The finale of Top Chef World All Stars is titled “Fin,” and it is the end not just for the chefs competing to the winner of the first-ever global all-star Top Chef season, but also for its host, Padma Lakshmi.
Yes, Top Chef World All Stars’ finale is also Padma Lakshmi’s finale. I still cannot quite imagine the show without her.
During the finale, the final three contestants ate with Padma, Gail Simmons, and Tom Colicchio at the chef’s table of Hélène Darroze’s restaurant.
“It’s a nice way to end season 20, at one of the best restaurants in Paris,” Padma said. That meal, and so much of this finale, was also a nice way to end her 19 seasons of Top Chef.
As to the end of this season, this all-star season came down to three North American Top Chef alumni, and one central question: Could Top Chef Mexico winner Gabri Rodriguez or Top Chef Kentucky runner-up Sara Bradley beat Top Chef Houston winner Buddha Lo and his massive collection of molds?
That was very possible, since Top Chef selects its winner based upon the final meal alone, not season-long performance.
This season, I was never sure if the editors were setting up Buddha as an egomaniac or just giving him a winner’s edit by highlighting how confident he was. While I really enjoyed him as a character last season, he came across as curiously arrogant and cocksure this season.
At the start of the finale, Buddha told us, “I want to be the greatest of all time,” and later, “It’s more than just the win, it’s making history, and there’s no way I’m leaving without that title.” Again, were they setting him up for a fall or to be declared the actual Top Chef GOAT?
During the penultimate episode in Paris, Buddha did not continue his winning streak during its two well-designed challenges.
The first challenge was the always-fantastic coach-a-non-chef challenge, which took place in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
The four chefs gave instructions through a wall to Olympians, which made for terrific comedy, especially from Gabri and gymnast Suni Lee.
While Buddha was one of the top two, Ali won that challenge as the skies opened up and drenched the area.
After the chefs visited a cave where one man in his 60s harvests 400kg of mushrooms a week—absolutely stunning mushrooms, and I hate mushrooms!—they cooked aboard Alain Ducasse’s boat restaurant using mushrooms they picked.
Sara won that challenge; Ali lost, sent home right before the finale. Well, not home, as he returned to help out as a finale sous chef.
Top Chef 20’s finale had just one challenge, and it was simple and twist-free, as is typical for the finale: a four-course progressive meal.
As sous chefs, Sara chose to work with Amar, while Gabri selected non-judge Tom, and Buddha worked with Ali.
Buddha’s four courses nodded to American, Australian, Hong Kong, and Malaysian cuisine, “a little hint of who I am” in each course, he explained.
Sara told the table of judges and guests that “I’ve taken my heritage and my region and brought them to ingredients that are local.”
Gabri planned to use the “humblest ingredients,” including plantains, beef sausage, and grasshoppers, and told the table he was presenting the “most humble and traditional dishes of Mexico.” (Despite yet another incident of burned beans, Gabri and Tom seemed to be having fun, and I’d like to see a show with them traveling and/or cooking together.)
“There’s a lot of personality in these dishes,” guest chef Marcus Samuelsson said after the first course, and that continued throughout the meal.
At the end of the meal, choking up, Padma said, “You should all feel extremely accomplished. I’m so proud.”
Sara seemed like she could be knocked out by her second course, which had—as she knew—undercooked veal liver, but Padma also said Sara’s dessert was the best thing she ate, calling it “playful.”
At the actual Judges Table, the three series judges and guest judge Hélène Darroze spent more time critiquing Buddha’s dishes more than I expected, commenting on aspects of his dishes such as balance and acidity.
It seemed to me that it was coming down to bountiful creativity versus stunning technique. During the meal, guest chef May Chow said Gabri is “always the boldest” while guest chef Daniela Soto-Innes said Buddha’s dishes showed “precision and technique.”
Would the judges go for refined and molded, or surprising and delightful? Or would Sara’s mistake not overshadow the rest of her meal?
Padma announced the winner: Buddha. Honestly, after the critiques and discussion, I was surprised, even despite the now-obvious winner’s edit!
But his accomplishment is clear: Buddha has now won back-to-back seasons, and become the Sandra Diaz-Twine of Top Chef, its first two-time winner.
Padma’s Top Chef legacy
In those early seasons, Padma was a considerable improvement, though quite awkward and stiff, thanks to being fed lines through an earpiece.
Padma still managed to bring her extensive knowledge to the Top Chef kitchen and judge’s table. While she could be serious on the show, didn’t take herself too seriously. “I sit on my ass. I eat and I talk. I don’t have a to cook a damn thing. How awesome is that?” she said in a 2010 interview.
As the seasons went by, Padma found more of a groove and relaxed into it. She seemed to be having more fun than before. During the pandemic-era seasons, which are still my favorite seasons to date, I loved watching her host and judge quickfire challenges alongside the show’s alumni.
Padma also used her platform for good. After Top Chef Portland’s winner admitted to retaliating against an employee he’d had an affair with, it was only Padma spoke out publicly, encouraging Bravo to investigate.
In addition to spotlighting immigrants’ contributions to “American” cuisine on Taste the Nation, she became a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, saying she’d work “to shine a spotlight on the fact that inequality can affect people in rich and poor countries alike” and how “inequality is further compounded by gender, age, ethnicity and race.”
Linda Holmes summed up Padma’s time on Top Chef well: “She made it smarter, more responsible, more sophisticated, more vibrant, more humane, and more fun. And yes, sexier.”
I’d add that Padma spanned the host/judge line better than anyone else ever has; she juggles both roles with ease. She can be disappointed without scolding, frustrated without shaming.
Even when I made fun of Padma’s rebukes, I came to appreciate how exacting she was as a judge. She held the chefs to a high standard without ever being performatively tough, and while being able to laugh and appreciate what the chefs accomplished under the show’s constraints.
Whether she was critiquing or celebrating, Padma also kept the spotlight on the chefs. That was true right up until the end: Padma did announce her exit days before this season’s finale, but did not do so in an episode, or before the season, making the whole thing either a melancholy slog nor a goodbye for her.
“A lot of us grew up on this show,” Padma said at the very end of Top Chef World All Stars, as the cast and crew celebrated their 20th season with champagne. That was certainly true of her as a host.
I’m glad Padma and her passion for food and knowledge of it will not be leaving television; the second season of her exceptional Hulu show Taste the Nation just premiered in May.
I will, however, miss her as host of Top Chef, which she leaves as a better show than she found, and one that will have to work hard to fill the void she leaves.