Food for the soul with Chef Melissa King
Chef Melissa King’s culinary inspirations began at age six. Guided by her mother and two grandmother’s, she’d help prepare traditional Shanghainese and Cantonese dishes at home. This thread of experiential inspiration, and focus on passions that go beyond food and cooking, have guided her career as a chef ever since. She’s intentional and thoughtful in all that she does, and talking to her left us feeling energized, and not surprisingly, quite hungry.
Who were the chefs in your family that inspired you to get into the kitchen at age six? What dishes did you prepare with them?
My mother and grandmothers were big influences for me growing up. My mother was an aerospace engineer and would come home from a full day of work to put dinner on the table. The kitchen was a special place where we would spend our day together. I became her little sous chef and would help steam rice, wash bok choy, and start Chinese bone broths in the earlier part of the day when I came home from school. I have fond memories of wrapping Shanghainese zong (banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice) with my Shanghainese grandmother and pork dumplings with my Cantonese grandmother.
How do you use the ingredients available to you in the Bay Area, the traditional Cantonese and Shanghainese dishes you grew up cooking, and the wide variety of cooking locations and collaborations you have been a part of, to inform the dishes you create?
A lot of my cooking is inspired by the flavors and memories I’ve experienced in my life. I may travel to a new country or city and discover a unique ingredient, dish, or technique. The second I get home I’ll experiment and intertwine that memory to my own cooking style using the ingredients here in SF. I want the person tasting my food to experience where I’ve been and experience a part of me.
What has been one of your favorite dishes of summer so far?
During the summer, I’m always a sucker for simple dishes since summer produce is so amazing in its pure form. I love a gooey burrata slathered on local crusty sourdough bread paired with ripe heirloom tomatoes, stone fruits, or just really good quality olive oil and sea salt. I also love a simple crudo with summer produce.
I saw that you are also a certified level 1 master sommelier! How does wine play into your cooking, or pair with it?
I’ve drawn to high acid, bone-dry wines and think those characteristics can really help bring out the flavors in a dish when paired properly.
Can you tell us more about Co+Lab, the experimental pop-up dinner series you founded?
Co+Lab is a dinner series that incorporated local artisans, craftsmen, and makers in once space for one night. The guest chefs would create dishes inspired by these products from local handcrafted cheeses to handmade ceramics. Part of the proceeds of the dinners would go towards a charity of our choice.
How do you keep yourself inspired and motivated as a chef day after day?
I’ve always enjoyed discovering and experiencing new things. With cooking (and perhaps many careers), it’s important to know that you’ll never stop learning and evolving your craft. I go out to explore new restaurants in town to see what other people are up to, I pick up cookbooks to learn new techniques, I surf Instagram to find inspiration and connect with new chef friends. I think curiosity is what keeps me going.
What do you hope to inspire in other young chefs/culinary professionals?
I hope to inspire other young chefs (and those not in the industry) to follow their dreams. I went through most of my early career with many people telling me my “hobby” was not suitable for a career, but I stayed dedicated, worked hard, and never stopped pushing forward. The culinary industry is challenging and not for everyone but I do think we can keep it moving in a positive direction if we remember to stay passionate, stay humble, respect one another, and keep an open mind.
These days, being a chef seems to encompass so much more than creating dishes in a kitchen. How do you use your platform as a chef as a jumping-off point to support other causes and initiatives you are passionate about?
Aside from being a chef, I’m also a queer woman, person of color, child of immigrants, environmental sustainability supporter (the list goes on) and I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can use my voice to support my communities. Somedays, I’m creating a dish with a restaurant where I’ll choose to have the proceeds go towards a local LGBTQ organization. Other days I’m designing a menu for a dinner to raise money towards bee sustainability. Every project I take on, I try my best to consider how we can make a bigger difference beyond the food.
When you’re not in the kitchen creating dishes, what does your ideal day look like?
I love the variety in my work week. Every day is different. Some days I’m going cross-eyed staring at my computer developing recipes and order lists, and answering emails all day. Other days I’m in another city on stage doing a demo at a food or music festival. Other days I’m running around the city in meetings. I always try to incorporate some form of exercise into my day – usually running, muay thai kickboxing, yoga or hiking.
What do you like to eat on your days off, either at home, or out in your neighborhood?
When I’m home I maintain a low carb, sugar, and dairy diet. I stick to a heavy plant-based diet with a small piece of fish or meat. When I go out to eat, I have no restrictions and eat everything.
We have to ask…what’s your favorite way to prepare and drink coffee? Is coffee an everyday ritual for you?
I love coffee in all different forms! At home, I do Vietnamese style drip coffee with chicory sweetened with condensed milk. When I’m out at a coffee shop, I usually order cortados with no sugar and an alternate milk, or drip coffee black.