The final episode of Top Chef Houston hit all the familiar notes of the show's previous finales. From the chefs selecting one of their former competitors as a sous chef to the judges cooking a pre-finale dinner for the cheftestants, Season 19’s conclusion played out exactly as fans of the show have come to expect.
That feels true for the result, too. In the end, a season that’s been notable for its complete absence of drama between the contestants produced a winner that viewers could have seen coming from episode one. Buddha Lo, a Top Chef super fan, won the $250,000 and the career-making title.
“A 15-year old boy in regional Australia has lived his dream,” Buddha said after learning of his victory. “I didn’t dream to be an astronaut. I didn’t dream of anything else. I dreamt to be right here.”
The finale is notable for its complete lack of gimmicks or distractions. Each competitor has $1,500 and plenty of time to create the best four-course meal of their careers. Even if it felt likely that this result would occur, all three finalists rose to the challenge.
Buddha took inspiration from his family members and his life in America to create a menu that balanced his impressive techniques with enough emotion to give the meal heft. He started with hamachi with caviar (for his brother), continued with panang curry with lobster and crab (for his mother), reached a high with Mongolian lamb with smoked eggplant (for his father), and concluded with pumpkin pie mille-feuille with maple caramel (a nod to Thanksgiving and life in America). Each course featured a precisely cut tuile that ended with stunning-looking leaves made from pumpkin.
In the end, the worst criticism any of the judges made came from Eric Ripert, chef-owner of New York’s celebrated, three-star Michelin seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, who noted that Buddha’s techniques reminded him of dishes from the ’80s and ’90s. “He loves mastering those techniques,” Padma Lakshmi replied. “To him, that is play.” That observation settled the debate.
Not that he didn’t have stiff competition in the finale from Evelyn Garcia. Over the course of the season, she surpassed Buddha with four Elimination Challenge wins to his three, including in the penultimate episode. She certainly had every opportunity to win, and she delivered a meal that the judges enjoyed from start to finish.
Her meal began with scallop crudo with prickly pear and citrus broth and continued with shrimp and corn crystal dumplings. Then, she served braised goat in “curry mole” and concluded with a bunelo and panna cotta.
The editing implied that Evelyn might have triumphed if she had added another sprinkle of salt to the scallops in her crudo, cooked her goat in that intriguing-sounding curry mole, and had a softer panna cotta, but those hints seem like the editors trying to add a little drama. Buddha’s focus, commitment, and sheer will pushed his meal over the top.
Chef Sarah Welch served a meal inspired by her interests in reducing food waste and whole animal cooking. A series of small errors, including a rabbit ballotine that was either overcooked or undercooked depending on the slice, put her behind the other two competitors, but her self-deprecating humor added an important amount of levity to the episode.
At judges’ table, it becomes clear(ish) that they preferred Buddha’s first and third courses to his competitors’ efforts. Evelyn took the second course with her dumplings. All three desserts achieved such a high level of excellence that the judges essentially declared the course a tie.
“If you are the future of our industry, we are in really good hands,” head judge Tom Colicchio told all three finalists.
Despite not winning, chef Evelyn achieved a lot by appearing on the show. She represented Houston well throughout the season, and her time on the show has sparked important changes to her culinary perspective. Dishes she served on the show — for example, her curry brisket from the barbecue challenge or the nopal relleno with shrimp purée from last week's episode — could become the sort of career-defining creations that bring diners to the door of her future restaurant.
Like fellow Houstonian and Top Chef Season 18 finalist Dawn Burrell, she joined the elite club of cheftestants who never hear Padma tell them to pack their knives and go. Expect to see her make guest appearances in future seasons. And, more importantly, to make a mark on dining in Houston for years to come.
“Coming this far and seeing myself evolve and change, I can walk away saying I gave it my all every single time. That I’m proud of,” Evelyn said through tears.
We are, too, chef. Houston can’t wait to see what you do next.