Meet America’s Top Chef from Down Under, Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo on “Top Chef”. The Australian-born chef won the 19th season of the US reality TV show, which screened earlier year. Photo: supplied.

Buddha Lo started his chef apprenticeship at the age of 14; at 17, he won a scholarship at a two Michelin star restaurant in France; at 19, he became head chef at one of Victoria’s top 10 restaurants; and in his 20s, he worked in London at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Now, at 30, just four years after arriving in the US, Buddha Lo has been crowned winner of Top Chef. He spoke with Amanda Smith.

Buddha Lo, arguably the best-known Australian chef in the US right now, has a secret ingredient. Being uncomfortable.

The Queenslander grew up in the kitchen. His parents ran a Chinese restaurant in Port Douglas, where he’d run plates and wash dishes for $5.

Most people spend a lifetime figuring out what they want to do for work. Buddha Lo knew it with the first dollar he ever made.  

His career is his lineage. His late dad is one of 16 siblings – 12 men, four women. Out of the 12 men, 11 are chefs. His dad was his biggest cheerleader. In those early years, he taught him to be open-minded and courageous. He’d always say: “If you think you can, you can.”

Embracing this worldview as a teenage chef, he stood out.

Buddha Lo’s version of a ‘Contiki tour’ was travelling to and working in Europe’s Michelin star kitchens. He worked alongside Clare Smyth and Matt Abé, won the Gordon Ramsay Excellence Award and cooked with one of the best Australian chefs, Raymond Capaldi.

Buddha Lo hard at work. Photo: @buddha_lo/Instagram.

“I was head chef by 19 and working in a top 10 restaurant by 25. I thought it would take me a lot longer to reach that point. So, I decided to expand my horizons overseas. I spent many years honing my skills in Europe and the UK before an opportunity to work in New York City came up in 2018,” he tells The Sentinel.

Eleven Madison Park, New York City. 2017’s number one restaurant in the world, according to San Pellegrino’s 50 best lists.

“New York City motivates me, creatively. If you can make a name for yourself in New York, you’re set for life.”

Buddha Lo’s well on his way to doing that. Since winning Top Chef 2022, the restaurant he’s currently executive chef, Marky’s and Huso, has a 300-plus person waitlist.

Huso is celebrated as America’s only caviar tasting menu restaurant.

“The modern-day chef is now a celebrity. To succeed as a chef, especially in America, you need to have a brand,” he said.

“I daresay Sydney has a better food scene than New York. Sydney is showing a lot of culinary range.”

– Buddha Lo

“I can think of 10 chefs in Australia that could’ve easily taken home the Top Chef title. Aussies have an awesome attitude and are very switched on. We have a drive to get out there and in terms of food, achieve an extremely high standard. This undoubtedly helped me on my Top Chef journey.

“I daresay Sydney has a better food scene than New York. Sydney is showing a lot of culinary range.

“Our premium produce, global travelling culture and carefree attitude all contribute to an incredible, yet undefinable food scene,” he says.

“I don’t have a particular cooking style. It’s Australian – it has no ‘identity’. Stir fry one night, Italian the next. I love all cuisines, and this comes through in my plates. Being an Australian chef means there are no limits. This keeps a hard industry, exciting. Australia has the best Asian food.

“Cooking is like languages; you’re never going to learn everything.”

But Buddha Lo has fun trying.

The Top Chef judges look for originality. Dishes need to look good, taste good, and have a surprise factor. One of Buddha Lo’s choices was alligator dumplings. He also used the fat from a cow to make a British pudding.

“While these seemed like novel dishes, they actually have traditional roots,” he says.

“With paradise at home being the backup plan, it’s easier to take risks abroad. I think that’s why Australians do so well overseas.”

– Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo’s upbringing, lineage, and love of ‘discomfort’ helps him view food from a different perspective. Having Australia to fall back on always gives him free rein to make bigger, bolder decisions in the kitchen.

“With paradise at home being the backup plan, it’s easier to take risks abroad. I think that’s why Australians do so well overseas. We have the luxury of home being one of the best countries in the world.”

Buddha Lo cooking with Loni Love (left) and Essence Atkins (right) on Daily Pop. Photo: @buddha_lo/Instagram.

The 30-year-old has his sights set on opening a three Michelin star restaurant in New York City, alongside more TV opportunities. His plates are art pieces, inspired by seasons, his heritage, his travels … and his wife.

“My wife, Rebekah, is also a chef. We met when I was 19. She’s great at finding the best food spots when we travel. She’ll know where to get the best sea urchin on the side of the road. I bring those discoveries into my menu back in New York.” 

From street carts to fine dining, Buddha Lo’s love for food spans cultures, cuisines, generations and costs. Ultimately, what we eat brings us joy. It’s cultural, nostalgic and familial.

It’s memories, both making and remembering them.

For Buddha Lo, food keeps him close to his family. Being on the other side of the world, we’ll likely to see a lot more of Australia appear through in his culinary choices.

With Paris, Naples, London and Bangkok also among his favourite foodie destinations, Buddha Lo will keep his waiting list waiting a bit longer.

Amanda Smith is an Australian-born author, copywriter, cultural commentator and journalist based in New York City. Her website is located at www.amandasmithwriter.com.au.

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