“What made you want to come back to Top Chef?” Padma Lakhsmi asked our three finalists—Buddha Lo, Gabri Rodriguez, and Sara Bradley—at the last cast dinner during the supersized finale episode of Top Chef: World All-Stars. “Obsession,” Buddha replied immediately. And while it’s been clear that all three chefs, in their own specific ways, possess that culinary compulsion, that preoccupation with ingredient and tradition and flavor, one competitor’s drive clearly stood out from the pack not only during the finale but throughout season 20 as a whole.
The big 75-minute finale found us back in Paris, France, where the three chefs were tasked with their most freeing yet daunting challenge yet: “All of you have really earned the opportunity to cook whatever you like. The only thing we ask is that it come in the form of a four-course progressive meal,” Padma announced. “We want you to tell us who you are as a chef.”
That slackline quickly turned into a tightrope when it was revealed that Buddha, Sara, and Gabri would be serving said meal to an absolute murderers’ row of chefs and food pros: Along with our staple trio of Padma, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons, the final meal would be held at the three-Michelin-starred Pavillon Ledoyen and attended by the likes of Marcus Samuelsson, May Chow, Daniela Soto-Innes, Clare Smyth, Food & Wine Editor in Chief Hunter Lewi and Michelin Guide’s International Director Gwendal Poullennec, among others. And, to top it all off, Top Chef France judge Hélène Darroze would be joining the judging panel.
“If I saw Hélène Darroze on the booking system, I’d be having nightmares for weeks,” Buddha said, dubbing her “probably top five best chefs in the world, an absolute juggernaut.” “Even just one of them coming to your restaurant, you’d be shitting yourself,” he declared. (Adorably, he later admitted to Darroze that, yes, that was him that fannishly chased her down earlier in the year at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket.)
The chefs received €2,000 to shop at the upscale French market Galeries Lafayette and other gourmet specialty stores to ease some of that pressure, as well as a little help from their friends: none other than Tom Goetter (“He’s good for a laugh, right?” Colicchio asked, to which Gabri quipped: “Yeah, for a German guy!”), Amar Santana, and Ali Al Ghzawi. (Papi and Habibi are back, baby!) After the final knife-draw of the season, Sara picked Amar, Gabri chose Tom, and Buddha was paired with Ali.
The duos got cracking on their course progressions, but not without a few bumps. “I wanted to make a cake with English peas,” Sara told Amar of her planned dessert course, a dish inspired by her mother’s recipe. “You’re doing pea cake in Paris. What?!” Amar worried in a confessional, but Sara assured him: “It’s not like Tom’s apple cake!”
And the various shopping trips presented hurdles for all three toques, who each had a hard time locating key ingredients at the French markets: Gabri was forced to swap out plantains for sweet potatoes—though he wondrously whizzed around that Mexican mart like a kid in a, well actually, exactly like Gabri in a Mexican mart—Sara had to sub in liver for her preferred sweetbreads, and Buddha had a mini panic attack until he finally located the lobsters he wanted. “It’s such a sigh of relief, I don’t have to change my menu. Especially for the meal of your life, you want the freshest ingredients,” he said.
Day one featured four hours of cooking, with another two-and-a-half the following day, during which the chefs dwelled not only on if their dishes were good enough (“Is that gonna blow their asses out?” Sara worried over the spice level of her tomato water. “Hopefully the flavors will mellow overnight”) but also if they were good enough. “My whole life, I was feeling like the underdog, but I work hard. I won Top Chef Mexico and now I survive against the best chefs in the world,” Gabri proclaimed, a self-love affirmation echoed by Sara: “This Top Chef compared to the first one is very different. I’m still this small-town girl. I’m gonna do what I do best, staying true to myself and my food, and cook my heart out.” As for Buddha? “I want to be the greatest of all time.”
Lo made quite the case for that greatness with his four-course menu, a multicultural spread that mirrored the chef’s own Chinese-Australian origins. “I represent parts of the world, not just one part,” he explained to the table, starting with a New England chowder-inspired rainbow trout with clam veloute that was dubbed “very sophisticated” by Gwendal Poullennec. The menu progressed to blue lobster with a curry bisque that Padma called “beautifully executed, luscious and smooth,” as well as a lamb-focused take on ngau lam (Cantonese braised beef) with roasted eggplant. (Marcus Samuellson loved the “elegance” and “fun” of the dish’s onion pickle.) The courses culminated with that Aussie favorite, a Lamington cake, flavored with coconut, raspberry, and chocolate. “Buddha really showed us everything he’s got,” Gail praised.
For his part, Gabri surprised the accomplished table by serving grasshoppers at a finale for the first time in Top Chef history. The critters popped up in the tostada that he served in his esquites starter with huitlacoche puree, and while the diners praised his brazenness for including the insect, the tostada itself was declared “too thick and overcooked” by Tom. Padma appreciated how “rich and surprising” his sweet potato empanada was, though Mexican chef Daniela Soto-Innes stated: “I don’t think it’s an empanada. But it reminded me of Mexico, so I appreciate it.” Hélène Darroze loved Gabri’s flavorful third course, chiles en nogada (“Gabri engaged himself in this dish. I loved it.”), and his chocolate tamal with hazelnut ice cream was “incredible,” per Daniela. “He’s always the boldest,” May Chow applauded him.
And though she came in as the only finalist to not win their individual season of Top Chef, Sara ended up having Padma’s favorite dish of the entire episode: that controversial pea cake, served with pistachios and buttermilk sorbet. (The dessert had Colicchio going full Jerry Maguire: “You had me at buttermilk,” he swooned.) But Bradley also wowed with her third course, a rendition of Kentucky’s most famous stew, burgoo, served with beans and cornbread. “There’s so much refinement, but it’s rustic as well. It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s why you’re here,” Clare Smyth lauded the plate. Alas, Sara ran into several big problems with her first two courses, including that tomato water in her seafood couvillion that was, in fact, too spicy for the group, and the too-rare offal of her liver and onions with cookie butter and figs. “I’m not going to mince words: My liver was just blue,” Padma disapproved.
In the end, the winner of Top Chef: World All-Stars—of the $250,000 furnished by the Saratoga Brand, the feature in Food & Wine magazine, and the appearance at the annual “Food and Wine Classic” in Aspen, of course, but, more importantly, the global glory—wasn’t so much a surprise as a manifestation fully realized. “Winning eight challenges in the hardest season of Top Chef is already amazing, but it’s not the end goal. I’m gonna be the champ-champ, the back-to-back,” Buddha declared early on in the finale. “This is the biggest moment of my life, and I’m gunning to win it.”
And he absolutely nailed that target. Even the way that murderers’ row of chefs gushed about him at the table, with Buddha already mononymed like Monet or Napoleon or Cher, signified that the man was widely considered a culinary superstar even before his win; the crown was simply decoration. “It’s more than just the win. It’s making history,” Lo said of his much-earned victory. Long may he reign–well, until next season, of course.
- As viewers now know, this was Padma Lakshmi’s last episode as host, judge, and executive producer of Top Chef after 17 years. It’s unclear whether or not Lakshmi had already revealed her plans for departure to production, but her proud, sincere tears at the end of that final tasting had this recapper reaching for the Kleenex.
- Also, Gabri in that beret? Everything.