Actually, this season of “Top Chef: World All Stars” has been one for the record books (Alain Ducasse! Asma Khan! A spectacular event in Wellington!
After 13 weeks of competition, I had the opportunity to speak with our top three finalists to learn everything I could about their preparation for the season, the biggest differences between their first and this time around, and their greatest challenges and most effective victories leading up to the big ending.
Read on to find out more about the travels that Sara, Buddha, and Gabri undertook this season.
Sara Bradley, Gabriel Rodriguez and Buddha Lo in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)
The following interview has actually been gently modified for clearness and length.
Hi, everybody! I’m overjoyed beyond words that it worked out and we were able to put this in motion. I’m thrilled to be chatting with you three because I’m a tremendous fan of the show in general, and this season in particular has been fantastic. You’ve successfully reached the final stage!
Only a select few past cheftestants have actually competed in consecutive seasons, so I was curious how it was for Buddha, what the preparation was like, and whether it was particularly challenging.
Buddha: The challenge of coming back was extraordinarily challenging. I had to give it a lot of thought before diving in, but ultimately decided, “Yes, I want to do this because this is Season 20. It marks a critical juncture… When is the next time you might be able to accomplish this? It was something I really wanted to do.
Extremely challenging: Season 19 consists of 14 episodes, so if you double that, that’s like 28 dinners that the judges have already seen me sketch out for them to try. It’s possible that I’ve already fed the judges fifty or more times. There will be a lot of people telling you things like, “This works really well, but I kind of did this last season. How badly do I want this? Those are the questions that really need to be asked. Sure, it’ll be wonderful, and it might even work, but they might be like, “Huh, I’ve had this before.” And you don’t get it, and are you really prepared to flip the coin?
A major disadvantage [for me] is that when I was talking to the other contenders, they all advocated doing things that worked in the prior seasons that they won, like winning meals, and putting it on Season 20 since Padma, Tom, and Gail had not seen it before.In terms of training, I guess you could say I treat it like a sport. I blocked out all distractions and prepared myself mentally and physically by working out and making sure I wouldn’t dwell on the situation. Make sure my thoughts are moving, because “Top Chef” is more of a mental game than a physical one, even if the challenge lasts for four hours in a kitchen. Comparatively, four hours is nothing compared to our typical day.
“You’re going to get a lot of pushback like, ‘This works really well, but I kind of did this last season, do I really want to do it?'”
Sara, I just wanted to say that the Friday Instagram posts you’ve been doing this season have been among of my favourites. I was wondering where the inspiration came from for the Freight House menu to feature seasonal fare. That is awesome in my book.
Sara: The first time we did it, it was a huge success. We had the tasting menu that I had prepared for the judges out for as long as we could possibly get some of the dishes, and we will do that again if necessary.
The fact that I am a fan of “Top Chef” adds to the enjoyment. I look forward to these “truth competitors” cooking shows every year. The inability to taste the meal is the source of my biggest disappointment. It’s so hard to tell what the judges are actually judging when you can’t taste the food, so I decided we’d just put food out. If they weren’t already wonderful, I’d tweak them to make them tasty; if they already were, I’d make them even better.
Because normally you’re just sitting at home watching it, but now you get to come in and taste the cuisine that you watched being cooked, it makes it more delightful, and it gives the people who come in and do it a sense of ownership over their participation in the programme. Simply put, there’s a whole new level of involvement, and as a result, I love doing it and you get to teach your cooks. This is what I did very quickly, and how I’d actually do it if I had the time.
Photographed by Fred Jagueneau for Bravo, “Top Chef” stars Tom Colicchio, Buddha Lo, Sara Bradley, and Gabriel Rodgriguez.How did you like the U.S. “Top Chef” model compared to the “Top Chef: Mexico” structure? Did you find it difficult to navigate the guidelines that came from the U.S. Buddha and Sara fought through this framework and similar challenges before. How did not having enough money to shop at that one store affect you overall, if at all?
Gabri: Since I wasn’t used to it at first, yes. And then I realised that it’s a challenge in and of itself, so it’s fantastic and considerate because it’s what we cooks do all the time. We shop for groceries and pay our bills on time; it’s a good system, and I approve. In a word, I adore it.
Did you find that this season presented you with any particularly difficult challenges, moments, or meals? What about the opposite way around? Have you had any truly memorable moments or favourite meals so far this season?
Sara: If you watched “Last Chance Kitchen” this week, you saw one of my favourite foods from this season: burnt cabbage. People think, “Uh, charred cabbage?” It’s nothing major, just some burned cabbage with apples and bacon. Like my Cullen Skink dish from Restaurant Wars, I enjoyed that dinner. A big part of being a chef is being able to recognise excellent ideas and how you might be able to help each other, and I don’t think a lot of people realise that Buddha had a terrific idea for Restaurant Wars. That plan was so brilliant, and he even provided a fantastic menu from which we could all theoretically choose, so there was really no point in arguing with it. Buddha didn’t pick me, but I was still grateful to be included in the group. [Laughs]
Buddha: Sara, I really wanted you to be a part of my team. America Represent!
Sara: That makes perfect sense to me. I found that rewarding because I felt like I was able to take something mundane and make it into a crowd-pleaser at the restaurant. We’re using Asian carp, a local fish, so it’s delicious and fun to eat.
I loved the Wellington challenge, but I just can’t seem to quit hiding my eyes from the trompe l’oeil feast. It’s just something about which I’ve been thinking a lot and feeling a lot of concern.
I felt completely at ease with the thali challenge. Since we do all this culinary, which I’ve been doing for quite some time, and since I was cooking it on the programme and to pack it up and practically get sent the house for it, the rice being overdone wasn’t emphasised. That pill wasn’t easy to take.
The thali challenge was the toughest, Gabri says. The day I nearly died from choking on multiple meals at once. And the first one was tough for me because, you know, I was intimidated by all the great chefs and I felt like a fraud. The thought just came to me that day. The most recent episode, with the Wellington challenge and the trompe l’oeil, was the best, but this one, with the current, was fantastic as well. Those are undeniably the highlights of my life.
All my close friends care about is whether or not Padma is happy. When asked, “How is she?” This is a major… I know that Padma’s absence from “Top Chef” will be keenly felt by fans of the show.
If you had to pick one major change between your first and current seasons, what would it be?
Buddha: There’s a wide range of cooking skills and expertise out there. As you can see, the challenges were no joke; I seriously doubt they’ll ever be able to pull off a “3 Wellingtons in 3 hours” challenge again unless they make another season exactly like this one.
Sara: Indeed, I think the quality of chefs was much higher; not that there was anything wrong with anyone who competed on my season, not that they weren’t terrific chefs likewise, but because they were all people who had actually done it and then had actually had time to browse, kick back, and think about what they had actually done and how they would do it differently. They had to go big because it was Season 20, “World All Stars,” and the obstacles, in my opinion, were much tougher this time around. They had to put a lot of pressure on everyone to even give us the little things.
Gabri: All the other comments are spot on, and I can attest that this has been the most challenging cooking competition I’ve ever faced due to the calibre of the participants. All of them have my gratitude right now.
Fred Jagueneau/Bravo’s “Top Chef” features Tom Colicchio, Buddha Lo, Padma Lakshmi, Sara Bradley, and Gail Simmons.
What do you think, knowing that this season, your season, was Padma’s last hurrah, and that’s fairly recent news, now that she’s going her own way and it’s completion of an age?
Sara: You get that, and that’s why it’s so cool: I got to be a part of Padma’s final season. It was awesome that I worked with her for two seasons, because that’s more than countless other people can say. Padma is an integral part of it for me, and I know I will miss her. If they want me to alter her, I can do so immediately. [Chuckles]
Buddha: I think all three of them feel privileged to have been included in her final show. That, in and of itself, is a triumph in my book. Seeing everything come full circle for her in the last episode is quite remarkable.
Gabri: I agree wholeheartedly; playing such a monumental role has been an amazing and gratifying experience. My entire group of friends is only concerned with one thing: “Oh, you satisfied Padma!” When asked, “How is she?” It’s enormous… There will be a big hole in “Top Chef” without Padma, I can guarantee you that.
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Fred Jagueneau/Bravo’s “Top Chef” features Hélène Darroze, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons.
Were there any guest judges this year that you connected with or admired? Star-struck reactions were abundant in the most recent show.
Sara probably always knew how much I fangirled over random people, whether it was Alain Ducasse or Tom Brown or Tommy Banks. All of these people were familiar to me because I grew up in London and learned everything I could about these cooks. We were all shocked to learn of Gaggan [Anand], and his presence in the season is probably the main reason I wanted to participate. I knew these people would be huge this year, and I wanted to meet them because they were the heroes and idols I’d been admiring my whole life.
For the record, Sara says, “A lot of times people would walk out and they’d mention “Oh, it’s this individual,” and I’d just look at Buddha. There’s a huge pool of potential candidates; you never know who they’ll pick. I’d have to say Tom, Gail, and Padma stood out the most to me because I felt such a strong sense of obligation to make them happy. After all, they were the ones who ultimately chose me to represent the United States as one of the four competitors. I didn’t want to make them feel unfulfilled. I didn’t want them to appoint a judge and have me completely botch the job, leaving them to wonder, “Why did we pick Sara?” I put that pressure on myself because those were the people I was most proud to cook for and the people I really wanted to impress.
Gabri: Of course! Given how many there were, Gaggan was probably one of them. His modesty was quite remarkable. Keeping one’s status as a chef while remaining so uncomplicated is instructive. The rest of them, too! Everyone was extraordinary. It may have been commonplace for some, but for me it was always surreal. It took enormous effort to please everyone. … Alain Ducasse… Whoa, that was a lot of stress.
Buddha: Our breaths were taken away.
Gabri: From what I’ve heard, Buddha approved. It was impossible for me to consider. Truly remarkable.
The “Top Chef” cast, from left: Buddha Lo, Sara Bradley, and Gabriel Rodriguez (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo).
Tom, Gail, and Padma stood out to me the most because I genuinely cared about making them happy.
How was it working on location in the United Kingdom and France? How did you include local cuisine and cultural dishes into your daily life?
Buddha: Both of these locations were wonderful for me to visit. Because I’ve worked in London before, seeing and embracing the city’s culture and gastronomy once again was fantastic and incredibly delightful. Since we are in France, I was able to demonstrate some classical French techniques, such as the last episode when I did champignon de Paris en croûte with the pomme mousseline, which I really enjoyed doing because I enjoy cooking French food and don’t usually prepare French food on the competitions even though I desire programme variety.
Gabri: It was an incredible adventure, and it felt great just to be alive. Initially, I tried to be as accurate as possible in portraying authentic Mexican cuisine; however, I ran into trouble when I realised that the ingredients weren’t going to help at all. I then decided to try a new approach; I would continue to draw inspiration from Mexico but would modify the dishes accordingly.
Is there a sense of relief in (hopefully) not having to worry about “reality” or work concerns as the season progresses and being able to devote one’s undivided attention to food and cooking instead?
Buddha: You’re asking a funny question, because this is exactly why I find “Top Chef” so entertaining. You don’t have to worry about maintenance or cleanup, you don’t have to buy any materials, and everything you need is already there. “Top Chef” is my idea of heaven. You can access all the necessary tools and active components whenever you need them. To put together even a single meal requires a great deal of planning, from reservations and staffing to posting on social media. Most of the work is done for us behind the scenes on “Top Chef,” so we can focus solely on the cooking for the remaining 25% of the challenge.
Gabri:Actually, that’s very neat; it reminds me of meditating. The only thing on your mind is snack time. Sometimes you need a great nap. What a shot, however I think it’s tiring.
“It’s funny that you ask that, because that is undoubtedly the main reason why I appreciate “Top Chef” so much.
What ingredient(s) would you choose as your favourite if you had to choose just one or two in a competition environment, your own kitchen, or a restaurant kitchen? Irrespective of the context, would there be any duplication of ingredients?
Buddha: I would probably say that there aren’t any real precise components, but I would want a kitchen equipped with the basics, and that’s all I asked for. In my opinion, a basic Asian kitchen would not be complete without staples like soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and the usual assortment of Asian herbs and vegetables.
Gabri: There will be glitches, that much is certain. You’ll need to be an expert cook to make the most of their unique flavours.
Again, much success to you!
“Top Chef: World All Stars” premieres on Bravo on Thursdays at 9 p.m. and is available on Peacock the following day. Tonight’s the finale, and you won’t want to miss the reveal of who won!