On Thanksgiving Day, “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special” will introduce the show’s first Asian American muppet, Ji-Young. In announcing the 7-year-old Korean character, Sesame Workshop said this episode celebrates “the rich diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities as part of the organization’s ongoing racial justice initiative.” Celebrities helping to introduce the historic muppet include Naomi Osaka, Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Melissa King, an all-star judge of “Top Chef.”
USA TODAY talked to King this week about her childhood, the special episode and “Sesame Street,” which helped her learn English as she grew up in a Chinese American family in the Los Angeles area.
Her conversation with Editorial Board member Thuan Le Elston has been edited for length and clarity:
Q. Melissa, how did you get to “Sesame Street”?
A. It’s just such an honor to be a part of “Sesame Street” and to be invited in. It is an API special, and to have their first Asian American muppet, the whole thing is just so exciting, so when they reached out to me, I couldn’t say no. I stopped everything on my schedule to make it happen.
Q. I came over in ’75 as a Vietnam War refugee, and “Sesame Street” helped me learn English. What was “Sesame Street” to you as a child?
A. “Sesame Street” definitely taught me English. I grew up in a household where we only spoke Cantonese. By the age of 5, I started watching “Sesame Street.” I remember even juggling Julia Child and Martin Yan cooking shows and “Sesame Street” in between on PBS. So really it’s just been such an inspiring moment for me to be a part of “Sesame Street,” getting to know Cookie Monster and Elmo and the whole gang, really just such a bucket-list dream of mine.
Q. What are we going to be seeing on this episode on Thanksgiving?
A. You’re going to see me cooking with Ji-Young, Cookie Monster and Elmo. We are empowering children out there to learn more about Asian foods and Asian people, that there’s not just one type of Asian person, that there’s an array of beautiful cultures within the Asian group.
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Q. How did your family react when you told them that this was going to happen?
A. Oh, my family went nuts. I kept it a secret for quite a while. Once it was announced, my family is so proud of me and to see so much representation out there as well. They were shocked to hear that Ji-Young is the first Asian American muppet (on “Sesame Street”). I think it was just something we never thought about, and so my family is so proud to see just our culture’s being represented, and also to see me be a part of that experience.
Q. How long did it take to film this episode?
A. It took a day of filming.
Q. What was it like?
A. Oh my gosh, it was the best day of my life. And I’m not even joking. Being able to interact with Cookie Monster, Elmo and Ji-Young. I got teary and emotional throughout it. And it was also incredible to see just how many Asians are part of (the) behind the scenes of it all, from the producers to the puppeteers. It was a really moving experience to just join together as a community and to be a part of an experience that is really all about representation and showing how important representation can be.
Q. Why is Ji-Young debuting on Thanksgiving Day to America – and the world?
A. The whole identity of the episode is coming together with your community, with your family and friends. And what better day than Thanksgiving to do that?
Q. What are you and the muppets cooking on the episode?
A. We are making dumplings. We are also making “tteokbokki,” traditional Korean rice cakes, and you know really exploring the array of Asian ingredients out there and just the diversity of our foods.
Q. Your family is going to gather to watch this on Thanksgiving?
A. Absolutely. My two little nieces are coming over as well, and they’re identical twins, age 5. They are very pumped to see that I know Cookie Monster and Elmo and to get to know Ji-Young.
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Q. Your journey has just been incredible to me. Describe your childhood.
A. I grew up on the east side of L.A. Both my parents were working. Cooking kind of became this thing that I grew attached to, and a lot had to do with just spending time with my mom when she came home from work, and we’d spend that one hour from 6 to 7 p.m. preparing dinner together. By the time I was maybe 10 or 11, I started cooking dinner for the whole family and kind of taking on that responsibility. So that when they got home they didn’t have to worry about that. Cooking really became this necessity that we had to do, but it kind of evolved into a hobby and a passion of mine. I went to culinary school in New York at the Culinary Institute of America. And then from there, I built my career in San Francisco at Michelin star restaurants and kind of worked my way around.
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Q. As an all-stars winner of “Top Chef,” you came back as a judge this last season where they filmed during the pandemic in Oregon. What was it like?
A. That was a tough time. We didn’t have vaccinations yet, so there were a lot of unknowns. We heavily quarantined (and tested). It was a challenge to be one of the first shows out there in production (during) the pandemic. But we came out very successful. No one got sick. And the whole experience of being now a judge also (is) this whole full circle moment for me, to be a competitor and then move on to now being more as a mentor to the competitors. I really enjoyed that process.
Q. With the next season in Houston, are you one of the judges this time, too?
A. Yes, I will be a judge on Houston’s “Top Chef.”
Q. How has your family’s Thanksgiving tradition changed?
A. When I was a kid, we never ate turkey. We would eat roast duck, and it was always stuffed with Chinese sticky rice. My mom always stir fried Chinese vegetables. I think around the time I was like 13 or 14, I cooked my first turkey. I always feel there are no rules when it comes to Thanksgiving. At the end of the day, it’s about enjoying an abundant amount of food with your family and your friends and your loved ones.
Thuan Le Elston, a member of USA TODAY’s Editorial Board, is the author of “Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia.” Follow her on Twitter: @thuanelston