If you’re a fan of Bravo’s mega-hit cooking competition Top Chef, you’ve likely become familiar with recent contestant Buddha Lo.
The Australian-born, NYC-based chef not only competed in the show’s two most recent seasons, but ultimately took home back-to-back titles, being crowned Top Chef in Houston’s Season 19, and the illustrious crown for Season 20’s World All Stars edition in an incredible finale which aired Thursday, June 8.
Before becoming the first-ever back-to-back Top Chef winner (and the first winner of a season that saw returning winners and finalists from the show’s 29 national franchises), chef Lo had already garnered an impressive resume.
Having inherited a love of cooking from his chef father, Lo enrolled in Melbourne’s William Angliss Institute to study the art of cooking when he was 17. He earned his first head chef position two years later, and has since worked in some of the finest kitchens in Paris, London and New York City, including with his mentor Clare Smyth at three Michelin star restaurant Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Currently, he works as Executive chef at Marky's and Huso in NYC.
We caught up with Lo just a few hours before the Top Chef Season 20 finale aired to hear more about how back-to-back stints on the show impacted his life and cooking, and what he’s got coming up next.
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Congrats on another huge finale. How are you feeling?
It's been a long journey. If you look at the very first phone call I got from season 19 all the way to the season 20 finale, it's been one long journey.
You didn't really take any time off.
I actually got the phone call when I got back from Aspen Food and Wine last year, and that was only two weeks after the finale aired. I thought, “Oh, it's all over now. I'm going to just do whatever; get a manager, maybe an agent and see where I go,” and then the phone call came like “we would like you on season 20.” It was perfect timing. I hadn’t organized anything, and then this big thing came back into my life. I just had to ask my wife if she can go through it again. I thought it was gonna be a tough decision for her, but she said yes straight away.
That's a huge gamble, to come from a season that you just won. There's a possibility I get kicked off the first episode and make my win redundant. I'm happy I made it all the way.
Maybe you still had all the creative juices and heightened sense of timing from Season 19. I can only imagine what it's like when you're faced with those challenges.
I love these challenges. It’s actually my happy place of cooking. When you become a head chef, you cook maybe 10 percent of the time. You’re starting rosters, managing your team, someone's having a mental breakdown and you have to support them. When you get to just cook, oh my God, it's so much fun. It's literally what I would call heaven.
Top Chef season 20 finalists Sara Bradley, Gabri Rodriguez and Buddha Lo
You wear your fandom for the art of cooking on your sleeve. Particularly this season, you've met so many people you're clearly excited to meet.
Everything around my life revolves around cooking. I started so young, from my dad cooking me meals every single day, to going to school and not even paying attention to the class, just Googling chefs like Gaggan Anand, Wylie Dufresne and René Redzepi. I was Googling all these people because I was so excited and interested in it.
My wife's a chef. I remember my sister-in-law came and said, "Do you guys ever not talk about food?” We kinda stepped back and went "actually, we don't." We talk about work, we talk about kitchens, “Oh, did you see they're opening up a restaurant,” “there's a pop-up ramen shop happening down the corner.” Even my dog’s life revolves around food.
You see that in my reaction when I see chefs. It's like being an NBA player starting in the league, and then you're playing next to LeBron. These people have influenced the way that you cook, and now you're cooking for them. It's an incredible moment.
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This show is just cool opportunity after cool opportunity, between the activities and the food you get to taste. With Season 20 bringing chefs from around the world, what did it teach you?
As you walk in, it's a global perspective. You might know a bit about Polish food, a bit about Middle-Eastern food, but when you go to someone that's perfected that craft? When they start talking to you about the different forms, why they use [this] and why they don't use [that], it's just so much information. Also, learning about their backgrounds and the impact of food in their lives.
I go to Union Square Market and see the Tibetan guys selling bread and go "where's the best Tibetin food," and they start talking about the culture. I learn from different backgrounds, and that's makes me a better chef. I'm never going to stop learning. I think that shows in my food, in the sense that I don't have a particular cuisine. I can make sushi, but I can not make sushi as well as a sushi master—nor do I have aspirations to do that when there's so many different cuisines to try and explore.
Whether it comes from actually cooking with the person, eating their food or learning by just talked to someone, I want to understand it all. The way I cook on the show is predominantly fine dining, but [that’s] because that gives me the best chance of winning. With all my dishes I thought, “how can I take it to the furthest level so I don't get eliminated,” because that's the goal, right?
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That’s the strategy that took you to the top!
It's not all I can do, because I can do a lot more, but if I did a banoffee pie, is it going to be as elevated as trying to stuff all that into a banana mold, making it look like a banana, and then they pick it up like a piece of fruit and they're eating a bannoffee pie? It's that set of ideas that really make me stretch, because we are in a competition. There's only so many slots, and at any point you can get eliminated. If I can only make it to two episodes, at least the four dishes I showed were dishes I’m proud to put up.
Did watching Top Chef help come up with that strategy?
I'm obsessed with a lot of different cooking shows. Top Chef is something that I remember so vividly growing up in Australia. When it started hitting its stride, it really captured me, but as much as I say “strategy” or “game” or “homework,” I think anyone that’s watched a decent amount of Top Chef know the golden rules:
You shouldn't attempt the risotto in 20 minutes. I would never make my own pasta in 20 minutes, because pasta needs to rest before you roll it out. That's your own grave you're digging right there. A lot of it comes down to common sense. Yes, there are some previous things you can learn from, but 75 percent is that you have to know how to cook, and if you don't execute on the day and perform, then you're out. If you don't execute, what's the point of watching every single episode? You do have judges in front of you—and they're not going to be your regular customers. They're there for one night only, and you better make it a good night.
Buddha Lo, Tom Colicchio and Clare Smyth
You've been in front of the judges table a lot in the past two years. Do you ever feel comfortable?
There's never any confidence. The only one time I actually felt confident was the trompe l'oeil challenge. I talked to the other chefs about their dishes, and I thought, “if I execute this dish, this is going to be very hard to beat.” I threw a lot of things at the wall, and I managed to execute every single one of them perfectly. There's a point where, even if you do get beat, you go, “Well, that dish must have been amazing.” That's still one of my favorite dishes, if not the favorite dish that I've done on the whole show.
What will you take with you from the show going forward?
I didn't do well in the thali challenge, but it's such a learning curve with Indian food. I think that's probably the most misrepresented—and it was really hard because I stuffed up the rice. I was extremely disappointed in myself, because I understand where Padme comes from and why she's become so protective of Indian food. It’s like Chinese American food. We’re just starting to understand proper Chinese food rather than something created just years ago.
Throughout the journey, you learn a lot, but it's not just learning from someone. The Wellington Challenge? I learned that you can do three Wellingtons in three hours for 30 people. If you told me that before, I'd tell you “you're dreaming, that's not possible.” They push you to that limit, and you realize you can get these things achieved in time. It's really cool to see that, because when you get put in a sticky situation, you can say “is it three Wellingtons in three hours? No? Then it's achievable.” Anything after that is really achievable.
We probably don't fully appreciate the insanity being asked and being delivered every week. What else are we not seeing?
If I was doing the editing, there'd be double the content. I threw a bathrobe party for my birthday in London. It was like a toga party but everyone was wearing bathrobes, and they changed the room into a party area. There was maybe 15 or 14 chefs left. Everyone was having a great time, and there were definitely a lot of funny moments.
Another thing to mention is what goes on behind the scenes [for crew]. I've watched these people work so hard to get working in the tiniest kitchens, to move around us. Top Chef is probably one of the most extreme productions. Any other cooking competition, 100 percent of the time it’s just in a studio. That's not to put it down, but they will come tomorrow, and the camera will be exactly where they need it to be. With Top Chef, they go from location to location, and that is a lot of moving parts.
It's crazy how much effort and work they do to really highlight the city they're in, and moving a whole studio into a tiny kitchen that's three hours away from the studio? This production was even harder considering they had to move to two different countries and work abroad with all the different permits. All these things that happen just to make this show so great. I don't think it gets highlighted enough.
For this finale, they got us on the roof of The Galeries Lafayette. You can see the whole of Paris. To shut down Galeries Lafayette just so we can get this iconic shot for the very last episode of season 20 is like, “how do they do this?”
It speaks to the level Top Chef has reached in the greater cultural schema. Everyone respects this show. What do you make of Padma’s retirement announcement?
It's going to be sad tonight, knowing it's the last time we hear from Padma. She's just been so iconic. There's so many people that have done this for years, like Jeff Probst on Survivor. It's hard to imagine what the show would be like without them, but they can't be there forever.
Padma’s got a lot to give, and she's ready to pass the baton. She's going to do incredible things, and I feel super lucky to be doing back-to-back finales. To be on her last episode is just a real treat. It makes doing the season more special, even though, how do you top it? Season 20, World All Stars, winners and finalists, last season that Padma is there, the first time they've shot abroad. How many shows can bring winners and finalists from franchises all around the world and shoot overseas? That’s not heard of.
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You're finally done with Top Chef. What do you do now?
Top Chef is obviously an iconic moment in my career. It’s opened so many doors and gets me to where I am, but I always want to keep going. My next goal is to get a Michelin star. There's all sorts of things I want to attain throughout my career and my personal life. I'd love to have a family. It's constantly having those goals.
Top Chef is one of those massive stepping stones. You could say it's catapulted me into an area where I can live out my dreams, opening up beautiful restaurants and eateries. There's no point having all these restaurants and eateries if you don't have diners that want to come eat at your restaurant, so this has helped me with my career so much, but the journey doesn't end there.
Like I said in Restaurant Wars, I always feel like [my mentor] Clare [Smyth] is on my shoulder telling me to be better. You represent her when you go to a kitchen and say that you worked for her. You have to make sure that you show up. Now I've got a Top Chef on my shoulder as well.
I'm excited to see what you do in the future! Anything else you want to say about this experience?
It's coming to an end, and it's always sad, because I want to do it again. I don't think I'm going to do it again, but maybe I’ll come back as a judge. Hey, I had my shot. I got to do two seasons, and I made it to two finales. I'm extremely lucky and honored to be a part of it. I loved every moment of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Follow chef Lo online as he continues his journey after back-to-back Top Chef wins, and visit Marky's and Huso in NYC. Follow Top Chef on Instagram to stay tuned and learn what the hit show has in store for the future.
Photography by: Stephanie Diani/Bravo; Fred Jagueneau/Bravo; David Moir/Bravo