Top Chef Finalists On Padma Lakshmi's Exit And More Behind-The-Scenes Secrets - Exclusive Interview

The time is here: "Top Chef: World All-Stars" is about to air the finale and crown Buddha Lo, Sara Bradley, or Gabriel Rodriguez as the champion. The competition has had many twists and turns, from Sara's thrilling comeback on "Last Chance Kitchen" to Gabri's many brushes with elimination. Which chef will take home the $250,000 grand prize (and the moral victory from beating so many other All-Stars)? The three finalists already know, but they aren't telling until the last episode airs.

Fortunately for us, the top three contestants are able to share plenty of other stories from this season of "Top Chef." Mashed sat down for an exclusive interview with Bradley and Lo to talk about their journeys this season, their reactions to Padma Lakshmi leaving the show, and their favorite off-camera moments. We weren't able to talk to Rodriguez during the initial interview, but he answered some of our questions via email, and you can read his responses at the end.

Sara's comeback journey to the finale

Did cooking in the finale feel sweeter after having to claw your way back on "Last Chance Kitchen"?

Sara Bradley: Oh, 100%. The first time I cooked in the finale, I hadn't been sent home, so this time, I had a lot more drive. It felt much better.

Were you confident about your chances in the "Last Chance Kitchen"?

Bradley: Honestly, when I got eliminated, I went home, and I was over it. I was thinking, "Man, I just want to go home and see my kids and be done with this." I had a conversation with my husband, and he was like, "That's not you. That's not how you do anything." I went into "Last Chance Kitchen" trying to get back in because I didn't want all of my work to be a waste of time.

I've seen you speak about the importance of having a female chef participate in the finale. Do you feel like that was a motivating factor for you going into the final stretch?

Bradley: It's interesting because I wanted there to be a female chef. There were a lot of us, and when it got down to the top six, I was the only one left. But what is cool about "Top Chef" is that this is one of those competitions where it doesn't matter if you're a male or a female; it's about the food that you put up. Yes, I wanted there to be a female, but I don't think I got there just because I was a female.

The challenges of competing in back-to-back seasons

Buddha, you're competing in back-to-back seasons, which sounds exhausting. Do you think there's an advantage or a disadvantage from going back-to-back like that?

Buddha Lo: There's definitely both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that you've done it before and you came fresh off last season, but at the same time, going back-to-back, you have not really [had] any time to regrow your repertoire. Even now, in the last year, my repertoire's grown a little bit bigger. I've tried different techniques and stuff like that. But I'm literally coming into Season 20 with a Season 19 mentality and the same set of skills.

There are things that I did not use on "Top Chef" this season because I did it last season. For example, Parker House rolls — I can't do that anymore. I can't do a pavlova. It's not that you couldn't; I just felt for myself, I wanted to do new things, push myself to the boundary, and keep coming up with different things. That's the way I wanted to go about it.

There are some serious advantages and disadvantages. Talking to people from previous seasons or other versions of "Top Chef" that were on the show, they're like, "We'll 100% do dishes that we won challenges with on our season. But Padma [Lakshmi], Tom [Colicchio], and Gail [Simmons] haven't seen that or tasted that before." That becomes their advantage as well.

Buddha is still savoring his Restaurant Wars win

If we find out that you win it all, would it top winning "Restaurant Wars" in front of your mentor Clare Smyth?

Lo: It'd be high up there. I wouldn't say that if I was to win, it'd definitely top it for sure. But when I was in "Restaurant Wars," my mentality was like, "If I get sent home the next day, I don't care. As long as I win this one, this is probably more important." That's how I went about that challenge. It was a pretty meaningful challenge. Not many people get to do this. It was a full-circle moment from coming into her kitchen as a young chef and then standing in front of her on this global stage, being able to not only cook the challenge but also win it. I made it quite clear that I wanted to win it individually by taking on all those different tasks.

It was the championship within the championship.

Lo: Exactly. I went in thinking that she might be on the show for sure, but I didn't know anything about it. She's super expensive, I know. She doesn't let just anyone go into her kitchens. The fact that all those things lined up — it was pretty amazing.

The added challenge of All-Stars

What's been different about competing against All-Stars compared to the original seasons you were on?

Bradley: The fact that everybody had done it before. The first time you do it, everyone's a little gun-shy. You never know what's going to happen, or even, you don't know how things are going to play out. But since we'd all done it before, we had some expectations — and since we had all made it so far before, that was a motivator to not go home.

On your original season, you don't want to be the first one that goes home, and then you keep pushing forward. But on this one, you knew what it was to either be super close or to win. Everyone was significantly more motivated this time around.

Lo: This time around was really intimidating. It was being in that group of people and knowing that you have to bring your A-game because there's going to be challenges where everyone pulls something out of the bag and a good dish is still going to go home. That's not usually the case in normal seasons; you can coast on the fact that maybe someone does worse than you. But there were definitely challenges where you think, "This caliber's so high." Even with the first Quickfire challenge, everyone was so good, and you go, "Wow, this is going to be incredible."

Like Sara said, everyone's so talented, and everyone's made it to the finale. It's the fact that it's only finalists and winners. In most "All-Stars," that includes people that probably should have made it further.

On my season, Jackson will probably get invited to "All-Stars," considering his story was that he got eliminated from "Restaurant Wars" as a front-of-house person. It's a very tough competition to get into. Walking into it, I was very interested to see how all the different Top Chefs around the world would take on these challenges and see if the competition was very familiar with them. Looking back at it, I can see why France didn't make it that far, because their system is not anywhere close to what the U.S. system's like.

Sara's mistake she wishes she could take back

Is there a mistake from this season that you wish you could have back and take another crack at?

Bradley: The Wellington challenge, because it's what was our downfall. Amar [Santana] and I made a basic mistake that I don't think got showcased on the show. We made this huge prep list and we assigned everybody tasks — who was going to do this and who was going to do that. We had it all planned out, and we forgot to assign who was going to roll the Wellingtons. That's the key part.

While we had everything ready to go and we went for it, we messed up on the execution. If I could go back and do that one over, I would — either that one or the steamed cabbage dish, the steamer challenge, because man, the guest judge ... That Quickfire, he railed me. He reamed me. He was so unimpressed.

Would you not go Asian if you had another chance?

Bradley: Yeah. I don't know why I chose to do that. Maybe in my head, I saw the steamer basket, so therefore the steamer baskets are Asian, so I need to go that way. I don't know what happened. Steaming isn't what we do a ton of in my kitchen — we cook with fire here — so I don't know why I chose that. But ultimately, it's probably the Wellington one that got me sent home. I'd like to go back and do that one over again.

Buddha wishes he could redo his thali rice

Lo: Like Sara said, it's definitely the challenge that almost sends you home or that sends you home that you always think back to. If you get sent home on a good dish and you had a good day, that's amazing. You can walk out with your head high. But mine was definitely the thali challenge where I messed up the rice. I probably had four challenges within both seasons where I had to cook rice for massive amounts of people, and I always cooked it properly. For this Indian challenge, I stumbled, and that kept on rolling. Within two minutes of finding out that my rice on the bottom was not good, I'm getting frazzled, so I missed the curry on Padma's dish as well.

It was very difficult, and it was a gut-wrenching moment. You think to yourself, "This could be it. This is the sort of thing that all good chefs can get sent home on." I'm not 100% happy with the dish. As a golden rule, if I can look at a dish that I send out, and if it's 100% and I'm happy to go home on that, then I'm going to be happy leaving. But if it's something so basic like rice and you stuff it up and you go home for that, you're going to have to live with that for a very, very long time. That's probably worse than leaving home on a good dish.

Thoughts on Padma leaving Top Chef

What are your thoughts on Padma Lakshmi retiring from the show? How does it feel to be on the last season with her as a host, now that you know that she's leaving?

Bradley: Man, I'm so excited to see what she does. We get the behind-the-scenes; we get to see Padma and Tom [Colicchio] and Gail [Simmons] in real life. The relationship that developed amongst us as chefs and judges this season was drastically different than it was on our first season. They know that we've been there; they think we're part of the family.

I am so excited to see what she does because she is amazing. She's someone that I really look up to as a female. But it's "Top Chef," man, and Padma is part of that empire. I'm excited to see who they get to try to fill her shoes.

Big shoes to fill, for sure.

Bradley: They are incredible, awesome, high-heeled shoes to fill.

Lo: I'm super excited for what's to come for Padma, and I wish her all the best, for sure. I feel so lucky to be able to do the last two seasons with her and be able to make it into both finales and spend the utmost amount of time on both seasons. She's such a lovely person. We barely do anything off camera when we're filming, but there was one time in the thali challenge [that] she cooked Indian food for us.

There's a special day that she does every season where she gets Indian food for the whole crew. She would be cooking or getting food from some Indian restaurant that she respects. The whole crew, the cameramen, [and] the producers are all walking around eating this amazing Indian food. Like Sara said, it's big shoes to fill. The show is going to be different in a very good way as well. I hope that the next host that comes is going to have that longevity and keep up the tradition of what makes the show so amazing — because even though it's 20 seasons in, it's getting better and better and better, and it's got so much more room to grow.

Memorable off-camera moments

You have alluded to a couple of these already, but do you have any memorable moments that didn't make it onto the show that stick with you now that you're done filming?

Bradley: Always lots of them. A really memorable moment was ... It was Buddha, Gabri, and I. It was after we were in the top three, and we got back and it was super late. We'd been on the boat all day, and we told our handlers we wanted sushi. We got on and we picked this Michelin-starred sushi restaurant and had a spread of enough sushi to feed probably 15, 20 people. We sat around, drank champagne, ate sushi, and could look out the window and see the Eiffel Tower. It was sparkling. It was an amazing moment there with those guys. I felt good and ate a ridiculous amount of sushi.

Lo: There are a lot of memorable things that happen after the challenges — getting to know everyone, especially going to everyone's rooms and having a couple of drinks in our hotel rooms and talking and getting to know everyone.

But there were also a lot of special moments when we were able to go out and enjoy London. We decompressed, going to the London Eye and seeing bits of London and not thinking about the competition because, at the end of the day, everyone is in competition mode. But once you catch us in the slight moment where we're not, it's almost like we're all friends catching up with a beer. Everyone's had this journey before, and that's what's so special about it. Everyone's been through the "Top Chef" realm, and they've gone through that journey. We can all relate and talk to each other and find out so many different things. It's finding all these good friends who come together at once that you've never met before.

Gabriel's favorite parts of the season

Gabriel, you were in the bottom two last week. Were you afraid you'd be sent home? You've earned the nickname "El Gato" because you seem to have nine lives with the judges; how were you able to keep surviving these close eliminations?

Gabriel Rodriguez: Of course, I was afraid — I always try to represent Mexican cuisine in an elevated way; I always take risks. That's why I always get in the bottom or the top. That's why I survive, because I always stay true to myself, and also because my food was delicious.

What was your favorite and least favorite challenge this season?

Rodriguez: My favorite moments definitely were Episodes 12 and 13 when a lot of chefs validated my food. It was so inspiring for me to hear that. My least favorite was the Vrbo challenge when I almost got eliminated for a very well-known dish, which was mole verde.

Who was your favorite guest judge?

Rodriguez: Gaggan Anand by far, because of his humbleness, OMG!

What was the best dish you tried from a fellow contestant?

Rodriguez: The pork belly that Nicole made for the Vrbo challenge was so good!

The season finale of "Top Chef: World All-Stars" airs June 8 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.

This interview has been edited for clarity.