‘Top Chef’ 20 finale recap: ‘World All-Stars’ crowned its champion in ‘Fin’

“This is where you want to be, the finale. It just feels like a dream come true,” says “Top Chef: Houston” champion Buddha Lo at the start of the “World All-Stars” finale episode, “Fin.” “I want to be the greatest of all time.”

“I came from a poor family. My whole life I was feeling like the underdog,” says “Top Chef Mexico” winner Gabri Rodriguez. “And now I survived against the best chefs around the world … This cat’s got more than nine lives.”

“I am f*cking pumped to be back at this point again. I really want it,” says “Top Chef: Kentucky” runner-up Sara Bradley. “I’m going to do what I do best, staying true to myself and my food and cook my heart out … This time I’m fighting it out for all the moms and the women.”

Yes, it’s the “Top Chef” season 20 grand finale, in which the above three culinary masters, who outcooked and outlasted a field of 16, duke it out at the end of the show’s first ever international competition bringing together finalists and winners from “Top Chef” iterations around the world, including Brazil, France, Italy, and the Middle East and North Africa. So who will win?

Final Challenge

No Quickfire Challenge, of course. We get right down to business as Buddha, Sara, and Gabri ascend to the roof of Galeries Lafayette to meet Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. For the final challenge, the chefs have earned the opportunity to cook whatever they like for a four-course progressive meal, but the judges will want to see their individual styles represented. “We want you to tell us who you are as a chef,” says Padma. They will be judged by a who’s-who of culinary stars, including “Top Chef France” judge Helene Darroze; Gwendal Poullennec, the international director of Michelin Guides; and Marcus Samuelsson, to name a few. “Even just one of them coming to your restaurant you’d be shitting yourself,” Buddha observes.

But for such a challenge the chefs are going to need help. Out come the last three eliminated contestants: Ali Al Ghzawi, Tom Goetter, and Amar Santana. The finalists draw knives to determine the order of selection. Sara goes first and chooses Amar — not surprising, but it’s perhaps tempting fate a bit since Sara and Amar were double-eliminated when they teamed up in “Battle of the Wellingtons.”

Gabri is next and he selects Tom. “Tom is my friend, and I think he’s a great chef with a lot of skills,” Gabri explains.

“He’s good for a laugh too,” says Colicchio.

“For a German guy,” jokes Gabri.

That leaves Buddha with Ali, who isn’t a bad guy to be stuck with since he came thisclose to making the finale himself. The chefs have a little time to plan out their menus with their sous chefs, then they’ll get 2,000 euros to shop there at Galeries Lafayette and at various local markets. After that, it’s off to the Pavillon Ledoyen, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris, where they’ll cook.

Gabri plans on a Mexican menu that honors simple, humble ingredients with strong flavor — among them grasshopper. Buddha, whose last finale meal honored his family, this time wants to focus on his own personal identity: he lives in the US and comes from Australia, with parents from Malaysia and Hong Kong, so his four courses will represent those four locales. And Sara has been developing her menu in her head all season. She’ll draw from her Southern and Jewish heritages. She’ll also make a cake out of peas, which Amar thinks is risky. Sara reassures him, “There are no chunks. It’s not like Tom’s apple cake.” Dayum! Sara comin’ in hot with the jokes.

Shopping, however, is a mixed bag for the chefs. Buddha struggles to find fresh lobster for one of his dishes. Ali asks what plan B is, but Buddha resists pivoting and finally lucks into the crustaceans he’s looking for. Less lucky is Sara, who has to go without the sweetbreads she was seeking, though she does find the liver for her liver and onions dish. And Gabri is a man without a plantain, which significantly changes the nature of the dish he was planning. So far it looks like Buddha is the smoothest sailing out of the three.

When they start their four hours of cooking on day one, we learn the chefs’ prospective menus in detail, with their necessary substitutions in mind:

First Course — Rainbow trout with clam veloute
Second Course — Blue lobster with squash and curry bisque
Third Course — Ngau lam with lamb, roasted eggplant and lamb croquette
Fourth Course — Coconut, raspberry and chocolate lamington

First Course — Esquites with huitlacoche puree and grasshopper tostada
Second Course — Sweet potato empanada with black bean puree
Third Course — Chiles en nogada
Fourth Course — Chocolate tamal, hazelut ice cream and chocolate pate a bombe

First Course — Couvillion with shellfish and trinity
Second Course — Liver and onions with cookie butter and figs
Third Course — Burgoo with beans and cornbread
Fourth Course — Pea cake with pistachios and buttermilk sorbet

There’s not much excitement on that long first day of preparations, except dammit, Gabri, how are you gonna burn another pot of beans after burning two pots of beans in the “Thali Time” challenge. “Come on, dude, what’s wrong with you?” he says to himself as he’s forced to pivot yet again, this time to canned beans. Using canned goods instead of fresh ingredients is always a dreaded compromise. Meanwhile, Sara is preparing some tomato water that’s so spicy that it almost burns the voice right out of Amar’s throat when he tastes it. Hopefully that mellows overnight.

After the first day of cooking, the finalists go to Helene Darroze’s Marsan restaurant with Padma, Colicchio, and Gail Simmons. The chefs are beside themselves having Darroze cook for them; Buddha thinks she’s probably one of the top five best chefs in the world. The first dish is served right on their hands, and the judges ask the finalists to reflect on their time in the competition.

When Buddha ended his victorious run in season 19 he found himself feeling sad that he’d probably never get a chance to do something like this again … until he got the call to do this again in season 20. For Sara, the biggest change since she competed in “Top Chef: Kentucky” has been her two kids. She wants to prove that it’s possible to be a successful working mother, and also that you can develop a big name as a chef even from a small town. Gabri says, “I owe my life to the kitchen,” so he wants to prove himself against the best in the world. He’s also carrying a “heavy backpack” because he’s not just doing it for himself, but for everyone in Mexico rooting for him. He also happens to be the last chef in the competition representing a non-US edition of “Top Chef,” so he’s also there representing the world at large. No pressure.

On day two of the cook, thankfully Sara’s tomato napalm has settled down its flavor. Unfortunately, Gabri’s sweet potato is coming out runny so he has to be very careful forming his empanadas with them. Tom finds himself preparing grasshopper dust, which is not something he ever expected to be doing. He doesn’t seem entirely convinced by Gabri’s menu item. But if Gabri is cursed to forever burn his beans, then Sara and Amar are cursed to keep undercooking their meat. Nearly raw lamb is what got them eliminated in “Wellingtons,” and now they’ve underdone their liver. No time to fix it, though, before it’s time to serve the judges.

Meal Service

The first course comes and the judges observe a lot of personality in the three dishes. Sara blows Marcus Samuelsson away, though her tomato water is perhaps a little overpowering, though that’s perhaps a better result than it seemed like it would be last night. Gabri showed a lot of guts as the first chef to serve grasshopper in the finale, but while it was delicious and had great heat, his tostada was perhaps over-toasted. Buddha’s dish looks beautiful (par for the course for the master of presentation) and shows a lot of soul and technique, though he was overly generous with his creamy clam veloute. So it sounds like that first course had three hit dishes with some quibbles.

“I’ll be so upset if this liver takes me out of the running,” says Sara as her undercooked dish comes out along with the other second courses. Indeed, the judges can tell very clearly how raw it is. But the other two dishes, again, are successful with minor flaws: Buddha’s curry is a little dense but is otherwise complimented on its flavor, spice, and general execution. Gabri’s empanada, while maybe not really an empanada, is rich and surprising and reminiscent of Mexican heritage, though he overdid it with the sauce.

Sara is redeemed by her third course, burgoo with beans and cornbread. It’s rustic and refined, clearly a lot of work but well executed. Gabri’s chiles en nogada had wild flavors, but Colicchio says he likes it; I’m not sure how much of that was compliment, though. And Buddha’s lamb dish is technically refined, elegant and fun, and is maybe his best dish so far. Another highly competitive round with two clearly popular dishes and one from Gabri that’s either a slam dunk or a split decision, depending on how you interpret Colicchio.

Upon the fourth course, the dessert course and the last course of the entire season, Padma tears up over how proud she is of the chefs for their work in this challenge and throughout the season. Gabri’s made bold decisions with his chocolate tamale that paid off; he’s arguably the boldest chef of this challenge despite his use of humble ingredients. Buddha closes out his meal with an Australian dessert that further demonstrates his precision and technique. And Sara is called “magical in her cooking” of her pea cake.

Judges’ Table

Either this is a remarkably close contest or the “Top Chef” editors are good at making it seem that way because I’m honestly not sure who wins based on the combined comments over the four courses. The only one I might rule out is Sara because I’m not sure it’s possible to recover from a liver dish that’s almost too raw to eat, but even then I’m not 100% sure. As for the other two, I suppose the safer bet is Buddha because when in doubt this season, predict Buddha will win. Gabri might be the chef they respect for his chutzpah, but he has never been the chef with the judges’ favorite food this season; the only challenge he won was with Buddha as his partner.

When the judges speak to the chefs they reiterate many of the above praise and criticisms, not making the winner decision any clearer, so the three hopefuls go and have a drink while the judges deliberate privately. They’re split on the first course, with Helene preferring Gabri and Gail leaning towards Sara. “I don’t think there was enough of a difference to say one was better,” says Colicchio about all three chefs. Okay, so what about the second course? Helene was partial to Gabri’s flavors, but gives Buddha higher marks for technique; Sara’s raw liver was clearly the worst of that trio.

For the third course, Buddha’s was “beautiful” and “luscious,” Gabri was “creative” and “audacious,” and Sara’s burgoo was a “great version of that dish.” Hard to tell which adjectives were the most positive when all the chefs clearly excelled. Ditto for the dessert course. “It’s very hard to grade them against each other because their food is so different,” Colicchio adds. But eventually, at long last, they come to a decision.

The winner of “Top Chef: World All-Stars” is … Buddha Lo! “I just won ‘Top Chef’ back to back,” he exclaims. “That feels unreal to say. It’s the biggest moment of my life. Recently I had a dream about my dad, and he was smiling at me, and I woke up and I couldn’t stop crying at three in the morning. And two days after that dream I actually got the phone call to come to season 20 of ‘Top Chef.’ I felt like this was a sign from him saying, the goal was to win season 19 so you can go on season 20 to win that.”

“I lost ‘Top Chef’ before, I lose it again,” laments Sara. “But win or lose this is huge. I got to get on this platform and talk about women being able to achieve a work-and-life balance and women being empowered, and so, did I really lose? I don’t think so.”

“I’m sad, but I’m happy at the same time,” says Gabri. “Because the whole experience has been beautiful. I always poured my heart out. There’s no meal that I didn’t care because this is my passion, this is my path, this is my way to demonstrate love.”

Let’s give Buddha’s wife Rebekah the last word: as she tells her husband over the phone, “Oh you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me, that’s for sure.”

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