Don King is more than just a legendary boxing promoter with a Bart Simpson hairdo and a lyrical flow most rappers would kill for. He's also a fan of Top Chef! And the story of one chef in particular -- that of Josie Smith-Malave, recently ejected for a second time from the Bravo reality series -- has so moved him, he's taken up the cause to have her reinstated.
Never mind that Josie's competitors -- and many Top Chef Seattle fans -- found her confrontational and prone to sabotage; or, after a hugely controversial call that kept her in the running, that she was eliminated fair-and-square the following week for serving up a platter of soggy fried chicken; or that Josie blew her one shot at redemption, on the web-only series Last Chance Kitchen, in a landslide, earning only 6 percent of the audience vote to C.J. Jacobsen's 96 percent.
No matter. King, now 81, sees more than a little of himself in the brash Smith-Malave, who he feels was unfairly ganged-up on. He opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about that topic and much more in a conversation we won't soon forget.
The Hollywood Reporter: So what prompted this late-career switch from promoting prizefighters to fighting chefs?
DON KING: I’m not switching, I’m adding. What I’m doing is fighting for the rights of a fellow American who happens to be Chef Josie. Josie is a remarkable chef and I think she got eliminated not by the process of competition but through the vanity of man, as they say. Me being a fighter for freedom, justice and equality, and a fighter for women’s rights especially, just as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton used Frederick Douglas, a former slave, to be their advocate, I felt it only proper that I would be an advocate for Chef Josie.
THR: By all means, make your case for Chef Josie.
KING: I wrote a little ditty for her: "Chef Josie is the people’s chef. A master of culinary arts for the people, by the people and of the people, and her food is ambrosia for the masses and the classes, and her magic lies in her cooking ties to the people."
THR: Have you always been a gourmand?
KING: Many of you haven’t been hungry, but I have. When you’re hungry, food sustains humanity until it gets the enlightenment, consciousness and awareness to appreciate the fact that we are our brothers’ keeper. Music is the ribbon that ties humanity together, sports -- and especially boxing -- is the attraction that brings humanity together to be tied, and food is the sustenance that sustains humanity until its awareness becomes sensitive and cognizant of the fact that we are our brothers’ keeper, whether we want to be or not.
THR: And so what was it about Josie that led you to take up her cause?
KING: I’ve been watching Top Chef on Bravo. I love all the chef programs. A couple of weeks ago, I see Chef Josie and I liked her. She’s a woman: rare, unique and wonderful. She speaks her mind, she stands up for what she believes in. I see from the conversations [on Top Chef Seattle] that she ends up being eliminated not by her cooking, but by her what they would usually call an "impertinent and haughty or arrogant personality." Her fighting back, in other words. So what I wanted to do was to get the vote back, and let us deal with it and impartially and objectively, take a step back and let the cooking be the judge. If she don’t win, at least she leaves by the competitive mode, not by the dictatorial or prejudicial or any other way that you can find bigotry at its worst. Tweet her at #savechefjosie or you can text her at 27286. We must get those votes in to get her back in!
[Ed. Note: As mentioned earlier, Josie has already been eliminated from Last Chance Kitchen, dooming King's well-meaning campaign from the get-go.]
THR: Between Top Chef, Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef and now The Taste, boxing-style competition in the world of food is the hot thing right now. What are the chances we'll ever see you promoting that kind of bout?
KING: You know what, all those great opportunities and the vanity of that could be something that I’d want to pursue. Everything I do, from "Rumble in the Jungle" to "Thrilla in Manila" to "The Last Hurrah," every one all had a humanity tied to it to demonstrate the propaganda of the day -- that you can't do this or you can't do that. You bring about change through illustration, and one picture beats a thousand words. These chefs are coming in, they're fighters in the kitchen, just like fighters in the ring. Life is like a fight. You get knocked down, you get back up, dust yourself off and get back in the ring.
THR: So there might be a culinary "Thrilla in Manila" in the works?
KING: There could be. One thing I won't do is mislead or say something I know ain't true. What you just struck on is titillating my fancy as I speak to you. Nothing would please me more than to get into the culinary arts business. People who eat together stay together. That’s why you make all your business meetings over lunch. Why? You do things over dinner and lunch that you would never do! A family dinner produces love and understanding. A business dinner, you get something done. So yes! I may be willing, ready and able -- if I can see fair play coming. I wouldn’t want to get to Iron Chef and get him in the ring and see him knocked out over prejudice. Beat me out over better ambrosia, his fried eggs better than mine, beat me out with roast chicken, spare ribs, liver and onions. This is what I want them to beat me out with -- not the hue of your hair, the pigment of your skin, your gender.
THR: Am I correct in saying that you are 81 years old?
KING: 81 and I’ll be 82 in August, August, August the 20th.
THR: I’m born August 19th!
KING: We are leos! Break down the barriers! Man this is a remarkable, this is a spiritual experience. A religious thing, like eating Chef Josie’s chicken. From the African perspective, the chicken is the “gospel bird.”
THR: What is the secret to your vitality? You sound as sharp and gregarious as you did three decades ago.
KING: Blessings from God! Blessings from Jehovah, my man. Everything I do, I do with him being in front. Do you know they tried to kill me, oh, I don’t know, four, five or six times? They blew up my house! Get on the Google! The blew up my house in 1957. In 1959 they shot me in the head in my driveway. They were giving me my last rights on the way to Saint Luke’s hospital. I got stabbed because I was belligerent, what they would call “impertinent and haughty and arrogant,” because for a black person to speak back to the mob at that time, or a white man, period, it was just unheard of. It was totally unacceptable. You have to learn how to deal with that. When you ask, “How is this guy still here?” It’s God, man.
KING: Carry the word in The Hollywood Reporter. I want it to be blazing hot. I want it to melt all the steel hearts of prejudice, all the steel hearts of selfishness, all the steel hearts of one-side bigotry and discrimination. Be fair and square, and let your tastebuds be the judge.