Top Chef All-Stars winner presented a culinary journey on a plate

TOP CHEF -- "Fin" Episode 2014 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo, Tom Goetter, Amar Santana, Ali Al Ghzawi -- (Photo by: Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Fin" Episode 2014 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo, Tom Goetter, Amar Santana, Ali Al Ghzawi -- (Photo by: Fred Jagueneau/Bravo) /

When Bravo announced that Top Chef Season 20 was going to be momentous, the expectations were high. As the Top Chef All-Stars winner was announced, it was more than one chef’s meal of a lifetime. It was a celebration of the culinary show that always delivers a flavorful experience.

Going into the Top Chef World All-Stars finale, Buddha, Gabri, and Sara were all equally deserving but arrived at the final cook in different ways. From Sara returning from Last Chance Kitchen to Gabri, el gato, using all his “lives,” it might have seemed that Buddha, with his numerous challenge wins, was going to run away with the last cook. As seen in the Top Chef Season 20 finale, it was not that simple.

Asking a chef to cook a meal of their life is both a blessing and a curse. While it was clear that the chefs had been carefully planning and creating this ultimate progressive meal in their minds, putting that food on the plate is a different story. From finding those dream ingredients to executing in the moment, every piece needs to fall into place.

Anyone who appreciates the emotion behind cooking would be drawn to these meals. While the visuals were impressive, it was the heart woven into the technique that flavored each bite. Whether it was Sara’s pea cake dessert that was an homage to her mother to Gabri’s take interpretation of the Mexican celebratory dish Chiles en Nogales, the story behind the food is far greater than the presentation on the plate.

Top Chef All-Stars finale
TOP CHEF — “Fin” Episode 2014 — Pictured: (l-r) Clare Smyth, Hélène Darroze, Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley, May Chow, Tom Colicchio, Simon Rogan, Ángel León — (Photo by: Fred Jagueneau/Bravo) /

Looking at the three progressive meals, the judges were faced with a big dilemma. Could the meal that they longed to eat again but had a big execution program actually win. In the end, an unfortunate mistake caused that meal to fall just short of the title.

Gabri’s meal showcased the humble ingredients that Mexican cuisine highlights through creative presentation. No one would have guessed that grasshoppers would be served at a Top Chef finale. Even though there might have been some refinement issues, Gabri succeeded in pushing forward a needed conversation.

Gabriel Rodriquez on Top Chef Season 20
TOP CHEF — “Fin” Episode 2014 — Pictured: Gabriel Rodriguez — (Photo by: Fred Jagueneau/Bravo) /

Even if his nickname might have changed from el gato to one texture, the reality is that this Top Chef finale meal showed that Mexican food, even an enchilada, is nuanced. Some dishes might have a 100 ingredient mole, but elevating the humble components is a skill that more cooks should appreciate.

For Sara, her meal was probably the most soul full of the three. While some people might think of Southern food as something that might not be the fine dining norm, she was able to showcase that those dishes have ties to other sophisticated concepts. Burgoo might seem like a dish from a home kitchen until it is brought to the table with finesse, exquisite flavor, and an influence of emotion.

Sara Bradley on Top Chef Season 20
TOP CHEF — “Fin” Episode 2014 — Pictured: (l-r) Sara Bradley, Amar Santana — (Photo by: Fred Jagueneau/Bravo) /

While Sara had the meal that emotionally resonated with the judges, she had a huge execution error. In her second course, the liver was very undercooked. There was no way to save the dish and it probably cost her the title. It was extremely unfortunate, but sometimes Top Chef competitions come down to who makes the mistake.

For the Top Chef fan who gazes longingly at the food on the screen, Buddha’s final meal was visually captivating. From the delicate butterfly sitting on top of his nod to a New English chowder to the flower sitting on top of Australian Lamington, it was almost too pretty to eat.

More importantly, each of Buddha’s dishes were technically superb. While that aspect was true, it was blended with a sense of purpose. Technique without heart could have left the diners cold. In this case, it was a lovely story that captured his culinary journey. That connection to past, present and future was far from simplistic but also never strayed far from who he is as a chef. Finding that balance earned Buddha the title Top Chef All-Stars winner.

Top Chef All-Stars Winner Budha Lo
TOP CHEF — “Fin” Episode 2014 — Pictured: (l-r) Padma Lakshmi, Ali Al Ghzawi — (Photo by: Nick Foye/Bravo) /

Did some people predict that Buddha would be the Top Chef All-Stars winner, maybe. If Sara’s liver was cooked properly could she have won, quite possibly. Will there be another season like this Top Chef one, unlikely.

Few programs, let alone culinary competitions, have completed 20 seasons. Keeping viewers engaged and coming back for more is impressive. However the show evolves in the future remains to be seen.

For now, Buddha Lo is the Top Chef World All-Stars winner. The double Top Chef winner will hold a place of honor in culinary competition lore.