Top Chef Winner Buddha Lo On Growing Up Eating Dugong And Why You Can’t Call Employees Donkeys Anymore

One of the harsh realities of being an American is hearing people from other places explain their country’s head-slappingly obvious solutions to what seem like intractable problems here. Such was the case hearing Top Chef Houston winner Buddha Lo explain how culinary schools work in his native Australia.

“I’ve always found it a little bit weird with the culinary schools here,” Buddha told me. “For me to be a chef, I actually got paid to go to school and got all these incentives to be a cook.”

He continues:

“I think what’s affecting our cooking industry in the US is that nobody’s going to go to cooking college, pay thousands of dollars, and then get paid $13 an hour at a good restaurant. [In Australia] they realized that they have a skill shortage in cooks, so they decided instead of people having to pay to go to school everyone gets paid to go to school. It’s a bit of a different system, but I think that one works.”

Apologies for leading with that tangential anecdote, but it was one of my big takeaways from my chat with Buddha Lo, shortly after he was revealed as the winner of this season’s Top Chef in the finale last Thursday. The show had moved to Houston for this, its 19th season, and while the competition was fierce and the level of cooking arguably higher than ever before, my week one favorite ended up holding the trophy at the end. It’s been a long time since there was a chef who dominated like Buddha did.

Buddha (actually a nickname he got in childhood for being chubby) was a fascinating mix of contradictions. On the one hand, his study of past Top Chef seasons and apparent recall of judges’ preferences and ability to incorporate them into his food made him seem almost robotic, like he’d figured out how to “Moneyball” Top Chef — an advanced AI fed hours of Bravo programming. Yet it’s hard to square that take with the figure of Buddha himself, a cuddly Australian guy, lovable enough to fit the nickname “Buddha” and possessed of the casual insouciance typically associated with his countrymen.

Buddha, it seems, is just a naturally eclectic person — the kind you don’t often see in reality programs. Born to Chinese-Malaysian parents in Australia, he grew up in Port Douglas in far north Queensland, a city closer to Papua New Guinea than it is to Sydney, where he foraged for edible ants and tasted dugong meat, part of a handful of animals that only the local Indigenous Australians were able to legally hunt. He started working at his father’s Chinese restaurant at the age of 14, before going to culinary school, and eventually heading to London to work at a restaurant owned by Gordon Ramsay.

Later, Lo spent a year at Eleven Madison Park in New York, before becoming the executive chef at Huso, serving an eight-course caviar tasting menu. While he says he never dreamt of being a “caviar chef,” Buddha says such a specialized menu does tend to eliminate many of the headaches of running a “normal” restaurant. “You won’t get vegans because caviar’s not vegan,” he says. “You won’t get people who don’t know what’s going on, or ‘why are you putting caviar with my dessert,’ because if you don’t know about the restaurant, it’d be confusing to why you are there. It’s a caviar restaurant. So if you don’t like caviar, you don’t come.”

Over the years, Lo has done a lot of different types of cooking, and in winning Top Chef, he proved that he can synthesize them all; that he isn’t just one thing or one gimmick.

Of course, winning Top Chef is a career pivot in and of itself (from dork to cool?). In the restaurant industry as it now exists, a chef’s career arc often isn’t seen as complete until they become a media personality. For most Top Chef winners, winning the show is only the beginning of that chapter. So I was eager to pick Buddha’s brain to find out how he felt about it while he was right on the cusp.

I’ll start with: “Buddha, you just won Top Chef. What are you going to do now?”

I don’t know. It’s a wild ride. I haven’t taken it in yet. There are a lot of things that are upcoming with a lot of press and media. Last night we had a huge celebration, so we rented out a cinema and then we had a party bus and stuff like that. So we had a lot of fun. But the future’s looking good.

I’m hoping that this platform will give me good leverage into where I want to be.

I was talking to another Top Chef winner last week and we were talking about how you guys go from being in kitchens all your life and then you win the show and suddenly you’re a media personality. Has it been weird? Do you have any experience doing media and being in front of a camera and things like that?

Look, I think that with my career, I knew that I needed to be able to do these sort of things. So it’s become quite clear that the successful chef route is to actually be in public. If you look at people like Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay, they have to deal with media and that’s not a bad thing, but that’s an essential part of making a successful business. Not only if you want to open up more successful restaurants but even just to get more and better employees. Just to know that people want to work for you. So that’s quite important to have in mind — that that’s part of your path.

Tell me about Port Douglas and the culinary influences that you got from growing up there.

Port Douglas is very interesting. You probably haven’t even actually seen the scenes that I actually used to cook in Port Douglas. We did some weird stuff. It’s a regional part of Australia, it’s probably one of the largest style Indigenous populations in Australia. I went to school in Mossman, and we’d go pick ants off trees and eat them and go forage on our lunch breaks for quandong berries, snapping sugar cane and sucking on it, and then throw boomerangs in the schoolyard, which is technically a weapon, but we still did it. It’s a weird upbringing that not a lot of people have had the opportunity to see me pull from because it’s a very special way of cooking. The Indigenous people have showed me things, how to cook stuff. Like, they’re allowed to cook stuff that we’re not allowed to touch because if we were to hunt it, it’d be illegal. They would go get sea turtles, dugong, which is like a seal, and they’ll cook it.

So I had the pleasure of eating all these different array of Indigenous ingredients growing up in Port Douglas.

Do you think that you learned anything from that? It seems like you’ve gone farther other direction towards more fine dining.

You learn a lot of things from the smallest details. I could watch a YouTube video, or some sort of advertisement, I could always pick up something. We started going into the bush and we started cooking things, we would cook a lot of things over fire. We’d do these things, in New Zealand they call it a hangi — which is an underground earth oven where you would dig it up, you would light it up, start a huge fire and then wrap everything up and leave and bake it inside the ground. So I think that would’ve taught me how to learn how to control cooking with fire. And I did that when I was 14. It’s uncontrollable fire, so it’s not like you can turn the gas and turn it to the three or something, it’s proper stripped back cooking.

I wouldn’t say I mastered it at 14 years old when we were doing it, but I definitely learned a lot from it.

In terms of the show, what were your favorite and least favorite parts of the format?

My favorite would be the challenges. You don’t get these opportunities in your career where there’s a fully stocked pantry, there are all the dishes, all the equipment’s all there, and you literally leave your station after you’ve cooked and people are cleaning up for you. Never had that in my life. Because whenever you’re cooking, you also go, “Oh, do I really want to use that, another pot? That’s another pot that I have to clean.”

Definitely, the highlight was just the cooking itself. Obviously cooking for great judges. Even the main judges Padma, Tom, and Gail. I’ve been watching them for so long and just to be standing right there with my plate of food was amazing. And the low points, I think the living situation was quite low, but I understand why they do it. Everything’s taken away from us, our phones, our TV, all that sort of stuff. I didn’t mind the phones and the TV, but I’m a person that loves music, so I always need music in the background.

Having two and a half months without music was quite hard. I think that’s one that I struggled the most with.

Are you allowed to read? Can you have books?

You’re allowed to read, but you’re not allowed to read anything that’s cooking-related. And I’m kind of boring and I like to read everything that’s to do with cooking or watch things that’s to do with cooking.

Do you have favorite food books that were influential?

It’s hard to pick out one, but I don’t read many biographies. I read more recipe-based books. I like reading all the techniques and reasons why they’ve done it. I also like reading food pairings because I find them very interesting. Finding out what goes well with what, without even knowing that there’s a classical dish to it. For example, the beef dessert I made, just making a dessert out of beef fat, I knew that it was going to work because they’ve done it before, they’ve done it in the 1800s. Beef fat with caramel, it’s like okay, well, if someone’s done it in the 1800s and they’re willing to put it in a recipe book then it must be okay.

Was it freeing to just be judged on the strength of your cooking without having to deal with restaurant patrons and those kinds of things?

Oh, yeah. 100%. It’s so good. Restaurant Wars, I got the book of all the guests and like, “Okay. Are there any dietaries?” And they’re like, “No.” It’s like, “What? We’re cooking for 60 people and you’re telling me not one of them is gluten-free?”

Yeah. It was amazing to be in this sort of format and setting where it’s just like, “Okay, do your food to the best of your capability.”

I mean, in a perfect world wouldn’t that be the way that being a chef worked, where you just sort of came up with a restaurant concept and you cooked it once or twice, and then you got to do a different one a week later?

Yeah. Well, Restaurant Wars is 36 hours. That’s not the easiest. You can study for Restaurant Wars, that’s fine, but you don’t know who’s going to be on your team. And that’s probably the biggest thing is the team. It’s finding out what their strengths are and how you want to execute them. Because I had a plan in my head to do front of the house and dessert, but Damarr wanted to do dessert straight away. So that came straight away and I had to go, well, I’m not going to let someone do my main course while I do front of the house, I don’t trust that.

It’s a very interesting concept.

Did you watch the run of the show once it came out?

Oh, yeah.

The whole thing?

Oh, absolutely. Every episode.

Were there any edits where you were like, “Oh, come on. That’s not how that happened.” Or you thought, “Oh, I don’t like what I did there,” or whatever?

Yeah, absolutely. But after maybe your first, second episode you go, “Well, that’s just the show, right? That’s what it’s called. It’s a show and I have to accept that.” And once I started accepting it I really enjoyed it. That’s not what happened, but I’m going to play with it because I know what happens at the end of the day, and I understand that if you put someone absolutely crushing it throughout the whole season, that’s going to be a boring show to watch, right?

This show’s been on for 19 seasons. I know you’ve watched a lot of them yourself. What do you think the differences are between how some of you guys on this season came up as chefs and how some of the chefs that were on some of the first seasons came up?

Oh, it’s like night and day, isn’t it? You don’t have Dale Talde saying, “Okay, let’s go to the back. Let’s punch on.” And that’s the thing with studying it as well, it’s like if you learn anything from previous chefs, it’s that you also have to make sure that you represent yourself in the best way. Because unlike Real Housewives or… I don’t know. I don’t really watch these reality TV shows, but unlike all these other different sort of shows, they don’t have a brand, they don’t have a restaurant, so if you don’t like that character, it’s not like, “Oh, I’m not going to go to their restaurant.”

Whereas if we do something wrong or say one thing wrong, we can lose customers and business. And I think that shows within each season. You have to be super careful what you say and what you do. Not to say that anyone wanted to do anything that extreme, but back in season one, no one really cared because they didn’t have social media and they didn’t really care about what the media said. Someone can cancel you from saying one wrong thing nowadays, so it’s definitely a different style of competition. But I think it’s all for the better as well. If we look at that time and era of the industry, yeah, that was acceptable. Gordon Ramsay’s calling people a “donkey.” And you wouldn’t call someone a donkey in an office space, so why would you do that in the kitchen?

So I think the shift between how it’s turned up is very important.

In that sense, were you surprised at all by the vetting process going into the show? My sense was that there’s been a lot more scrutiny on the people that they’re putting on the show than there may have been in the past.

Yeah. So there’s a huge process that you have to go through before getting onto the show. And I appreciate it. I think we understand that unlike Hell’s Kitchen or other shows like that, you want to do the opposite, you want to highlight some incredibly talented chefs. And I think that’s what’s really good about it. It’s like, yeah, some people didn’t perform well, but if you really looked on paper, they wanted a very even fair spread of competition. Everyone brought their own unique styles and some people thrived and some people didn’t. It’s a very interesting way that they cast it. I’ve never been cast before, but it took a couple of weeks and a lot of paperwork to get through. So they definitely know what they’re doing. They’re a well-oiled machine.

There was never a point where I go, “Oh, that was unfair.” No, everything was fair. They told us, we wrote in the papers, they explained the rules in every challenge. After 19 seasons and 240 plus chefs, they’ve really got their system down pat. Other than that, of course, you can choose good people, but then you can’t always monitor their day-to-day lives, right? So that’s the hard thing as well.

Do you think that there are important things for a restaurant to express or promote beyond just making tasty food?

Um… no, I don’t. The system could be better. I think that chefs, especially in America definitely need to be compensated a little bit better. It’s a bit uneven. A server in New York could make probably $100,000 plus, and a cook will probably make about, if they’re lucky, 55. I worked in Eleven Madison Park and there were people getting paid double to what I was getting paid, and they only just started working front of the house for two years and I had been a cook for 10, 12 years. I just don’t think that’s good. That’s something that needs to be changed, and maybe that might entice people to go into the industry more.

I’ve always found it a bit weird with the schooling system and the culinary schools. So for example, for me to be a chef, I actually got paid to go to school and I got all these incentives to be a cook. I think that’s what’s affecting our cooking industry in the US is that nobody’s going to go to cooking college, pay thousands of dollars, and then get paid $13 an hour at a good restaurant.

And you went to culinary school in Australia, right?

Yes, I went to culinary school in Australia. They realized that they have a skill shortage in cooks. So they decided instead of people having to pay to go to school, everyone gets paid to go to school. It’s a bit of a different system, but I think that one works because the culinary scene in Australia is amazing. And that’s because a lot of the cooks are able to go to culinary school. It’s not a high-paying job. It’s just like I don’t see anyone wanting to get into this industry and have that sort of student loan hanging over them and then getting paid probably close to nothing.

Yeah. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. All right. Well, I’ve taken a lot of your time. I know you guys got other interviews to do. I appreciate it a lot and congratulations.

[At this point the audio cut out for a good 30 seconds. Right as it felt like he was about to give me a compliment.]

–Yeah, I said I love reading your stuff every week.

Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.


Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.