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Meringue on the moon: Top Chef winning dish to fly on NASA mission

Top Chef: Houston cheftestant Buddha Lo fills molds with coconut cream to form golf balls as part of his Apollo 14-inspired "Apavlova 14" winning space food dish.
Top Chef: Houston cheftestant Buddha Lo fills molds with coconut cream to form golf balls as part of his Apollo 14-inspired "Apavlova 14" winning space food dish. (Image credit: Bravo)

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."

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Top Chef: Houston cheftestant Buddha Lo's "Apavlova 14" winning space food dish, with white chocolate-covered and berry-filled "golf ball" and freeze-dried meringue "moon rocks."

"Top Chef: Houston" cheftestant Buddha Lo's "Apavlova 14" winning space food dish, with white chocolate-covered and berry-filled "golf ball" and freeze-dried meringue "moon rocks." (Image credit: Bravo)

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.

Apavlova 14

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."

Buddha Lo (at right) with his five fellow cheftestants — Jae Jung, Damarr Brown, Nick Wallace, Ashleigh Shanti and Evelyn Garcia — at Space Center Houston for the "Dining in Zero Gravity" episode of Space Center Houston.

Buddha Lo (at right) with his five fellow cheftestants — Jae Jung, Damarr Brown, Nick Wallace, Ashleigh Shanti and Evelyn Garcia — at Space Center Houston for the "Dining in Zero Gravity" episode of "Top Chef: Houston." (Image credit: Bravo)

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."

Apollo 14: 'Rookie' crew and a famous golf ball

Buddha Lo uses liquid nitrogen to prepare his "Apavlova 14" moon-themed dessert as Top Chef: Houston judges Marcus Samuelsson, Melissa King and Tom Colicchio look on.

Buddha Lo uses liquid nitrogen to prepare his "Apavlova 14" moon-themed dessert as "Top Chef: Houston" judges Marcus Samuelsson, Melissa King and Tom Colicchio look on. (Image credit: Bravo)

"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."

Moon shot

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."

Overhead view of astronaut Tony Antonelli digging into Buddha Lo's "Apavlova 14" winning dish on Top Chef: Houston.

Overhead view of astronaut Tony Antonelli digging into Buddha Lo's "Apavlova 14" winning dish on "Top Chef: Houston." (Image credit: Bravo)

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).

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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.