Top Chef Season 19 Winner Buddha Lo On Winning, Cooking, And Success Formulas - Exclusive Interview

Buddha Lo has now been revealed as the winner of "Top Chef" Season 19, wowing the panel of judges with the dishes he presented during the show's big finale. Lo's menu, which included a hamachi starter, lobster laksa for the second course, Mongolian lamb entree, and pumpkin mille-feuille, was seemingly perfect with no weak spots, and earned the budding star a decisive victory over the other two finalists, Evelyn Garcia and Sarah Welch (via People).

Buddha Lo's final meal was just one example of his fastidious technique, attention to detail, and deep knowledge of "Top Chef" strategy that he gleaned from studying many seasons of the show. He had been a strong contender all season, as you might expect from someone who, according to his website, once worked in one of Gordon Ramsay's three-Michelin-star restaurants and currently presides over Huso, a restaurant that serves a caviar tasting menu.

Now that the finale has aired and Lo can finally talk about his experience on the show, he's ready to dish about what it was like to put together a winning campaign in Season 19. The chef sat down with Mashed for a wide-ranging interview to discuss life after "Top Chef," his successful strategy, and his tips for future "Top Chef" contestants.

A winning partnership with Jackson Kalb

Congratulations on your victory, it was a very impressive showing.

It's the first time I've watched it, so it's nice to hear all the feedback rather than what we get at the judges' table.

First, I want to ask some specific items about what happened in the finale. What was it like working with Jackson Kalb?

Jackson was amazing. I couldn't imagine a better partner. Throughout the competition, I analyzed a lot of people, and he was the best fit for me. Halfway through [the season], I thought it was quite clear I'm going to be versing everyone and Jackson [will be] in the finale. And then Restaurant Wars happened [and Jackson was eliminated]. If Jackson had picked up the first or second choice, I know he would've chosen me as a partner, and I would've done front of house and he probably would've stayed a little longer.

That would have been interesting if that actually played out. ... When they said that we can choose any sous chef, he was the first person that came to mind. It was 100% Jackson, [we] work so well [together], and a lot of the chefs chose who they work well with. That's what happened with the other two competitors, Sarah and Evelyn — they picked [their partners] from the doppelgänger challenge, because in that challenge, you could pick whoever you wanted as well. ... Which is a smart move because, watching Season 17 and seeing Melissa King and her partner do it, she won at the end of the day, but there was a lot of conflict. And that's not what you want in a partner. You want a partner that believes in your thing and says, "Yep, let's do it like that."

What was great about Jackson was he also made me question a couple of things, which was great. Like, "Oh, maybe we should put a bit of salt in the dessert." Or, "The sauce needs a little bit more of this."

So there's a lot of things that we trust each other with. But like I said in the challenge, "This feels like an advantage." This guy literally, before he got eliminated from Restaurant Wars, was on the top three for every single challenge apart from the queso challenge. So of course I'm going to take him.

Did Jackson's loss of taste and smell worry you?

No, not at all. In the doppelgänger challenge, even though there were two dishes, there was not one component that I'd never tasted on both dishes, and we won that challenge. I've been seasoning everything and been told that there's maybe not enough flavor, but no one's ever told me that I didn't season something enough. Because I season and check everything myself, it wasn't a worry to me because Jackson's not going to be the final person that makes that call on how to season or how something tastes. It's my menu.

The philosophy behind Buddha's winning menu

Speaking of your menu, what was your process for picking all of your dishes?

I spoke about it briefly on the show, but it was a very hard breakdown of what the challenge was. I've been a fan of the show, so I knew that the full progressive course was going to happen. I just didn't know how many people or who was going to be a sous chef. ... Asking for the best meal of your life is very hard, because I do hope I live a little bit longer than the finale. So that to me wasn't possible.

If you asked me maybe next year, to do the best meal of my life, it probably could be different. Even next month. How do you put your whole entire career into four courses? It's impossible. I've been cooking since I was 12-years-old. So, to cook for the people in my life was a lot more sentimental and something that I [would have been] happy to be eliminated on.

That's what you do with most of your menus: Are you happy to be eliminated on this dish? That's the main question. Not if you can win. Because if you don't win, you are going to reflect on the time and say, "What should I have done better?" You're going to pick it out. But, if you get eliminated on that dish and you're happy with it, then you can sleep well at the end of the night. 

For me, it was a no-brainer. I needed to do something for my brother, my mother, and my father. And of course, I would've loved to do something for my wife, but I felt like I'd done a whole episode already for her, with the Marry Me Pasta. [For my family], I wanted to show I'm thankful for the opportunities that I have here. I understand my privileges of being able to enter a country with a visa and be able to get a job and live in New York. There's a lot of people that dream for this sort of opportunity. I was one of them. ... Having the opportunity and getting my foot in the door was just incredible and I had to give thanks for the opportunities I have here.

The most intimidating judge on 'Top Chef'

Was there a judge who you felt was more intimidating than the others?

They are all very intimidating. I would say the most intimidating would be Tom [Colicchio]. He doesn't give any facial expressions. When I'd give food to Padma and Gail, I know I did well when they started smiling while they ate. They'll look to you and ask you a question and they'll be smiling. I specifically remember when Padma tried the dessert from the doppelgängers challenge. She smiled and said to Jackson, "I'm so happy you chose him as your partner."

I don't know what that means, but it sounds positive. But with Tom, he only let down his guard maybe twice where I could see that he really enjoyed it. But Tom is a chef, he's not a celebrity ... Of course, he is a celebrity chef ... but you can see that, in this industry, he hasn't lost his grip on where he works and how he does things. And you can still see the chef inside of him. He can see the technique and break everything down. So there's nothing that you can really hide when you have someone that knows exactly how to do that dish that you've done. He's very intimidating to cook for.

The moment Buddha Lo knew he won Season 19

Was there a point during the finale, before the winner was announced, that you thought that you had maybe won?

Yes. I looked at the menu and I was like, "Okay, this is a winning menu. Everyone's got a really good shot, but this is a very good menu and if I execute everything perfectly, the way that I like it, I'm going to be in there with a very strong chance."

And lucky enough, nothing rattled any of the menu. Even the frozen lobster tails that I got, I tasted them, and it was all good. We cooked them perfectly, there was like one in maybe 10 that was not that great, but we didn't serve that much lobster to where that was going to be a problem. Everything was good.

So I knew at that point that I had a really good advantage. I just needed to know how well everyone else did. Going to the judges' table, that talk actually went for like an hour and 20 minutes. Viewers saw a five-minute snippet. As they were going through each individual dish — and each of the five judges had their comments on the dishes — me, Evelyn, and Sarah were all doing a point system in our heads, like, "Okay, they liked my starter, they liked Evelyn's starter, they didn't like Sarah's starter." So me and Evelyn had one point, for example.

I ended up having four dishes that they liked, so that was four points for me. Evelyn had three. Her misstep was the curry mole, they didn't like it. There was not one good thing that was said about it apart from the texture. ... So all three of us are doing points in our heads. Sarah was out of it by the main course. All three courses [of hers] they didn't like. They didn't like the rabbit because it was raw and undercooked, and they didn't like the tortellini, it was too thick. With those comments, [we knew] she's out of the competition. So it came down to me and Evelyn.

When it came to the feedback on the dessert, we knew that if they hated mine and they liked Evelyn's, then we would have a very strong neck-and-neck contention for the title. But they liked my dessert, and we all went back to the fire as [the judges] did their deliberation and Sarah and Evelyn go, "Well, congratulations."

There's nothing I could say because I am also thinking the way that they are. I know the feedback that they've given for those four dishes, and they liked all four of my dishes compared to the other chefs. It was quite clear after the judges' table that there was a winner.

What life is like after shooting 'Top Chef'

How has the time in between shooting the finale and the air date been like for you? Has it been different since you filmed the show? 

It's been very long, for sure. You don't think things take that long. I counted the days and it was 200 days since the finale was actually shot. If you think about when we actually began filming at the start of September, or even the very first phone call to say, "We want you to be on 'Top Chef," it's been a very long ride, but it's interesting to see how everything goes. I watched the show and I loved the show, but I didn't know how many people actually watch it as well. There's a lot of people that watch it.

There's a lot of people that notice you going out through the streets, so that has definitely changed my life. I've got enough friends to put on one hand, so if someone's calling my name, I [used to be] like, "Okay, it's one of the five people that I know." And now it's not. It's definitely something that I haven't gotten used to yet, but it's still very nice to be able to chat with more than five people.

Why Buddha Lo wanted to be on 'Top Chef'

What inspired you to apply to be on "Top Chef" in the first place?

I've always wanted to do a cooking competition on television. It's not because I wanted to get clout or anything. I just wanted to do it. As a kid, as any aspiring chef would be, you're watching cooking shows. There's "Chef's Table" and all these documentaries about food; "No Reservations," stuff like that. There's also cooking competition shows and that's very exciting and very interesting. I grew up watching "Iron Chef" as a kid as well. When I was eight, 10-years-old, my dad was an Asian chef, so it was like looking in the lens of "Oh my God, this could be my dad on 'Iron Chef.'"

I continued to watch cooking competition shows, and I watched "Top Chef" when I was very young. I remember watching every episode growing up as a kid. ... And, believe it or not, there is no professional cooking competition in Australia. So the only place that I would want to do it is in London or America. And I'm happy that I was able to do a competition because those are the only two places that actually have professional cooking competitions that are in English. The other one's in France, "Top Chef France." 

You watch these shows and you go, "What am I going to do with 45 minutes?" after finding out what the ingredient is. It's fun to exercise your brain. Those are the sort of things that helped me through my career: "How do I come up with dishes if this ingredient needs to be used?"

So I would be brainstorming in my head as I watched what the chefs come up with. And I thought, "Can I do that?" And funny enough, I got the call to be on "Top Chef" and I was like, "Yeah, absolutely. I want to do that." Because you only live once.

The importance of studying for 'Top Chef' success

You watched previous seasons of the show to build a strategy. How did that inform how you approached the competition?

It's funny, I get this question thrown at me quite a bit. If you go to Usain Bolt and ask, "How many times did you train for the 100 meters?" He doesn't say, "Oh yeah, I watched maybe one video on YouTube, but I'm going to go run tomorrow." That's not what these great athletes do, it's not what Michael Phelps or Cristiano Ronaldo would do. Players in the NBA, they would be studying. I'm sure the Celtics are studying the Warriors right now religiously because they want to win the title. They want to win the championship. 

And that's what the show was for me. I'm a sports fan, I like all sports and I grew up playing sports. So that sort of competition in me is quite natural. If I get told that I'm going to be doing a competition, and a lot of people will be watching me doing it, then I don't want to look stupid. I want to make sure that I know what I'm in for and I know what I'm doing. It's not really studying, I like the show and I watch it anyway. And you can pick up so many things just by watching an episode of "Top Chef."

If you don't watch "Top Chef" in the months after you get a call letting you know that you might be on it, don't say yes, because you're not going to do well. Being a chef and cooking on the line for 200 people is one thing; being on a time limit of 35 minutes and having to cook Nigerian food that you've never cooked before is another. You have to study. I'm sure all the chefs did study, [but] Jackson didn't study it enough, which is his own fault. I know that he's going to do it now.

Why 'Top Chef' contestants need a range of skills

[Lo continues with advice for upcoming contestants...]

Hopefully, when people watch it and they find out that I studied, I hope the future of the show is going to be better. Because you are going to have all 15 contestants doing this proper studying, and that's going to make the show even more exciting. You'll see what the next level's going to be when people actually put a lot of effort into finding out, "How do you play this competition?" Everyone's a great chef, but at the end of the day, there's only one winner. And it's not always the best chef. You can't really describe what the best chef is because everyone's the best chef in their own field.

Looking at this season is a great model. People like Melissa King and myself, we both cook food that's from our background, but we also cook a different variety of food. We could do Middle Eastern, we could do Chinese, we could do French, English, Australian. And I think that is what's necessary on "Top Chef." It's not only a fine dining cooking competition. It's everything. It's baking, it's desserts. If you don't know how to make a dessert, don't go on the show.

You can't just go in and say, "I know how to make one cake or one panna cotta," or something like that. Because you look at all the things on the pastry side. Robert's panna cotta was too thin [in the döppelganger challenge]. Evelyn's panna cotta was too firm [in the finale]. You need to brush up on all these skills 100%, and I hope that the future chefs, especially in "Top Chef" Season 20, do that. They're going to be super proud of themselves and how they perform by studying the show and watching it.

Why savory chefs should learn how to do pastry

Touching on desserts, a lot of savory chefs struggle with them. Is that something that you worked on throughout your career or is it something that you prepped for the show?

I've never understood the separation between savory and sweet. You can go through a pastry course and learn advanced pastry, of course, if you want to open up a cake shop. But, as a chef, and if you want to be an executive chef one day, I think pastry is a skill that you always need. I don't understand where you draw the line and say, "Okay, but I'm not going to whip cream." It's like, "Why won't you whip cream? You're not going to whip the goat's cheese for the savory course? You're not going to make the savory tart shells for your savory course?" That's still pastry, you just don't know it. You are whipping a different cream. There should be nobody saying, "Oh, but I don't do pastry."

This is your career, this is your skill. If I have two executive chefs applying for an amazing job, the high-paying dream job of their life, and then I look at two résumés and one says, "Savory, that's all I know," and the other says, "Savory, and I can also do pastry." Who am I going to hire? It's quite simple. Where do you draw the line and say, "I'm not going to learn how to make an ice cream or a tart shell or a cake?"

If you look at all the desserts that we do, it's all very basic at the end of the day. It's a cake, it's a cream, it's ice cream, it's a coulis, it's a sauce. There's nothing super advanced that we do, to be honest.

And if you learn a cake and an ice cream and a custard sauce and a gel and a coulis, it is still under 10 things. You can manipulate them with different flavors. Vanilla ice cream can be smoked vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream, all this sort of stuff. It's very simple. Sorbets can be raspberry sorbet, strawberry sorbet, blueberry sorbet. All the same recipe, just tweaked a little bit. Pastry is such a skill that every chef should learn. If you enjoy cooking, then you should be doing pastry as well.

Buddha Lo's picks for favorite ingredient, fast food meal, and chef to cook for him

Wrapping things up, we have these three quick-hit questions that we like to ask everybody. First, who's the one chef you'd want to cook you a dream dinner?

Not in the competition, right?

No. Any chef ever.

My dad.

What's one ingredient you could never live without?


What is your go-to fast food order?

I don't have Popeyes in Australia. So I have to go with Popeyes. The chicken's pretty good.

"Top Chef" Season 19 is now available to watch on Peacock. And you can keep up with Buddha Lo on Instagram.

This interview has been edited for clarity.