Melissa King On Tasting Wild, Anna Wintour, And Turkeyless Thanksgivings - Exclusive Interview

There's a side to Melissa King that you saw whispers of on "Top Chef." Don't get us wrong — King likes competing. She's got more challenge wins than any other competitor in "Top Chef" history. You don't get that without a healthy appreciation of rivalry, but the San Francisco-based chef refuses to be defined by one experience. "I never like to put myself in a box," she told Tasting Table in this exclusive interview. "I'm a curious person by nature."

That's part of the reason she took on the 2022 Met Gala. Working closely with Anna Wintour, King created something she'd never created before: a hamachi Crudo with yuzu kosho-olive tapenade and Sichuan chili oil in a citrus broth, a seasonal dish she described as "my take on America." It was art, yes. Stripped of all the fanfare, however, Melissa King also created that dish for the only real reason there is to dedicate your life to the kitchen. "A large part of why I became a chef was I like to see people light up when they eat my food," she reflected. "It's a labor of love and you put your heart into the things."

In Nat Geo's new docuseries, "Tasting Wild," you'll see more of that, softer side of King — the one full of adventure and wonder. Meet the chef who, traveling from glacier to volcano to beach is catapulted by nature to create some of the most awe-inspiring dishes we've seen on culinary TV all year.

The Tasting Wild episode that was outside of Melissa King's comfort zone

Your new series, "Tasting Wild," is really fun to watch. You travel from forest to beach to glacier, you bike across a lava field, and you mountain climb. That looked terrifying. What was the most challenging experience you had over the five episodes?

The mountain climbing. I don't like heights. The beauty of each episode or the experience was pushing myself a little bit out of my comfort zone and also seeing how far I could take it and realize that I could survive the experience and that I could find a lot of uplifting moments from it all. The mountain experience, I had never done before. I've never outdoor rock climbed. I only [had] indoor climbed. I was testing myself in that way. When I made it to the top, I remember feeling so empowered and felt uplifted from it all.

Do you think that the food you made at that culmination of these episodes ... did your cooking change in any way because of all of these adrenaline rushes or new experiences?

A lot of it was recognizing that I define inspiration in nature and the power behind nature and how it can push you to be more creative with what you're seeing [and] what you're tasting — especially what we're gathering from regions that we had gone — that we had an opportunity to travel to.

You do see my food shift in the sense that things I'm creating are very specific to that region. Back to the volcano episode and being on a big island, [I was] creating something with local fish that is only  from that specific area, alone. I found beauty in that. I found that I was creating things that I had not thought to do before and that was new to me. [It was] a great experience.

Melissa King's proudest Tasting Wild moment

You forage in your "everyday life," so to speak. Is there anything specifically that you learned about the natural environments you explored while on the show that changed the way you think about ingredients or meal prep?

I recognize that nature is ever-changing. It's constantly ... You don't know what you're going to expect. You may go out thinking you're going to find mushrooms and you may not find mushrooms or you may find a specific type of mushroom that will change the direction of the entire dish and the thing that I end up creating.

I found a lot of beauty in the unexpected. Those were the moments — going fishing on the glacier, trying to get trout and then realiz[ing] that we could catch anything ... We didn't actually catch anything that day, but [finding] inspiration in knowing what was growing in those rivers sparked a lot of the creativity behind the dish.

On that episode, you salt-baked the trout that you end up locally sourcing. Can you take us through the keys to salt baking for those of us who have never done it?

It is an extremely simple process. The key is taking the salt and creating, essentially, an oven. It seals the flavor. It seals the moisture and traps the heat inside of this beautiful dome that's bound together with egg whites and water. That whole dish was inspired by the glacier alone, seeing these snowy caps that were on Mount Baker, and then knowing that it was river fish in the waters nearby.

The idea to create the salt-baked fish manifested. Intertwining the spruce in the pine needles that we foraged in the area, I was able to incorporate that into the salt bake. It looked like little pieces of greenery popping up when snow caps melt. I had a lot of fun. That was probably one of my most proud dishes as far as having a really incredible, inspiring moment that truly was sparked by nature.

Can we salt bake in our home ovens if we're not out in the open?

Absolutely. That was my first time cooking a salt bake on a wood fire outdoors. I typically do that in an oven and I made that last night with a whole branzino. You can do that at home quite easily.

Melissa King's favorite plants to forage

You often compliment your meals on "Tasting Wild" with different salads or plants. You use spruce in your salt bake, like you just said. Are there any underutilized or under-foraged salad ingredients we could be looking for, maybe also in urban environments that we're in?

Wood sorrel is at least in the areas we were in California. I'm from California. It's quite prevalent when you go on a hike. You see wood sorrel everywhere and it has a nice citrus note to it. You also see miner's lettuce. Those are fairly safe items to forage, but I would put a little disclaimer about foraging in general.

You want to make sure you are well educated in the plants that you're harvesting to make sure you don't poison yourself or get sick. I would be a little cautious there. Things like seaweed – from my knowledge, there are no toxic seaweeds out there. You can safely forage for seaweeds in the ocean as long as it's fresh.

You recently spent your birthday in Maine. Did you find any nice natural ingredients in there?

We did. I had just gone on a hike and next thing you know, I was stumbling upon a tree stump of oyster mushrooms. There were black trumpet mushrooms underneath some pine needles. We also found yellow foot mushrooms and honey caps and took them home and sautéed them. Make sure you're with professionals or you have an understanding of mushrooms before you go out and pick them and eat them.

Melissa King's Met Gala takeaway

It's long been one of your culinary principles to source locally and cook seasonally. When Marcus Samuelsson tapped you for the 2022 Met Gala, you created this scalable dish for 500 people that was seasonal at the same time. What did that experience teach you?

The Met taught me to be flexible in my cooking, because there are certainly a lot of parameters with sourcing locally. [It was challenging], creating a dish that fit the theme of the Met, but also creating a dish that felt like me and having those Asian layers to it. As you said, [I learned] scalability and being able to create a dish that could be replicated for 500 guests and be consistent.

There were a lot of parameters. I find excitement in creating something within the parameters. Creating something that I've never created before, I find beauty in that. It pushes me a little bit further in my craft. I learned how to be flexible and open-minded to new things and to be able to bend in different directions, because sometimes you can be quite hard-headed and you're like, "I want to make this thing on this event," and then you realize it's not possible and have to be able to pivot from that.

You walked the red carpet with all of the celebs and ended up eating the meal that you'd cooked for them, with them. Did you get any on-the-spot feedback?

I did get on-the-spot feedback and it was extremely heartwarming. A large part of why I became a chef was I like to see people light up when they eat my food. It's a labor of love and you put your heart into the things. I put my heart in things I create, and to be able to see people in the moment experiencing it and seeing that reaction gets me excited.

What was your favorite moment from that night?

From the actual carpet experience ... There's so much people-watching, [seeing] what's going on. The whole thing felt like a dream. Being able to be a part of that experience and work so closely with Anna Wintour and Vogue to create an experience that felt cohesive and creative and also represented so much, had a story behind it. That was what was really special about it all.

Melissa King's family doesn't like turkey on Thanksgiving

Last year, at this time, you went on "Sesame Street" and you celebrated Thanksgiving. You made dumplings and also traditional Korean rice cakes. You grew up eating roast duck stuffed with sticky rice and also stir-fried vegetables — but you also say one of the nicest things about Thanksgiving is that there are no rules for you. Could you give our readers some Thanksgiving inspiration other than the traditional roast turkey that a lot of families think about?

My family, they don't really like turkey. I'm the only one that enjoys turkey, and so we fight every year about what we're going to make. We decided to switch off every year. We do turkey one year, the next year we'll do roast duck, and the next year we'll do seafood. I enjoy not having to follow tradition all the time. You can still create a beautiful meal experience and a feast for your family based on their preferences. In my family, we do king crab legs. I'll order a bunch of oysters, and Dungeness crab because we're in California, and we do a whole seafood-themed Thanksgiving.

King crab legs. How should we be preparing those?

Those oftentimes come pre-cooked already and it's really simple. You can either eat them chilled or you can warm them in the oven. I like to do a Sichuan chili butter. I'll make a Sichuan chili oil and infuse that with the butter, but you can do a straightforward garlic butter with lemon and call it a day. It gets everyone excited when they see king crab legs on the table.

Thanksgiving is all about bringing people together. It doesn't really matter what you're eating at the dinner table, but it's about the experience and building conversation and spreading the love that way. With my family being Chinese-American, [we do] multi-elements of Chinese food with the roast duck and the Chinese sticky rice stuffing and Chinese bok choy sautéed or simple sautéed Asian vegetables as a side dish. There are no rules when it comes to holidays.

Genius hacks for your Thanksgiving leftovers

You've previously said that you usually turn your holiday leftovers into a congee, a rice porridge. You also served that congee to Nancy Pelosi when you cooked at The Capitol. On "Tasting Wild," we see you make a mushroom congee. As our resident congee expert, could you give us the tips for a really good congee?

A good foundation to a congee starts with onions, garlic, and ginger. That's the holy trinity of Chinese cuisine. I sauté that. I sauté the rice, and then I layer it with the broth. If I'm making mushroom congee, I'll use mushroom broth. If I'm making a chicken congee, I'll use chicken broth, and same with the duck congee, I'll use duck broth.

That's how you build the flavor, but what also makes a congee exciting is the toppings. Don't skip out on the toppings. That's always the fun part of having the chili crunch and fried shallots, cilantro, and scallions. You could have so much fun with chopped peanuts. It's quite endless, the type of toppings that you can put on top. You want a lot of textural components to make it exciting.

What are your top three toppings?

I personally always love the chili crunch or a Sichuan chili oil. I like fried shallots and I also enjoy, I have to pick one more, cilantro.

Do you have any other creative things we can be doing with our Thanksgiving leftovers?

I'll chop up all the leftover Turkey and either make a congee or I'll do a turkey fried rice. I also am a purist. I like to open the fridge and eat it straight the way it was the night before. A fried rice is a very great way to repurpose any leftovers. You have your basic pantry staples from rice to garlic and onion, and you can sauté that all together with scrambled egg or any other vegetables that are in your fridge to make a nice leftover.

Melissa King on what it's like to work with Michael B Jordan

We saw on your Instagram the other day that you've recently been working with Michael B. Jordan. What's that experience been like for you?

That was an incredible experience to be a part of a project that involves so many talented people, from Michael B. Jordan to Anderson Paak. I felt incredibly honored to be surrounded by that type of talents and to be able to create something together. I fed him a crudo that was quite similar to what I had created at the Met Gala. It was a fun experience together.

Was he approving of your crudo?

Yes, he was. He ate several that day.

Finally, "Tasting Wild" is a really big departure from the style of culinary competition that we've seen you on. Is that an intentional departure for you?

I never like to put myself in a box. I get quite excited when new opportunities come. I'm a curious person by nature. Having the opportunity to be a host and to travel and do all the things that I love — foraging, explore nature — all in one show, I couldn't say no to it. It's been really fun to be able to express my range as a chef. As a chef that doesn't have a restaurant, which is a conscious decision, I find so much meaning in all these other avenues of creating and as an entrepreneur. This is one of many highlights for me to experience.

Don't miss out on Melissa King's adventures on Nat Geo's "Tasting Wild," witch is currently streaming on Hulu.