“Most families have these traditions – like, some people always have Sunday lunch or go to the football with their dad – but I didn’t have that,” Buddha Lo tells Broadsheet. “My memories were sitting next to my mum, dad and brother, working in the restaurant. I love those memories.”
The 31-year-old Australian chef, who’s now based in New York, has come a long way since he started helping out in his parents’ Port Douglas Chinese restaurant, Jade Inn, aged just 12. Since those humble beginnings Lo has cooked at top restaurants around the world, and he recently became the first back-to-back winner of the hit US reality cooking show Top Chef. His passion for food, and incredible palette of skills led to triumph in the Houston-based 19th season (Lo dedicated the win to his dad, who passed away shortly before he got the call to appear on the show). Earlier this year he won Top Chef: World All-Stars, which brought together winners and place-getters from Top Chef franchises worldwide. Each win netted him a cool US$250,000.
When Lo speaks to Broadsheet, he’s finally taking a holiday in Thailand with his wife. The trip was a prize for winning one of Top Chef’s Quickfire challenges back in season 19. He says the beginnings of his success are thanks to those early days in Port Douglas.
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“I absolutely loved working in the family restaurant,” he says. “I got to hang out with my parents, and people were in awe of that little kid working.”
This experience made him want more of the culinary world, and he relocated from the sun-drenched Queensland town to Melbourne, with his sights set on one of the pinnacles of Australian fine dining: Vue de Monde.
“I went there at six o’clock in the morning. I was 17, still pretty green, and I didn’t end up getting the job,” Lo says. Undeterred, he emailed every prestigious restaurant in town. Only one replied: Brunswick Street institution Matteo’s. He was soon running its pastry station.
Only a couple of years later he was appointed head chef at Hare & Grace, the now-closed Collins Street bistro presided over by the acclaimed Raymond Capaldi. Lo describes his ascent to the top job as a “kind of Stephen Bradbury effect”, as colleagues kept quitting. “Raymond Capaldi, as most people would know, isn’t the easiest person to work for, but [that time] was the most rewarding.”
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London was Lo’s next step towards bigger things. Ramsay himself wasn’t around much, but Lo learnt from another culinary icon: Clare Smyth. “It was amazing. She’s like Alain Ducasse, one of the greats. Now, she’s a household name, but back then she had a point to prove, and really inspired me.”
Lo’s cooking fuses elements of his Australian upbringing with his Malaysian and Hong Kong heritage. But one novel challenge in the Houston season required him to cook something out of this world. The competitors toured the Houston space centre and then had to produce a dish for astronauts. The winning entry had to follow Nasa guidelines and will eventually be adapted for use on space missions. Lo won the challenge with a luscious-looking riff on a pavlova with coconut mousse, tropical salsa and
a berry compote.
“That sort of opportunity I just couldn’t believe,” Lo says. “The logistics of cooking for space got my creativity flowing. To think I’m going to send a pavlova into space, possibly even to Mars, that would be incredible.”
The next season was even tougher, and the tense grand finale pitted him against Mexican chef Gabri Rodriguez and the Kentucky-born Sara Bradley. Lo eventually triumphed with an elaborate four-course meal that paid homage to his multicultural roots. The dessert was his tribute to Australian cooking: a lamington with raspberry jam and coconut bavarois.
“I was happy to be able to do something Australian on that menu,” Lo says. The challenge of reinventing other classics from his birthplace intrigues him. “My creative head goes to so many different places … trying to make a sausage roll or meat pie gourmet would be hard, though. You can’t tweak something that’s already perfect.”
The ever-ambitious Lo has made no secret of his goal of achieving a Michelin star for his own establishment. He’s now working on opening a fine diner in the Big Apple.
But is a restaurant in his homeland also on the to-do list? “Well, I’ve been planning to open in New York for a while. Top Chef really helped my career but also took up a lot of time. Now there’s a lot of opportunity here, and after [the first restaurant], there are a couple of other things I want to do in America.
“But, then, who knows? Maybe down the line, I’ll open up something in Australia.”