Q&A: ‘Top Chef’ Buddha Lo on Cooking Through the Chaos

It’s 2:00 p.m. on a New York Friday when Buddha Lo logs onto our scheduled Zoom call, clad in a white t-shirt and a matching smile. Outside, Manhattan’s skies are gloomy and gray, but here, Lo’s excitement is as radiant as the summer sun. 

“Today’s quite a cool, good, nice day,” he tells me, a thick Australian accent breaking through his cheeky grin. “I’m not sure if you can notice from the background, but I just signed a new lease for a restaurant downtown in Tribeca, and I’m sitting in it right now.” 

Behind him, the space is empty — a calm contrast to the dizziness of his past year. In just seven months, Lo’s grown from a swanky Upper East Side restauranteur to the world’s first-ever two-time champion of Bravo’s “Top Chef” — winning consecutive seasons of the beloved cooking contest against competitors from around the U.S. and the world. 

Between his “World All Stars” victory and his latest restaurant venture, Lo sat down with Character Media to discuss menus, momentum and crafting the “best meal of your life” (twice). 

Photo by Casey Mathewson.

CM: Firstly, I want to say congratulations on your back-to-back “Top Chef” victories. Not only have you proven your talent on a national scale, but you’ve now been crowned an international all-star, which must be a cool feeling.

BL: Yeah, it’s an incredible feeling. I’m still soaking it in. But in the moment, I wasn’t really thinking about international or domestic; I just always go into competitions just nonstop thinking about winning. I always say to myself, “You’ve got to win this, you’ve got to win this, you’re going to win this.” And I’ve lost many competitions with this mentality, but it’s just all about making sure that you go in with a can-do attitude. And this time, it worked out. It’s been such an amazing time, and it’s just unbelievable to think that I did that. 

CM: I want to talk a little bit about the dishes that got you your victory — it was so evident that they were influenced by your rich background of foods and cultures. Can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you built your menus? 

BL: The first season I dedicated to my family. I had a very rough time around that time — I’d lost my father. So, I wanted to dedicate everything to them; each dish was dedicated to a member of my family. And from then on, I kind of set my own rule of like, “If I should make it to the finale — and if I was ever to do this again — I’ve got to do something that’s meaningful.” There were a lot of dishes I could’ve made just because, but as we were getting towards the end, I always had the thought in the back of my head of, “Okay, well, if I win, who wins here?” Because I’m Australian, but my parents are from Hong Kong and Malaysia. But I live in New York, and in the “Top Chef” franchise, I’m representing the United States. So, I really challenged myself to think about how to link all that together somehow, and I did a kind of worldly menu.

CM: Speaking of your parents, you’ve been cooking since you were 12 years old, helping out at your family’s Chinese restaurant. Was there a singular moment when you realized you wanted to pursue the culinary arts, or was it a more gradual process? 

BL: It wasn’t gradual; there was actually one moment when it really hit me. I started working in the restaurant when I was 9 years old, and I barely did anything; maybe I’d go run some food or do dishes for five minutes before going to hang out with my brother in the back. But there was one moment — I think it was at 11 years old — when I was just watching my dad cook an omelet in a wok. I was just watching from the door, but before he flipped it, he invited me to come and give it a try. And I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to flip that.” And he was like, “Just try.” So I tried, and I flipped it. It was like a flip of a coin — that was the moment I knew what I wanted to be. And I literally have not stopped cooking since.

CM: That’s so sweet. I read somewhere that this was also around the time you got your nickname, Buddha. How did that come about?

BL: Funny thing, my friends actually gave me that nickname because of the size that I was back then [laughs]. And I took it on because no one could really pronounce my real name. So, I was happy that everyone had a name they could call me that didn’t take four or five attempts. 

But it was actually funny because when my dad was growing up, his nickname was “spare rib” in Chinese — basically because he was so skinny that he was showing off his ribs. And so when I came around, he didn’t want me to be “spare rib,” and instead he turned me into Buddha [laughs]. And it became a kind of funny juxtaposition, with both of us having these different nicknames as kids. But mine just stuck for a long time. 

CM: You’ve come a long way from those early days in your parents’ kitchen, now having worked in Melbourne, London and most recently New York. Do you take pieces of these cities and their flavors with you wherever you go, or does each new place take on a life and a palette of its own?  

BL: I feel like in this modern day, there shouldn’t be any sort of real excuse of, “Oh, I only cook this” or “I only cook that.” One of the best things about being a chef is that everywhere needs food; you need to eat three times a day, and every place needs chefs. You have the opportunity to go work in all these different areas, and that’s why I don’t put myself into a box of what I cook. I don’t specifically cook Italian or French or Thai or whatnot. I love cooking all cuisines. I might not be a sushi master, but I love making sushi. There’s a whole big world out there, and I’m always excited to learn about different cuisines and use them to inspire other dishes that make sense. 

CM: Absolutely, and I’m sure that mentality was super helpful on a show like “Top Chef.” On that note, how did you go about preparing “the best meal of your life” not just once, but twice? 

BL: So, the first one was a blowout. I just had all these dishes in the back of my head, and I was like, “Yep, I can use this. Yep, I can use that.” The hardest part wasn’t actually coming up with the dishes, it was trying to tie them into something that’s meaningful. 

But the thing is, I actually won “Top Chef” twice within one year. I won in November in Houston, and then I won in October the following year. I only had maybe a couple of months between shows to actually learn and develop new dishes, and that was very hard. But there were still a lot of dishes in my repertoire that I hadn’t shown off yet after the first season, which is kind of why I jumped into it again. Still, it’s always a big ask, the “meal of your life.” If you asked me to cook the “meal of my life” right now, it’d be completely different. It’s always a very hard decision. But at the end of the day, they got me the win, and that’s the best part. 

CM: Your dishes really go above and beyond — both in thought and execution. Can you take us behind the scenes of your creative process? Do you start with flavor first and work your way to presentation, or does it all come together as you go along? 

BL: So, number one is flavor. It’s always flavor. A lot of people would say that my dishes look too pretty, that they probably don’t taste that good. But the thing is for me, I never do any dish unless it’s really, really tasty. That’s the difference between me winning and losing, you know? It doesn’t matter what technique you can do, or how you do this, or what you do to make it fancy. None of that matters if you don’t have flavor. If it doesn’t taste good, there’s no point. 

So, flavor is always the first part, but then you can start building in the different layers. You start thinking about texture, about every single detail, about the thing as a whole. I think it was Grant Achatz that said that the moment that he decided to become a chef was when his uncle gave him a deep-fried pickle and said, “Eat this.” He was like, “No, that’s gross.” But once he tried it, he was like, “The texture, the acidity, the salt, the sweetness, the crunch” — his mind blew. And that’s why I develop my dishes into what they are. Because I don’t just think that flavor is everything; it has to tickle all the senses. 

And if you want to win “Top Chef,” you have to try and get every single point in every single avenue, and that’s why I went that extra mile — to the point where I couldn’t think of anything more. I thought about story, texture, acidity, layering the flavors so there was something surprising in the middle of the dish, anything and everything. I saw it as my job to make it really hard for the judges to find fault in my dishes. I never wanted them to be able to say, “Well, you could’ve done a little bit more.” So, I really just had a lot of fun doing that, and I never held back.

CM: Now that you’ve been away for a bit, do you ever look back on your competition dishes and wish you had done something differently? 

BL: I think every single dish you can look back — even the dishes that you couldn’t really critique. I’m constantly evolving. And that’s why when people ask me, “Do you have a signature dish?” I go, “No.” There are dishes that people absolutely love, but I take them off the menu the next season because they stunt me in my growth. Like, I did a “Top Chef” menu in Houston last year, and all the dishes I made were very successful on the show, but most of them were still changed from how I did them originally. So, I’m constantly thinking and using any opportunity to just become better. And I think that’s why I am where I am — because I’m never happy with where I’m at. I’m always looking for the next move or looking at ways of improving myself.

CM: As someone who grew up watching and loving “Top Chef,” what did it mean to you to win on that grand stage? 

BL: It’s crazy. When I’m cooking, I don’t really think about any of those moments. But when I go back and watch it, I go, “Holy mackerel, you really did this. You accomplished these things.” And it’s so amazing.

But at the same time, I was hungry. I went out there. I left home at 17. I worked in some of the hardest kitchens, the hardest conditions. I left my family, left my girlfriend who’s now my wife. I’ve made so many sacrifices, and I’ve lost again and again and again in so many competitions. And to stand back and go, “You know what? It all paid off” — I think that was the biggest, biggest accomplishment. Just to be able to go, “Yes, you’ve proved that you deserve it.” That was the most amazing part. 

CM: What does your life look like now, post the craziness of “Top Chef”? Have you had a moment to rest, or have you still been go, go go?

BL: I would say I’ve probably had a week in the last two years to rest [laughs]. Basically, as soon as I got that first message to Houston — before I was even officially selected to compete — I was already studying. I was already practicing at home, at work. I was just constantly brainstorming ideas and making sure I was prepared both mentally and physically. 

And then I did it. I won. And I had to prepare myself for what was to come. Sure enough, a week after getting back from Aspen Food & Wine, I got the call to go into “World All-Stars.” So, I stopped everything and went through the thing again. 

And I just did this huge loop of going to all these different places, and I got back maybe a couple of weeks ago. So, I think during that time, I’ve had, like, one week to go, “Okay, let’s reset.” But you know, the wheels are always in motion, and that’s the way I’ve always operated and lived. So, I can’t wait to just keep going and see where it takes me from here. 

CM: Speaking of, what’s your next move? 

BL: Today’s quite a cool, good, nice day. I’m not sure if you can notice from the background, but I just signed a new lease for a restaurant downtown in Tribeca, and I’m sitting in it right now. It’s completely empty. It’s going to be Hūso 2.0 — everything I ever wanted Hūso to be. We’re finally giving it a proper dining room because the one in the Upper East Side is more like a hallway. I started at that location because it was an opportunity that was going to give me a visa and give me free rein over my food, but I’ve always been on the lookout for a place that’s beautiful and mimics the food. And I finally found a really nice place where we can settle. 

And then obviously, I’ve got some twins on the way with my wife. They’re due on November 11th, so I’m really excited about that. There are a lot of things in the works [laughs]. Like I said, there’s always wheels in motion; there’s never a moment to breathe. But I’m super excited for what’s to come.