Buddha Lo's pavlova will someday travel "miles and miles" on a NASA mission.
Lo, a cheftestant on the Bravo cooking competition "Top Chef: Houston," won the show's space food challenge (opens in new tab), qualifying his meringue-based dessert for a place on a future astronaut's menu. The chefs were challenged to create a "new menu item that they would crave if they were on a multi-year mission to Mars."
"The winning chef today is ... Buddha! We're going to send you to the stars!" announced chef Marcus Samuelsson, one of the guest judges on Thursday night's (May 5) episode, "Dinner in Zero Gravity."
"Your dish will inspire a dish that will go on a future mission up into space," added Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi.
"It's amazing. I can't wait," said Lo. "I absolutely loved this challenge."
Lo's dish beat out the space food concoctions made by five of his fellow chefs and sent one of them home.
"I feel like what I did today showed that I'm a serious contender," said Lo. "I want to make it clear that I rather go hard or go home."
Clarification: As noted by host Padma Lakshmi, Lo's dish will not fly to space as it was prepared on the show, but will inspire a dish that meets NASA's space food requirements. How close that final dish is to Lo's recipe is still to be seen.
Before beginning to cook, Lo and the other chefs toured Space Center Houston, the official visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center. There, they met up with astronauts Cady Coleman and Tony Antonelli (opens in new tab), as well as Grace Douglas, the lead scientist in NASA's advanced food technology.
"Everything that we send has to be a wide variety so that people can find foods that they like," said Douglas.
The cheftestants were then led into a theater where they were surprised by a live downlink from the International Space Station.
"Does the food taste different up there?" asked Lo.
"I noticed when I first arrived, that congestion... you kind of get a fluid shift to your head. It feels like you have a cold for a little while," replied NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, who with Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency fielded the chefs' questions. "I tend to use hot sauces and condiments to bring some of that flavor back."
Back in the kitchen the next day, Lo explained his thinking behind the dish.
"My dish is going to be based on the moon, so they are going to feel like they are actually on there," he said. "You get this one shot to cook on the NASA challenge and I want to go all out."
Lo called his dish an "Apavlova 14."
"It is a take on Apollo 14. Alan Shepard played golf on the moon (opens in new tab), so I am going to do a little funny take on that," he said.
"Buddha's making space balls next to me," said cheftestant Evelyn Garcia, whose own dish was a guiso rojo, a pork and vegetable stew. "He is doing what I would expect him to do. There's powders, molds, things whipping. He is a little scientist over there."
"It is cool to be doing all these different space ideas on one dish," said Lo. "The golf balls are berry-cherry sauce inside a coconut cream and then covered in white chocolate. And then for moon rocks, I want to use meringue."
"Pavlova will be able to travel well because meringue is dehydrated egg whites, so it's basically a freeze-dried product," he said, referencing the use of freeze-drying in the preparation of NASA's space food.
More than just a space-themed dish, though, Lo's choice was also personal.
"A pavlova is something that really brings me back to just cooking at home with my wife," he said, adding that his wife is a pastry sous chef. "I'm proud to be able to showcase a dish that means a lot to me."
In addition to Garcia's pork stew, Lo's competition included a marinated tuna and shrimp dish that was presented as though it was packaged for space by chef Ashleigh Shanti; a Mississippi gumbo by chef Nick Wallace; Korean beef bulgogi with barley by chef Jae Jung; and chicken gravy with rice and hot pickled peppers by chef Damarr Brown.
Joining Coleman and Antonelli to taste the dishes were astronaut Susan Kilrain, Space Center Houston CEO William Harris, chefs Samuelsson, Melissa King, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons and host Padma Lakshmi.
"I liked the surprise inside the golf ball," said Antonelli of Lo's pavlova.
"It told a great story, number one," said Colicchio, who is the "Top Chef" head judge. "Clearly he was engaged, and I thought it was a nice dessert. It was fun."
Ultimately, it came down to a choice between Lo's Apavlova 14 versus Garcia's guiso rojo and Wallace's gumbo.
"Today was really nerve-wracking, making it something that could go to space," Lo said.
"You gave us a beautiful, creative, delicious, interactive dessert, and I appreciated how much thought you put into each element of that dish," said Lakshmi.
"I love that you actually thought about the space program and kind of work it into the dish," added Colicchio. "You do have a bunch of tricks in your bag, and you played them really well here."
"That plate was the perfect intersection between playing the game and showing techniques but not being gimmicky," said Samuelsson.
Lo's win now makes him the second "Top Chef" contestant to develop a dish headed for space (opens in new tab). In 2010, chef Angelo Sosa's short ribs won a spot aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery
Lo's dish could also fly to the International Space Station on a U.S. commercial spacecraft, or maybe it will launch to its inspiration. NASA is currently working to return astronauts to the moon as part of its Artemis program.
"Dinner in Zero Gravity," episode 10 of "Top Chef: Houston," can be streamed now on Bravo's website (opens in new tab).