The Meal of Your Life: Top Chef Winner Buhhda Lo
Buhhda Lo was one of the most methodical Top Chef contestants on season 19. Serious and laser-focused, Lo let the food speak for itself, utilizing expert skill and elegant plating to tell his story. His seminar was eagerly anticipated to kick off the final day of the Food & Wine Classic. As part of his winning season 19, there will be a feature in Food & Wine magazine dedicated to the dishes demonstrated in the day's seminar, so I won't spend time discussing the minutiae of the preparations presented. Technical skill is a given when Top Chef crowns a reigning champion. However, as the franchise inches closer to its 20th season, it's clear that there is an element that solidifies a contestant's staying power beyond their season. There was a captivating balance of charisma and vulnerability on full-display for "In The Kitchen with Top Chef" from the moment Buhhda Lo took the stage.
"Welcome to Monogram's Kitchen. I'm super excited to be here today. So, just full disclosure. If you haven't watched the final episode," he paused and gave a skeptical look and flashed a grin before revealing the obvious. "...I WON!" Lo pointed to himself and the crowd cheered.
When Lo spoke of his upbringing, there was a sense of family legacy to uphold. Lo explained, "My dad was a chef. Believe it or not, he's got 16 brothers and sisters." The crowd let out a slight, inadvertent gasp, and Lo responded, knowingly, "That's a lot. Poor grandma! Actually, 12 of them are boys, and out of all the boys, there's only one of them that's not a chef.” Lo stated that his family, his father in particular, were always immensely supportive of his success. Lo reflected on his media presence pre-Top-Chef fame, saying "I think I was in a completely different mentality then. I did (Top Chef) purely just because my dad could watch me on television. My dad watched me for two minutes on a youtube video once and he couldn't stop walking around the restaurant, trying to show (the guests), like, 'Look at him! Look at him!' Like, dad, there's like 40 views on that." Lo's father unfortunately passed away 2 weeks prior to Lo being called to appear on the show, but his journey and his win were dedicated to his memory and his unwavering support. Lo said that family has always been a cornerstone of his professional motivations and a running theme in his foray into the culinary landscape. When asked, Lo recalled his favorite contestants when binging Top Chef, saying that, "At one stage, it was the Voltaggio brothers, for sure, because me and my brother had such a connection to that competitive spirit."
Lo was not shy about his dedication to winning Top Chef. Of his fanatical preparation to appear on the show, Lo said,
"I always get this thing of being called a super nerd or a fan. Like, how are you not? I think the main question is 'What have you been doing? Why haven't you been watching the show? Why haven't you been studying?' I feel like I'm always getting picked on. But yes, I love the show! I did study. Believe it or not, I did watch 8 seasons back-to-back, when I was in quarantine, going back to Australia. And yeah, obviously...watching the show absolutely does help. I actually had a pen and paper. I wrote down every single challenge; Every single reason why they won; Every single reason why they lost; Every single thing that the judges liked. And yeah, I was in it to win it."
An elephant in the room over these past couple years has been the exposure of high-end restaurants being breeding grounds for toxic, abusive conditions. Lo addressed his experiences in notable kitchens with chefs with reputations of being difficult or demanding, saying, "Well, that's why I'm calm. I worked for a lot of extreme-style Chefs, and that definitely did excel me. I definitely strived in that condition. But there's no way that I'm going to be doing that the exact same way in my kitchens at all.” Lo did mention that his demeanor was a life raft in tense moments. Per Lo, "I have always been calm and I think that's the way I handle pressure. There's no point in flapping things about. The more that you struggle under pressure, the more you're actually going to make it worse for you later on. So to be able to handle pressure easier and be okay if something goes wrong, as long as you're calm about it, it's actually going to get you further than actually panicking. It's just like if there's a fire in a house. You know? It's better to not run around in circles, and just walk out calmly."
Lo's patience also came in handy during hard times when mustering momentum at his New York restaurant, HUSO. Lo said, "To be honest, the restaurant that I cooked at, I was the only person. We'd only do 10 people a night. It didn't start off amazingly. It was definitely soul destroying, you know? You'd do all this good food and no one came. But I did that. I made sure I would make the restaurant applicable so one person could cook. There's actually one person only cooking right there right now. We do all that fabulous food with one person cooking and I think that couple years that I did at HUSO actually trained me up for Top Chef, because I didn't have a Sous Chef. So when I had Jackson in the finale, I was like, 'Take a seat in the back, and let him do all the work.' Obviously, I tasted everything," he assured, with a playful smile.
Lo was often commended on Top Chef for his flashy plating. One audience member asked for some advice on upping his game when it comes to presentation. Lo said, "When I was a kid, I actually was 8 years old and I would serve customers at the table just for fun. And we had a live lobster tank. I would go into the live lobster tank, and I would grab a lobster, and I'd pull it out, and I'd walk to the table. And they'd go, ' Holy (blank), Wow!' And I was a little chubby kid holding this lobster, and they're all loving it, all grabbing my cheeks and my earlobes and stuff like that. And I just loved that feeling. Not the pulling of the cheeks or the earlobes, But I loved that feeling of going, 'Wow!' And I always search for that moment. And it did not come to me just like that. It takes a lot of time, a lot of practice, a lot of effort, and a lot of studying, and a lot of researching and just obsessing over food to get to the point where you can create something. And I think the more that I start to create and plate up dishes, the more that I can unleash creativity. It's something that you just have to practice, for sure. I R & D a lot of my dishes for about 2 months before I change it into the different seasons, so I make sure that it's perfect before it goes onto their plate."
Lo is sure to keep excitement on the menu in his personal dining adventures as well. In addition to his wife and fellow chef Rebekah Pedler's favorite meal showcased this season, Lo was asked what else the couple enjoy eating in their free time. Lo stated, "Whoa, that's too hard. We love a lot of Thai food. She's very specific. Pad See Ew, Pad Thai. She loves a lot of Russian food as well, so Vareniki and Pelmeni. Yeah, we don't really have a 'normal' dinner at home."
I was able to ask Lo about the iconic finale of his season. I asked, "Could you just talk a little bit about your creative process? Your meals on the show, especially the finale in particular, were so inspiring." In his response, Lo said,
"The idea of doing a finale meal was to cook the meal of your life. The only thing that won't change are the people in my life - people like my family. My brother - like I said, he loves hamachi. My mother showed me how to make this laksa. My dad is known for his Mongolian lamb back in Australia. And then the last one was a bit of a wildcard. Everyone was like, why doesn't he do his wife? Well, I gave her a whole episode with the pasta, the Miami Pasta, but the whole idea with the last one was actually that I am, as an immigrant, being here, I am thankful for all of the opportunities that I have in this country. I came here, I was able to get a job and a very well-known restaurant, and actually compete on Top Chef, which is a dream of mine, which not a lot of young Aussies or international people can do. And I understand my privileges and my opportunities here. I'd only been here for four years. But I am continuing to learn the culture and the dishes. And I think Thanksgiving is one of the most beautiful holidays of the year, where it revolves around food. And I'm a Chef and I love food. And to be able to make sure that everybody comes to the table, everybody you love. And I thought to myself, I can't just do a pumpkin pie - what's happening around that time? Can I capture that moment in time when that pumpkin pie is eaten? And that's Fall, that's when all the leaves start to turn all these beautiful, different colors. And I was like, 'Okay, well this is my homage to say thank you to the judges, to the people around me, to the people at that table.' When I presented that in my finale, to say that I'm just really thankful to be here, and if I go out on that dish, at least I got to be able to say thank you."
What I really enjoyed about Lo's seminar was just how much Top Chef, and by extension, the culinary industry, has come to celebrate diversity. We are finally moving away from tokenism - boxing chefs of color into their assumed cuisines and giving them a patronizing pat on the back for being "authentic." Instead, we get a more honest, in-depth look at the dynamic inner lives of these people from all sorts of backgrounds. No culture is a monolith and no one person could possibly represent all aspects of any sort of racial or ethnic group. Lo is Chinese, but also Australian, and an immigrant to the US. Lo has always cooked food that inspired him, whatever it might be, and still managed to speak so beautifully of his roots, his family, and his journey as an immigrant. It was also not lost on Lo that his tale is not the norm and not all immigrants are given the same opportunities. But with this win, hopefully this sends a clear message to immigrants that their dreams and aspirations are worthy of fulfillment. And furthermore, it should be universally understood that immigrants' contributions to American culture are deserving of utmost respect and wholehearted celebration.