‘Top Chef’ Season 20 Winner on Making History as First World All-Star and Why They ‘Definitely’ Can’t Take Over for Host Padma Lakshmi

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the Season 20 finale of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Buddha Lo became the first ever “Top Chef: World All-Stars” winner Thursday, beating out his finale competition Sara Bradley and Gabri Rodriguez in the Paris-set “Top Chef” Season 20 finale.

But Lo’s win was historic beyond that special 20th anniversary season achievement, as he became the first “Top Chef” contestant to ever win two seasons back to back, having claimed victory in Season 19, “Top Chef: Houston.”

Adding another layer of prestige, Lo has the honor of being the final contestant to be declared winner by Padma Lakshmi before she exits the cooking competition after 19 seasons as host.

Needless to say, Lo had much to discuss following the finale, and Variety caught up with him the morning after the finale to break down his big win, saying goodbye to Lakshmi and why he “definitely” couldn’t be the one to replace her at the judges’ table alongside Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, despite his new title.

First, what does it feel like to have won not just “World All-Stars,” but also back-to-back seasons, first for Houston in Season 19 and now for Season 20 in London, which saw U.S. and international “Top Chef” winners and finalists compete for the first time?

It’s just everything kind of molded into one. And I felt like I was on this one singular journey, not two. But to be the first world all-star was such a privilege. I’m not sure if they’re gonna wait another 20 more seasons until they get another one, but they should definitely do it again. It’s such a special season. And the fact that “Top Chef” has so many different iterations, it feels spectacular and it meant a lot to the contestants and to people around the world to have that representation. For example, there’s not many Middle Eastern chefs that come on to “Top Chef” U.S., and having their representation of their food, and Poland, as well. It’s been really cool to be a part of it.

The finale challenge is always the same on “Top Chef”: Cook the best meal of your life. You did that just last season, and won — so how did you approach doing it again this time around?

That was the toughest challenge because last season I dug myself a little bit deep because I’d said in the last season that I would I do a menu not just for the sake of doing a menu, I’d rather do a menu that means something to me. And there were all these ideas that I was getting, but it didn’t relate to anything. And it just became a menu of, this is a really great dish, I could win with this dish — but it absolutely has no meaning. And the menu that I did before was so great. And I was like, well, how do I top this off? How do I keep going? And during the challenges, as we’d go, I’d start to have dishes that I’d go, well, I’ve done it before and I’m not sure if I’m happy or willing to bring it back.

For example, I actually at one point wanted to do a “mentors” menu, people who’ve taught me. And one of them was going to be Clare Smyth and Gordon Ramsay, and I was going to do this really cool Wellington at the end — but then we’d done three Wellingtons three episodes ago. So I didn’t want to do that. Parts of your menu start to deteriorate, and then you have to bring it back. So the finale menu took me a long time to think about before going to it. There were a couple sleepless nights before the finale. But also, I was preparing myself around Episode 12 for the finale meal, just in case. We get briefed on it, about the finale coming up, even if you don’t make it because there’s special ingredients. For example, Gabri’s grasshoppers, we’re not gonna find that in Paris. That’s not gonna happen. So you have to start thinking about it. If not, you’re going to be in trouble.

In the finale, Padma, Tom, Gail and guest judge Hélène Darroze of “Top Chef France” really mulled over the four-course menus presented by yourself, Sara and Gabri, with a few compelling reasons to potentially have picked one of the other two. It seemed the main reason that Sara wasn’t ultimately considered on par with you was she undercooked her liver, Padma even calling it “raw.” Do you think if she had executed that part properly the outcome could have been different?

I’m not going to lie, it would have been tight if she’d have executed it — who knows what result would have happened. But that’s the way that the show goes. You could dwell on, could have, should have, whatever. In my opinion, she should have sliced the liver a lot earlier to check. You would probably notice in the Wellington challenge that I sliced my Beef Wellington probably about 10 minutes before we served it. So it’s hard to try and dive back into it because, at the end of the day, protein cookery is the number one thing if you’re going to be calling something liver and onions. And if you liver isn’t spectacular, then there’s nothing to judge on. And if your liver is raw, then that’s just a cooking technicality on your end, whether Amar cooked it or sliced it, every single thing that I did, I made sure that I checked before I sent it out.

So it’s kind of hard to go, oh, if she did that she would have won. Well, you can’t really judge on that. It’s “Cook the meal of your life,” and if you’re not checking one out of your four proteins, how it’s cooked, then that’s what you’re judged off and not really what could have happened. That’s what we did on the day. I stuffed up rice on the Thali challenge, I could have went home. And it’s like, oh, if I’d put on a second pot or checked it, I would have kept it. That’s the way the competition goes.

Would you ever come back to compete on another season of “Top Chef” — and what would the theme need to be to return?

To be honest, I would 100% do it again — I just don’t think they’ll let me come back. And it’s not because the money or the fame it’s just I really, really thoroughly enjoy doing the competition, whether I win or lose. It’s just super fun. But for these stars to align, to come back to back, to be a finalist and come back into the show, it’s unheard of. And it’s probably going to be unheard of for the chance of someone coming and winning back to back. I said to my family, if you picked up 20 balls, all numbered one to 20, what are the chances that you’re going to have 19 and 20, and then have to go through 28 challenges and not stuff up, and win, to get this. And you have to get 19 and 20, in that order. It’s very hard.

I want them to have more seasons of “Top Chef: World All-Stars,” just so there can be more World All-Stars to compete in, “Top Chef: World All-Stars: All-Stars.”

I’ve tried pushing Tom for “Top Chef 30: Galaxy,” where I represent Earth.

Padma Lakshmi is leaving “Top Chef” after this season. What did it feel like to be the winner of her final season as host?

I’ve been so lucky to be able to do two seasons back to back and the final episode for Padma, as well. I think a lot of people would dream to have her say your name as the winner for the very last time. I’m sure there’s going to be someone else that she’s going to be passing the baton on to, and it’s gonna feel just as special. But the fact that she’s been there for 19 seasons, it’s going to be hard to watch it without her, but I’m also excited at the same time, because I know that she’s going off and she’s going to do all these amazing things, she’s not going to stop. And also, it’s going to be amazing for “Top Chef,” as well. It’s turning a page where this is a new era. And hopefully we have more chefs that are in there, do some studying and really elevating what “Top Chef” means. Because it has a brand and “Top Chef” is such a prestigious name. And I hope that it keeps up with the format where it pushes chefs to reach beyond, to become really creative, diverse and cook a lot of different things that they love.

Do you have suggestions for who should be the next host?

To be honest, there’s too many. I don’t know how that will go. But I can’t name any of them at the moment. I’m sure everyone’s got that one person that they’re like, oh, they’d bee great. But with me, it’s like every five minutes, oh, that person would be great. It’s definitely not me. But I don’t know at this point.

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