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After surviving the elimination challenge on a recent episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef: Houston,” Buddha Lo crafted a dessert that knocked the judges flat.
The executive chef of Marky’s Caviar Lounge at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood baked a scratch everything bagel topped with salmon tartare, cream cheese bavarois and buttermilk scallion dressing with help from his teammate, Los Angeles chef Jackson Kalb. Lo then made a dessert that mimicked the look of an everything bagel: white chocolate panna cotta, strawberry jelly, and strawberry bon bons with cream cheese.
On camera, “Top Chef: Houston” judge Padma Lakshmi called it possibly the best dessert in the competition reality show’s 19 seasons.
Lo wasn’t in the room when Lakshmi gave that compliment, but he heard it for the first time while watching the episode live at home.
When he heard it, he fell off the couch.
“Seriously, my friends have it recorded,” Lo, 30, says with a laugh. “It was shocking. You think about all the chefs who made desserts over the show’s 18 seasons.”
Lo, who is competing for a “Top Chef” grand prize of $250,000, splits his time between running the menu at the Hard Rock restaurant and the flagship Marky’s Caviar Lounge on New York’s Upper East Side. The chef cut his teeth at the acclaimed Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, and before that at Michelin three-star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London.
During a break from morning prep at Marky’s Caviar in New York, he chatted with the Sun Sentinel about competing on “Top Chef,” running the Hard Rock’s comfort-food-and-caviar menu, and why he advocates putting caviar on Popeye’s chicken.
We’ve got to put that video of you falling off the couch on Instagram, man.
[He laughs] Maybe, maybe. It was an unbelievable thing for [Padma] to say because we’re against pressure. We’re against the clock, we’re exhausted.
Hearing that feedback from Padma probably gave you a big head, no? Is that the favorite dish you made this season?
Well, I can only talk up to up episode 4, so I would say yes. A lot of people are saying episode 4 is one of the greatest episodes of Top Chef history, and Padma even said it was possibly the best dessert on Top Chef ever.
Where did your knowledge of caviar come from before working on Marky’s Caviar Lounge?
I worked for seven months on the caviar station at Eleven Madison Park. I also eat out a lot and try different restaurant experiences, and the caviar dishes stand out to me every single time. It made me realize that everything I’ve ever eaten with caviar tasted really good. The first year I moved to America, for my birthday, I purchased half a kilo of caviar and ordered a bucket of Popeye’s and ate it on my rooftop [in Brooklyn]. The combination is so unreal.
Caviar on Popeye’s chicken? Hey, why not?
It seems like a waste but it’s definitely not a waste. I’ll remember it the rest of my life.
You started your career working at your dad’s Chinese restaurant in Port Douglas, Australia, when you were 8, right?
When I was young I had babysitters because my parents worked seven days a week and I’d never see them. It got to a point where I was like, “I don’t want a babysitter anymore. I’ll look after myself.” I started maturing a lot faster because I just didn’t want to be babysitted anymore. But it was lonely without my parents, so I washed dishes and bussed food at my parent’s restaurant. When I was 12 my dad tried to get me to flip an omelet in the wok. He said, “Why don’t you give it a try?” I said to him, “I’m never gonna flip this thing.” But it landed perfectly. Then I decided at 14 to go to the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, a five-star hotel, walk right up to the executive chef and say, “Would you mind employing me?” Said it just like that. Fourteen was an illegal working age at the time in Australia, but he hired me.
You told a chef, “Can I have a job, please?” How did he not immediately laugh you out of the building?
He was an old-school, German-style chef and he appreciated my passion. They snatched me up straight away. They’ll do what they can to get their hands on you because not everyone in this industry is in it because of passion.
How’d you wind up at Marky’s Caviar Lounge?
I talked to [owner Mark Zaslavsky’s] grandchildren first – David and Danielle – and they sent me an email saying, “Do you think you could do an all-caviar menu”? It sounded challenging but I have worked with caviar. From there they invited me to their house in Miami and I cooked for them a caviar menu, and they really loved it. I’ve been with the company ever since.
What’s the difference between the Marky’s Caviar Lounge menu in New York and the one at the Hard Rock?
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The Upper East Side/Madison Avenue location has a tasting menu, and people book seatings there months in advance. But there’s no ventilation there – there’s no actual real kitchen – so we prep most of the menu items before the guests arrive so there’s no smell. The Hard Rock has a proper kitchen, but the cooking is more casual-style setting because most people are here for other shows or to visit the casino.
So how do you decide what goes on a caviar menu for a Hard Rock audience that might be there for gambling or a show?
The clientele coming in through the doors at Hard Rock aren’t coming for an eight-course tasting menu or to spend $225 a head like in New York. They’re coming in because they want something quick to eat, so it’s a no-brainer to do approachable but high quality food. For example, we have our caviar hotdog, which is a whole Alaskan king crab leg on a brioche bun with caviar on top, and people love it. It’s a $50 hot dog — the price is a steal.
You’re 30 now, and pending the results of this season of “Top Chef,” how much longer will you work for Marky’s Caviar?
The next thing is to open up a proper restaurant in New York City, with a goal of getting three Michelin stars.
“Top Chef: Houston” airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.