Padma Lakshmi, 52, continues to judge dishes served up by Top Chef contestants on the popular Bravo series, and the second season of her Hulu documentary series, Taste the Nation, kicks off May 5. The show is a fascinating dive into regional food cultures across the country, and explores the diverse communities that have shaped what American cuisine is today.
1. Who decides which locations to feature on Taste the Nation?
I decide. Taste the Nation is a total creation from my head with my producing partner, David [Shadrack] Smith. Obviously we need to get approval from the network, but we are choosing the places that we go to for different reasons. It’s not necessarily designed for people who share my views, although I hope they enjoy it as well. It’s really designed to speak to people who don’t think like me, and maybe haven’t had direct contact with different communities that may even be their neighbors. Yes, some of us may have funny accents or names that have a lot of letters in them, but at the end of the day, though we eat different foods, we all want the same thing.
2. Are there any foods you won’t eat?
On Top Chef, by my contract — because we’re a game show and we’re ruled by different FCC [Federal Communications Commission] rules — I have to legally try — I’m the only person that tries — every single thing on the show. It’s my job. I don’t have to eat the whole plate, but I have to eat one or two bites — whatever is required for me to understand the essence and execution of that dish — and that’s fine. There was a point — I was pregnant and doing the show and on that season, we told the finalists you can make a raw dish, but our host/judge won’t taste it, and that’s up to you, and nobody did.
3. How does Top Chef stay relevant after 20 seasons?
One of the things that helps us is we move locations every season. That really helps — the locals, the regional food of whatever city we’re in — really informs our challenges, and we meet local chefs. But at the end of day, the contestants also keep it new for me. I believe they’re the real stars of our show. I'm with them every single day. I just fall in love with them. It’s like a sixth-grade teacher who gets a new batch of kids, and sometimes it’s not even the kids who are best in class that you’re fond of, it’s the guy who can’t get out of his way or the woman who keeps making the mistakes, and you’re like, Oh, I’m so rooting for them.
4. Did you cook with your mother? Is that where you began learning?
My mother — we come from a long line of cooks — is a great cook. I was really mostly a latchkey child when I was in America. Right about fifth grade, I started cooking dinner when I could to surprise her. She worked as a registered nurse at a cancer institute, so she was on her feet all day, and she didn’t get home often until 6, and then by the time dinner got on the table it was 7:30. I remember I used to boil water in a kettle and put it in a bucket so when she got home she could soak her feet, because she was just exhausted.
5. What would you make your mom for dinner?
I used to make bean and cheese enchiladas because we were vegetarian. I would buy a can of refried pinto beans, and I would open the can. I would get tortillas and fill the tortillas with beans. I would shred cheese with a box grater, and then I would pour the salsa on there. I wasn’t allowed to use the stove alone, but I was allowed to use the oven. I would make a salad and that was good. She was very happy.
6. Does your daughter [Krishna Thea, 13] like to cook?
She does like to cook, and she used to love to cook with me. But now she says I’m oppressive. She winds up using an air fryer at her dad’s house and cooking with him more.
7. What’s the one lesson you want to impart to your daughter?
The biggest lesson is: Try your hardest to find a way to make a living doing what you naturally love and are interested in. We will all spend more time at work than we should, [because] even if you love it, it will be difficult at times, it will be tiring most of the time — at least in my case. I’m 52. I’m going through perimenopause on the road. I’m not sleeping. It’s hard, and my body is changing … but what keeps me going is that the stories I’m telling on Taste the Nation are super interesting and really important to me. That becomes infectious. It’s my job to make you care about this subject matter, and if I don’t care, then that job becomes a lot harder.
8. What else has changed or shifted for you in your 50s?
My priorities. What people don’t tell you is once you finally get the success you always craved and wanted and longed for, you often don’t have the time to enjoy it. Last year, I finally won my first James Beard [Foundation] Award [for the visual media — long form category for Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition], much later than most people in my industry, because I started in this career much later — 30 — than most people. That felt really good, [but] I wound up just bursting into tears onstage. The exhaustion was so much. … I have to reevaluate all my work and be more selective. [It] will take some maneuvering, but I have five years before my child goes away to college, and I want to enjoy those years with her.
9. As a former fashion model, have you changed your style as you aged?
I probably should change my style, but to be honest, no, it hasn’t changed since I was 15. My skirts have gotten a little longer because I don’t have the thighs I had when I was in my 20s. The brands have just gotten higher quality, because obviously I can afford more than when I was a work-study student. I wear a lot of jumpsuits and flare jeans because I have a really high inseam. I like jumpsuits [especially when traveling] because I don’t have to think. It’s my uniform. It’s usually something that’s a little stretchy and comfortable. My weight fluctuates a lot because of my work and, of course, how much food I’m consuming.
10. Any travel packing tips?
When I do Taste the Nation, honestly my whole costume/wardrobe just fits in a rolling bag, because I just want to get off the plane and go. I really am very streamlined. A good rule of thumb is to always just pick two colors for the trip. Obviously, when I’m filming, if I’m going to a church or synagogue, there are other exigencies, but on my own time, I usually pick black and beige, with a pop of color with a cashmere scarf or a sweater dress. I love sweater dresses because they don’t wrinkle, and my summer version of the sweater dress are these James Perse T-shirt dresses. They’re stretchy, so they don’t wrinkle.
11. Your career seems to be taking off at this later stage in your life.
I’m definitely what you would call a late bloomer. It took me to the ripe age of 49, 50 to finally get my own show. Even though I am [broadcast] in 174 countries with Top Chef, and I’m probably one of the most well-known women in food in the world, it still took me as a woman and a brown person being on TV for 20 years before somebody gave me that privilege.
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