do to cope when something is wrong?
My friends and family celebrate with great crazy meals. It always comes down to what I love. As for defeats, I throw everything to the wall. If something doesn’t stick, it’s honestly not the end of the world. Learning not to take it personally is important.

Favorite holiday meal?
I try different things, but one of them is Chinese fondue. It is a festive experience. You have three different burners on the table, a spicy broth and a neutral miso chicken broth or something like that. There are vegetables and raw meats around the table. It’s like Chinese fondue.

You have had several job interviews in your life. Are there any that stand out?
Applying for Excellent chef was probably one of the most difficult. It was a three month process. There were 15 different network leaders and a hot seat for you. Everyone has just asked questions. I remember panicking about whether or not I would speak eloquently and whether or not I would know the answers. But it’s about being yourself. Forget about impressing anyone. You interview them as well, to see whether or not you want the opportunity.

When was the last time you were told no in a professional setting?
It happens all the time. I’m trying to see the positives in no. For example, I didn’t win my first season of Excellent chef. But I got to experience so much through it. I keep getting nays, but these are things I don’t necessarily talk about. It’s very strange to me if you don’t face nos.

Do you have any specific advice that you wish you had known at the start of your career?
You have to do what scares you. This is where you are going to find growth.

Last question: the worst “advice” you’ve ever received?
Once a chef walked me into the office and told me I should quit and become a housewife, and women shouldn’t be in the kitchen. I’ve heard a lot of it in my career, but it’s the one that struck me the most. It really hurts to hear that. To be put aside so specifically and to be said that. I was the only woman in this kitchen, but it was a very specific moment when I was told that I couldn’t do it because of my gender. I ended up quitting that day.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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