For years, Buddha Lo had his eyes set on winning “Top Chef.” Now that the 31-year-old chef has not only done that once, but twice — winning back-to-back seasons of the Bravo cooking competition (the first person to ever do so) — he’s looking for his next challenge. Naturally, he wants to open his own space, but his bigger goal is to change the restaurant industry and how its workers are paid.
TheWrap caught up with Lo after his historic win to talk about being named Top Chef for a second time, and what’s in store for the future.
Congratulations on your second win. How was the “World All-Stars” win different than your Season 19 win?
Lo: Well, it’s very hard because [Season 19] feels like so long ago. Also, in order to get to this win, I needed the Houston win. I knew that Season 20 was gonna be a milestone, but it didn’t know what they were going to do. And then I heard that they were gonna do it completely overseas. And I was like, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” And then I found out that it was going to be in England, I was like, “Well, that would be great if I could do that.” And then I’m like, “kind of like, “Oh, maybe I signed up for the wrong season when I did Season 19.”
Well, they called me up and said it’s finalists and winners from all around the world. And I was like, “Well, this sounds really good. I need to do this. So in terms of comparing the wins, that win [Season 19] doesn’t compare. This was “World All-Stars” and that win contributed to this; it was a stepping stone. Without winning Season 19, I would not be here.
What’s your next goal?
My goal is to open up a beautiful dining space. And then once that operating, I would love to try and get a Michelin star out of it.
In New York or…?
It will be in New York. And then, after that, there’s so many other different accolades that you can start to jump onto. But I would like to do that and then start mentoring the next generation of chefs and try and change the industry in a better way and advocate for them for the right things for the future of our industry.
What does that mean?
I started cooking for maybe like $6.31 an hour. It’s not really ideal, but it was seen as a normal thing for for a cook to be getting paid that much money. I’m just trying to make sure that our profession gets looked upon just like other other professions.
The education needs to be brought out to the public to know that A) food is a is not cheap, and B) it’s very, very hard to get staff and to train them. And we all want to advocate for that person not getting paid $6.31. But that means your meal has to increase, because that needs to pay the wages. Otherwise, we’re just running an nonprofit organization or a lost-profit organization, and that’s not why you run a business.
I don’t think that our industry gets highlighted in that way. My food is like my art, it shouldn’t be restricted to the food cost. There’s rent. If my restaurant was on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building, that’s an iconic building you’re paying for the rent at. If the sandwich is $3 more than what you would get in some deli, that’s what you’re paying for. I don’t think a lot of people understand all these extra add-ons of why it is.
There’s also the human factor that you mentioned, with the training, the education, the labor and all of that obviously goes into it as well, no matter whether your establishment is a small one or a large one.
We’ve always been this sort of industry where we’re told “that’s just the way it is.” You get paid next to nothing. “That’s just the way it is.” You have to overtime without getting paid. “That’s just the way it is.” No, we’ve got to change.
How has your “Top Chef” experience prepared you for what’s next?
I have a standard. I’ve worked in some high, really high end restaurants, you will you’re gonna get tackled on to the all these different sort of challenges. These quickfires happen every day at work. It could be someone saying they’re gluten/dairy-free as they walked in, and they’re still paying $200 something dollars for the tasting menu, and you still have to deliver a menu just as good as the person next to them. So those sort of pressures and standards, they helped me develop what I needed to do have in the competition, because I like those situations. I’ve pretty much been doing quickfires my whole life!
All episodes of “Top Chef: World All-Stars” are streaming on Peacock.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.