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Top Chef Season 17 Winner Was Actually Afraid to Return to the Competition: "It Scared the Crap Out of Me"
The cheftestant was "in complete shock" when Padma Lakshmi announced the all-star champion.
This article contains spoilers about Bravo's Top Chef Season 17 finale.
Bravo's Top Chef Season 17 kicked off with 15 finalists, frontrunners, and fan favorites vying for culinary supremacy. But after all the intense Quickfires, inspiring elimination challenges, and a star-studded lineup of guest judges, only three cheftestants remained hoping to take home the top title in the Season 17 finale on Thursday, June 18.
So the pressure was definitely on when the final three contestants, Stephanie Cmar, Melissa King, and Bryan Voltaggio, were tasked with cooking "the best progressive four-course meal of your life," as host Padma Lakshmi described the final elimination challenge of the season. The cheftestants did just that in one of the most emotional nail-biters of a finale we've ever seen in the history of Top Chef.
However, it was Melissa who finally got to taste redemption. After placing fourth in Season 12 of Top Chef, Melissa was crowned the Top Chef of Season 17 All Stars L.A.
"It feels surreal. I couldn’t even imagine this happening. The first time around was so challenging and so difficult in so many ways, emotionally, physically," Melissa told The Daily Dish over the phone prior to the finale episode airing. "To even say yes to doing it again, I’m just proud of myself for doing that, and then to go as far as winning, I’m on the moon [laughs]. It’s pretty amazing and incredible what you can do when you push yourself."
Melissa started racking up wins from the very beginning of the competition, winning the very first Quickfire challenge as part of a team that also included Bryan, Jamie Lynch, Joe Sasto, and Kevin Gillespie. She would go on to win two more Quickfires and six elimination challenges throughout the season, giving her the most wins out of any contestant in the history of Top Chef.
"I certainly had confidence going into the game, and I think that carried through the challenges," Melissa said. "But whether or not I would win, I think that’s tough, because everyone was so good this year. Being an all-star cast, you have iconic, legendary names like the Voltaggios, and it was intimidating going into that and not knowing where I would place amongst this group of just amazing, talented chefs."
Going into that final elimination challenge, Melissa said she just "felt very excited" to be able to present her finale menu. "I know when I was in Boston for Season 12, I didn’t have an opportunity to showcase my finale menu, and that was something that was really driving me to get to that last episode," she said. "The finale’s sort of that one moment where there’s no restrictions and you can, really, create your style of food and not get caught up in the game and the challenges."
As she did throughout the finale in Italy, Melissa decided to combine Asian flavors with Italian cuisine for the finale challenge, serving a char siu glazed octopus, fried shallots, fennel, pickled peppers, and herbs (first course); squash agnolotti, chicken skin, agrodolce cipollinis, Sichuan chili oil, shiso, and squash blossoms (second course); grilled squab with persimmon, porcini, and fermented black bean sauce (third course); and a Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu (fourth course).
"I think it’s always a risk to fuse any culture together, whether it’s Chinese and Italian or Mexican and French, or something like that. So I think there’s always gonna be that challenge of maintaining authenticity and not hybrid-ing things so much to where you can’t recognize it anymore," Melissa said of her finale meal. "But I do feel my strength of being able to do that, being able to bridge these cultures together and highlight it in a very tasteful way where it still stays true to what it is but makes it just a little more interesting. And so, I really tried to hone in on that side of my cooking style and do that throughout the finale."
But in doing research for her menu prior to traveling to Italy, Melissa realized there are many similarities between Chinese and Italian cuisine. "You have pasta, which is essentially noodles, and then you have risotto, which is congee," she explained. "There’s so much overlap and influence amongst each other, it only made sense for me to draw within my own culture for inspiration while there."
In fact, Melissa merged the two cultures so beautifully, it moved one of the diners, eighth-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, who we memorably met in Season 16 of Top Chef, to tears. "They're all very, very good. But, my favorite is Melissa's dessert because it respected the traditions of Italy," Dario said while getting choked up in front of the judges in Italian after tasting the finale meal. "Melissa made an interpretation of one of our traditions and she made it from the heart. It makes me very emotional."
Of course, Melissa wasn't present for the diners' feedback and only heard how touched Dario was during the final Judges' Table. "I really didn’t expect that my food would be so moving for someone. I’ve been a chef for a very long time, and I do what I do because I just love it. And I love feeding people, I love putting my emotions into my food and having someone eat that and experience my experiences," Melissa told The Daily Dish. "So the fact that I was able to achieve that in that moment, it was so humbling and so validating. It was really validating as a chef to feel like this is what I’ve dreamt, for someone to be able to really feel me and all of me in my food, and I felt Dario connected in that moment with me."
Melissa said that she felt confident about and proud of the meal she presented for the final challenge as she stood with Stephanie and Bryan at the final Judges' Table. "From this point in the competition, everyone is performing at their best and all the food is great. It’s a matter of nitpicking just the smallest, tiniest details, which is so different than my first time around on Top Chef where there was certainly more distinct gaps between levels and technique. It was hard because [the judges] were just saying so many good things about all three of us that I’m like 'Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have this or not,'" Melissa recalled. "But I feel at least proud of what I presented and happy and, and if I don’t win today I’ll walk away still a winner. I really felt all of us should have been proud in that moment with the dishes that we created. I feel like we all felt like winners. You really can’t tell when everyone’s just getting all these amazing critiques left and right. Like, where do I place within this realm of awesomeness?"
Hearing Padma announce that she had won Top Chef immediately made Melissa emotional, she remembered. "I couldn’t stop crying. It was awesome," Melissa said of the moment. "It was all such a blur. I think all the hard work that all of us put into the experience of Top Chef was like flashing through my head, just every detail of the journey that I had gone on, from Los Angeles to Italy. And even over the years between my first Top Chef [season] to the all-star season, it all just sort of flashed through my head of like, wow, I did it."
Melissa admitted that there was actually a part of her that was afraid to compete in Top Chef again. "It scared the crap out of me to even think of going back on this show. But I think when you lean into that fear and you embrace [it], it's amazing to see the person that you can become on the other side of that journey," she shared. "I think that was what I was feeling in that moment. Like, I did this thing that scared me and terrified me, and yet I’m now the winner of Top Chef. This is so surreal and amazing all at the same time. It was an out-of-body experience. I just remember crying a lot and everybody running towards me and champagne being passed in my hand. I was just in shock. Complete shock."
Melissa's father, who became more supportive of her culinary career after Season 12, was just as emotional when she told him she had won this season of Top Chef. "He cried. He got very emotional about it. He said he was so proud of me. And then I started crying. It became this thing that really brought us even closer together than we’ve been the past few years. I know he had his hesitations [about] me going back on this show and going back into the competition, but throughout he has been very supportive of it," Melissa said. "It’s amazing what the show has done for me, personally, you know, outside of my career. It has really brought me closer to my family members, especially my father. We had a hard time in my younger years, and I think it’s really solidified that relationship. He’s so proud of me."
Melissa said that she felt like she approached her second season of Top Chef with greater confidence in her cooking. "I went in with the mentality of just do your best and do your food and don’t second guess yourself too much. I know I did that a lot the first season. I kind of stood by my food a lot more this year," she said. "I just kind of went in with a much different perspective. I tried not to let the game get to me too much, and I was just there to just cook my food."
Competing on Top Chef has been an "incredibly life-changing experience" for Melissa in other ways. She said she even felt "like a different person competing this year than the first time around."
"First of all, it’s given me so much confidence as a chef and just confidence in the food that I want to create for people. It’s also brought so much confidence to me as a person in just my day-to-day life. I used to be a little less hesitant to say yes to things and I was a little more of a no person. And then after my first Top Chef, I started becoming this yes person. I was painfully shy growing up, and to do something like apply for a national television show and put myself out there and stick my neck out, that was really challenging for me. And so, I put myself in that position and then I saw the reward that came on the other end. The reward is in the person that came and the strength that I found within myself," she said. "That really is what I learned from the entire experience is don’t be afraid to take chances. And don’t be afraid to do something that scares the crap out of you. That’s where we learn and grow as humans."
Of course, Top Chef has had a profound impact on Melissa's career as well. "It’s just opened up so many doors beyond working in a restaurant. Since I was young, I had always thought my goal would be to just open a restaurant and hang out in a kitchen all day long behind the door and just kind of be in my own world of food," Melissa said. "I started realizing after my Boston season that there’s so much more that I can do within this industry, and it doesn’t have to just be in the form of a restaurant. I can inspire people in so many other ways. I’m so grateful for this entire experience, both times around. Top Chef has really completely changed my life."
Melissa said that she hopes her Top Chef journey inspires others to go after their own dreams. "I just hope that people recognize the power of strength and the power of willpower and how far they can push themselves in anything that they do. I hope that this experience inspires other people to take more risks in their life, to lean into that fear and those things that scare them," she shared. "I really feel Top Chef has blossomed into so much more than I could have ever asked for. I just hope anyone that watches that feels inspired to do the same in their life."
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Check out more from the Top Chef Season 17 finale, below.