The cooking timer sounded for the last time during the Top Chef Houston Season 19 finale as the Final Plate hit the table. Left standing was cheftestant Buddha Lo, the Australian Chinese super fan who paid tribute to family and the American dream into his four-course progressive dish.
Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and guest decision-makers Eric Ripert and Stephanie Izard were wowed by the presentation and flavor of Lo’s hamachi with caviar, lobster laksa, Mongolian lamb, and pumpkin pie mille-feuille dessert.
“I didn’t dream to be an astronaut. I didn’t dream of anything else. I dreamt to be right here,” the executive chef at Huso in New York City, said after the announcement.
Lo’s win earns him a feature in Food & Wine Magazine, a trip to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and $250,000. We caught up with the culinary champ as he reflects on an emotional season and why the title of Top Chef means more than money.
What does winning Top Chef mean to you?
Buddha Lo: The career I’ve taken and decisions I’ve made from a very young age until now, all these things are happening. To see it all pay off means a lot. It means a lot to my family, especially my father. It’s an instrumental key to where I want to be in my career.
You spoke about your restaurateur father passing away just two days after you got the call to appear on the show. How was it for you to tell your family story through food in such a powerful way?
My dad was very instrumental in that final menu. Being a fan of the show, I knew exactly what I would do at the end. I knew we would do a four-course progressive meal. Studying up on the show. There were a lot of dishes but these just made sense to me. As much as Top Chef is about cooking, it is about menu planning and the structure of how you want to go through the cook. That in a sense is more important than the cooking itself.
You chose Jackson Kalb, who lost his sense of taste after battling COVID. Do you find this was redemption for him to come back?
When I thought of him, I’m surprised nobody else did before me. I think it is. He has a massive amount of potential. The guy didn’t have a taste or smell and got eliminated from the front-of-the-house…When you see someone in the first half of the competition only make the bottom with a Quickfire and then every other episode be three or one, you know they are a contender. It was a no-brainer regardless of COVID. That didn’t shake me at all. I need someone who has worked with me and understands my style and how I work and cook.
Did you do anything for him since you won?
I went to San Francisco recently to do a dinner with him and his wife and offered to pay for his meal. He absolutely refused. The guy is the type of person who is just happy for you. But he is gunning to do All-Stars if they do it again. He would be someone to look out for. Jackson with his taste and studying up on the competition could be dangerous.
How has life changed now that you are this public figure?
Going public you have this question are you ready to be public? Well, you look at all of the chefs I look up to they are in the public eye. I look up to Gordon Ramsey and Thomas Keller. I look up to these amazing chefs that have all the accolades, but how they did it was through the notoriety they have. Thomas Keller said it very well in this video I watched. You always have to be ready for the next stage of your life…I follow his guidance. You do have to be ready for the next thing. If people want to take photos with me, great. That’s what I want. What I need if I want to have a successful restaurant and get people to come in. You have to put yourself out there. It’s the modern-day chef now. The modern-day chef now is a celebrity.
What do you want to do with the money won and the platform you now have?
The money I don’t have a plan. Just because I haven’t really had this sort of money and never think I would. I’ve always lived a very uncomfortable life. I’ve always been working for these restaurants that don’t pay a lot of money. They are always in major cities, so the rent is expensive. I’ve been through the journey and the struggle as well. I think with the money I will live a little more comfortably in life. Knowing that I can go from A to B and not worry about how it will affect me financially. I don’t think $250,000 will do me well for a restaurant in New York City. Maybe part ownership. The main thing is the platform, which is more important. I’m happy to achieve this platform because I think my thoughts and opinions can help change the food industry. I’d love to be an advocate to help the food industry get to a better place. I think there are a lot of things that can be fixed, and I can try to help move them in the right direction.
What do you think your dad would be saying to you right now?
He would be saying that the is so proud of me. He would always say if you think you can, you can. The goal was always to open my own restaurant one day, and he can come to sit down and I’d cook for him. The guy cooked for me every day of my life. When I grew up, he cooked every meal from lunch to dinner. It was the small successes that meant so much to him. I know he would be proud. I did a video on YouTube that maybe got maybe 500 views on Tabasco sauce, and the guy probably watched 400 of the views. The thing about me being on Top Chef and that I was on 14 episodes and took the win, the roof would be raising.