“Our hearts dropped”: The “Top Chef: World All Stars” final three spill the tomato tea

“Top Chef: World All Stars” has truly been one for the books (Alain Ducasse! Asma Khan! A Wellington extravaganza!).

After 13 weeks of competition, I had the opportunity to speak with our top three finalists to find out all about how they prepped for the season, the biggest differences between their first times competing and this time around, their biggest challenges and their most successful triumphs leading up to the big finale. 

Read ahead to learn all about the journeys experienced by Sara, Buddha and Gabri this season. 

Top ChefSara Bradley, Gabriel Rodriguez and Buddha Lo in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hi, all! I’m super, super excited that this worked out and we were able to set this up. I’m a big fan of the show in general and this has been such a great season, so I’m so happy to be chatting with you three. Congratulations on making it the finale! 

For Buddha, I assume that competing in back-to-back seasons must be pretty tiring  only a handful of former cheftestants have done that — so I wanted to ask how that was for you, what the prep was like, and if that was especially a challenge?

Buddha: Coming back was an extremely hard challenge. I had to consider a lot before going into it, but inside of me, I was thinking, “Yes, I want to do this because this is Season 20. It’s a milestone . . . When could you ever do this ever again?” So I really wanted to do it.

It’s extremely hard: The judges all know my food, they’ve tasted it before, they’ve seen some dishes that I brought out within Season 19, which is 14 episodes – so you double it, and it’s like 28 dishes. I’ve probably served the judges 50-plus dishes by now. You’re going to run into lots of pressure, like, “This works really well, but I kind of did this last season. Do I really want to do it?” Those are the questions you have to ask. Yes, it’ll be fine and it might work, but they might go, “Uh, I’ve had this before.” And you don’t know that and are you really willing to flip the coin?

As I was talking to the other contestants, they were all for doing things that did in the other seasons that they won, you know, winning dishes, and put it on Season 20 because Padma, Tom and Gail hadn’t seen it before, so that’s a huge disadvantage [for me]. But in terms of prep, I think I do treat it kind of like a sport. I took everything out of my mind and made sure I was mentally and physically prepared for it, exercising, making sure I don’t overthink about it. Make sure my mind is going, because “Top Chef” is more of a mental game than it is physical, even if we’re in a kitchen for a four-hour challenge. Four hours is nothing compared to our day-to-day.

“You’re going to run into lots of pressure, like, ‘This works really well, but I kind of did this last season, do I really want to do it?'”

Sara, I wanted to say that I love how interactive you’ve been on Instagram this season, and that’s been super cool on Fridays. Also, I wanted to ask about how or what made you think about the idea to incorporate dishes from the season into the Freight House menu? I think that’s so neat.

Sara: We did it the first time around, and it was a huge hit. We served the tasting menu that I served to the judges, and we had it on as long as we could get some of the products and we’ll do that again.

What’s so fun about it is that I’m a “Top Chef” fan. I’ve watched for years and years and I love reality competition cooking shows. My biggest upset about all of it is that I can’t taste the food! It’s so hard to pick and choose what the judges are actually judging because you can’t taste it, so, I just decided we’d put dishes on. And if they weren’t great dishes, then I could tweak them and make them delicious, and if they were good dishes, then I could tweak and make them even more delicious.

So, yeah, it makes it fun, and it kind of gives the people who come in and do it a bit of ownership of their participation in the show because normally you’re just sitting at home watching it, but now you get to come in and you get to taste the food that you saw being cooked. It just adds this whole new element of involvement and so I love doing it, I love it, and you get to teach your cooks . . . this is what I did very quickly and how I would actually do it if I had the time to do it.

Top ChefTom Colicchio, Buddha Lo, Sara Bradley and Gabriel Rodgriguez in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)Gabri, did you feel it was a challenge to navigate the U.S. “Top Chef” format or rules coming from “Top Chef: Mexico”? Buddha and Sara competed within this format and these challenges in the past. I remember there was that one shop when you ran out of money; how did that affect you overall . . . or was it not too difficult?

Gabri: At the beginning, it was, because I wasn’t so used to it. And then I realized that it’s a challenge in itself, so it’s nice and thoughtful, because it’s what we as chefs do all the time, you know? We purchase food, take care of the costs, and that kind of thing, so I like it. I like it a lot. 

For everyone, did you find that there was an especially difficult challenge, moment, or dish this season for you? Or conversely, was there an absolute standout moment or favorite dish for you this season so far?

Sara: I think one of my favorite dishes this season was probably something you only saw if you were on” Last Chance Kitchen”: my burnt cabbage. People think, “Uh, burnt cabbage?” It’s just a humble little thing, you know, burnt cabbage with apples and bacon. I loved that dish and I also love my Cullen Skink dish on Restaurant Wars. I think that a lot of people don’t realize, and we talked about it a little bit before, but Buddha had an amazing idea for Restaurant Wars and part of being a chef is recognizing amazing ideas and how you could support each other. There was no need to argue with that idea, it was such a perfect idea, and he had an amazing list of dishes that we all could kind of pull from. Even though Buddha didn’t pick me because I was last pick . . . I was glad to be on the team. [Laughs]

Buddha: Sara, I wanted you on my team anyway! Team America.

Sara: I know, so it made sense. But I loved that because I think I took something that was traditional, and now it caught on and we’re serving it at the restaurant and it’s a favorite of everyone’s. We’re serving it with Asian carp, a local fish, so, it’s a lot of fun. 

Buddha: I really enjoyed the Wellington challenge, but I think I can’t stop wrapping my head around the trompe l’oeil dish and I really loved it. It’s just something I kept thinking about and loving even more.

The thali challenge was definitely my lowest point. The rice being overcooked wasn’t a highlight because we do all this cookery, and that’s something I’ve been doing for quite some time and I was cooking it on the show and to stuff it up and almost get sent home for it. It was a hard pill to swallow.

Gabri: The most difficult was the thali challenge, definitely. It was several dishes at once, and I just choked so bad that day. And the first one was hard for me, I mean, I was intimidated by all the great chefs and it gave me an imposter feeling, you know? That day, it happened to me. Watching again, the standout was the latest episode, the Wellington challenge, the trompe l’oeil, and this one, the latest, too, was awesome. Those are definitely my highlights. 

“All of my friends, all that matters to them is “oh, you met Padma! How is she?” It’s huge … Padma is huge part of “Top Chef” and she’s going to be missed, I’m sure.”

What would you say was the single biggest difference from your first season to this one? 

Buddha: The caliber of chefs is on a different level. The challenges were extremely hard, as you can see; I don’t think they’ll ever pull off a “three Wellingtons in three hours” challenge ever again . . . until they do another season like this again. 

Sara: I totally agree, I think the caliber of chefs was much higher . . . not that there was anything the matter with anybody that competed on my season, not that they weren’t great chefs also, but it was all people who had done it and then had had time to navigate, sit back, and think on what they had done and how they would do it differently. I think the challenges were way harder and, it was Season 20, “World All Stars,” so they had to go big. They couldn’t give us easy little stuff; they really had to push everyone.

Gabri: I definitely agree with everything else that has been said and definitely, it has been the hardest competition of my life because of the caliber of the chefs. I admire all of them right now. 

Top ChefTom Colicchio, Buddha Lo, Padma Lakshmi, Sara Bradley and Gail Simmons in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

This is obviously relatively new news, but now knowing that Padma’s going off on her own way and it’s the end of an era, what do you all think, knowing that this season — your season — was her final hurrah?

Sara: You know, that’s so cool, I got to be part of the last season of Padma. I got to work with her for two seasons, which is a lot more than hundreds of thousands of other people can say, so that was really cool. She’s going to be missed — for me, Padma is a big part of it. But I’m available if they want me to replace her. [Chuckles]

Buddha: I think the three of us are extremely honored to be part of her last episode ever. I think that’s almost as big of a win in itself. Being on the last episode, to see her everything come to an end and be a part of that . . . it’s just incredible. 

Gabri: Yeah, I think so, too, it’s been amazing and such pleasure to meet such a big personality, you know? All of my friends, all that matters to them is “Oh, you met Padma! How is she?” It’s huge . . . Padma is huge part of “Top Chef” and she’s going to be missed, I’m sure.

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Top ChefHélène Darroze, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Were there any guest judges this season that you felt particularly fond of, connected to, or impressed by? Obviously we saw a lot of starstruck reactions in the most recent episode.

Buddha: I think Sara always realized how much I fangirled over everything, not over just Alain Ducasse, but it’d be someone like Tom Brown or Tommy Banks. I knew all of these people because I grew up in London and read all about these chefs. We were all gobsmacked when Gaggan [Anand] was there, and I think going into the season is exactly why I wanted to do it. I wanted to meet these heroes and idols that I’d been looking up to my whole life and be able to have the chance to cook for them because I knew they’d go large this season.

Sara: I’ll be honest . . . a lot of times people would walk out and they’d be like “Oh, it’s this person,” and I’d just look at Buddha. It’s such a broad range; there’s thousands of people they could choose from and you never know. I think for me the most impressive were Tom, Gail and Padma because I really felt an obligation to make them proud, they had chosen me as one of the four Americans that got to compete, and, for me, kind of had this pressure the whole time. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want them to bring in a judge and me totally screw it up and them be like, “Why’d we pick Sara?.” I put that pressure on myself, but those were the people I felt the most pride cooking for and those were the people that I really wanted to impress the most. 

Gabri: Definitely! One of them, because there were a lot, was definitely Gaggan. His humbleness was impressive. Being in that position of a chef and being that humble is kind of a lesson. And the rest of them! All of them were awesome. For some, it was pretty common, but for me, it was always a dream, as well. So to meet them all was amazing. Also Alain Ducasse . . .  Oh my gosh, that was a highlight.

Buddha: Our hearts dropped.

Gabri: I know Buddha loved that. I couldn’t believe it. It was awesome.

Top ChefGabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley and Buddha Lo in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

“I think for me the most impressive were Tom, Gail and Padma because I really felt an obligation to make them proud . . .”

What was it like filming in London and Paris? How did you incorporate the culture and local foods into your dishes?

Buddha: My time in both these locations were amazing. I’ve worked in London before so being there and embracing the culture and food again was exciting and really fun. I really loved being in Paris because I love cooking French food and I tend not to cook French food on the competition just because I want show range, but because we are in France, I got to show off some classical French techniques, just like the last episode [when] I did champignon de Paris en croûte with the pomme mousseline. 

Gabri: It was an incredible experience and it was so good just being there! At the beginning, I was trying to fully represent the Mexican cuisine as it is, but I was in trouble when I found out that the ingredients wouldn’t help at all, so I tried a different approach, and decided to get inspired by México all the time but adapt to the different ingredients.

Is there something liberating about being able to focus entirely on food and cooking for the duration of filming, not worrying about “real life” or work issues whatsoever (ideally/ostensibly) as the season progresses? 

Buddha: It’s funny that you ask this question because I think that this is the main reason that I love “Top Chef” so much. You don’t do any washing or any cleanup, you don’t buy any ingredients, and everything is there for you to be successful. “Top Chef” is my idea of heaven. Whenever you need ingredients or equipment, it’s all there for you. As a chef, you find yourself always organizing everything that you need: from reservations, staff to social media posting, just to organize one dinner. [In] “Top Chef,” they organize absolutely everything and it is 75% of the battle, and all we have to do is focus on the cooking, which is 25% of the battle.

Gabri: Yeah, it’s kind of cool, it’s like a meditation. You only think about food. But sometimes you need a good rest as well. I mean it is exhausting, but what an opportunity.

“It’s funny that you ask this question because I think that this is the main reason that I love “Top Chef” so much.”

If you had to pinpoint a favorite ingredient (or a few favorite ingredients) – within a competition format, when cooking at home, or when cooking in a restaurant setting – what would they be? Would there be any overlap of ingredients regardless of setting? 

Buddha: I would probably say that there’s no real particular ingredients, but I would want a kitchen stocked with the basics, and that’s all I asked for. To me, basics could be a basic Asian pantry from soy sauce to hoisin, basic vegetables like onions, carrots, celery and garlic.

Gabri: There will be insects for sure, I pretty much love them. They [each] have a different flavor and you have to be an expert to cook with them.

Congrats again and good luck! 

“Top Chef: World All Stars” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo and streams next day on Peacock. Tune in to the finale tonight when the winner will be revealed! 

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