By Phebe Wahl By Phebe Wahl | February 15, 2023 | People Lifestyle Feature
As she toasts the 20th season of her hit show Top Chef, Taste the Nation and a flurry of other projects, prolific powerhouse Padma Lakshmi proves that variety truly is the spice of life.
You can tell much about a person by looking in their larder. And one glimpse into celebrated culinary powerhouse Padma Lakshmi’s pantry reveals a museum-worthy cacophony of spices, sauces and spreads. “Lots of different kinds of vinegar. Lots of different kinds of oils. Lots of different kinds of chiles from all over the world,” she says, clearly energized and ready to chat condiments. “Definitely coconut and coconut milk. Definitely. And never without curry, miso, ginger or makrut lime leaves.” I nod as if a fraction of this stuff is in my pantry, trying to keep up. “Always, always have some dried tomatoes, anchovies and anchovy paste—and olive paste and various olives. I love French and Italian cheeses,” she continues. “I always have some of those in my cheese drawer. And then I have tons of condiments and chutneys and sauces. Like, if you opened up my fridge, it would be very embarrassing,” she says, laughing. “It is, like, 80% bottles of different potions and sauces.” Is anyone else hungry?
Perhaps even more impressive than her pantry is the fact that Lakshmi has time to cook at all. Despite her dizzying schedule, the multihyphenate still enjoys time in the kitchen and is currently testing recipes for her next cookbook. “It’s everything that I’ve gathered from the road on Taste the Nation,” she shares. “It is a lot of different international recipes, but they’re not traditional international recipes. They’re very accessible adapted international recipes from immigrants who have come here from all over the world—or from their parents or grandparents. So, I’ve just hunted and gathered—or tasted all these things. And now I’m doing my spin on them at home.”
It is this signature spin that is no doubt the secret sauce that explains Lakshmi’s legendary success: equal parts brilliance, beauty and charisma—with a dash of championing communities and a heavy, heavy roux of hustle and hard work. The award-winning results of Top Chef alone speak for themselves.
“When I first took the job at Top Chef, I thought it would be fun and give my little cookbook a push,” she says, reflecting on the series’ runaway success. Debuting on March 9, the show celebrates its 20th season, Top Chef: World All-Stars.“It’s very exciting. I had so much fun filming it,” Lakshmi says. “We were in London and then in Paris. And, unlike past seasons, where it’s always been, chefs that we found in America. This is really an international competition,” she explains. “It’s also very elevated competition because, right off the bat, the only chefs that are competing have already won their respective seasons of Top Chef or come in as finalists.” Lakshmi shares the astounding stats that Top Chef now exists in 175 territories, and there are 29 other franchise versions apart from the American Top Chef ranging from Mexico to the Middle East to Thailand. “And so, we’re taking finalists and winners from 11 different versions around the world and seeing how they do on a world stage,” she says. “And not only are they from all over the world, but they’re also at the top of their game,” Lakshmi explains. “Usually, when you have a normal season of Top Chef, you get people with no experience competing on our show. … But here, you’re starting with the crème de la crème.”
After so many seasons, Lakshmi has seen her share of culinary chaos and mind-blowing mastery. She says the secret stars are the talented team coordinating all the behind-the-scenes magic. “From my first season, I remember we were in Malibu, and we did this breakfast challenge—which doesn’t seem that hard—except that you have to make it on the beach, open fire. And I’ll never forget the unsung heroes of our show—the crew that you never get to see, the culinary department and then all of the technical crew who had to lay gas lines and dig ditches and then cover them up with sand all before sunrise so that we could get it all fired up in a safe way that looks telegenic.”
The juggle is real as Lakshmi balances a hectic work schedule and raising an almost teenage daughter, Krishna—who she shares has her own serious skills when it comes to cooking. “She is really good with the microwave. Obviously, when she was young, she wasn’t allowed to use the stove. So that was one of the first things that she was able to have access to,” she shares, saying she can craft mug cakes and other things all on her own. “I’m trying to pass down as much as I can to her,” she says of spending time together cooking. “But, you know, cooking with me is not always relaxing. It’s like, if your dad is a professional tennis player, or your mom is a dancer—it’s probably not fun playing tennis or dancing with them either. ... She still loves to cook, but she prefers if I just sit on the couch, and I tell her what to do very quickly,” Lakshmi says, laughing. “Or I give her a recipe, or she has something in her head. But I don’t interfere. I am nearby so that if something looks dangerous, I can, like, jump in,” she says. “But, you know, she’s going to be a teenager this month. And so she’s very independent. She doesn’t care if her mom’s on Top Chef. She’s grown up on the set of Top Chef too.”
Passing on and celebrating culinary traditions is a recurring ingredient in many of Lakshmi’s recipes for success—and a personal passion. “I think there is a movement in this country to really stamp out everything that is not ‘meatloaf and potatoes’—and by that I don’t just mean food; I mean everything that goes along with it,” she explains. “Many people have a narrow definition of America. But American culture is an ever-evolving thing. I think it’s important to remember and remind everyone who we are in all of our diversity because that is what makes us stronger as a nation. That is why we’re such an economic power. That is why we’re such a pop culture power all around the world. … And I don’t think it’s something that we should be afraid of, whether it’s in our schools or in our restaurants or in our home kitchens. I think it is this thing that makes America so much more interesting than any other country in the world.”
Lakshmi is a dedicated global citizen, advocating for various causes to which she has deep personal connections ranging from co-founding the Endometriosis Foundation of America to numerous campaigns on behalf of the ACLU to serving as a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. “All the things that I support are things that I have a natural affinity toward or some personal connection with,” she says. “Because of my own personal health story, I founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America with my surgeon because I was so mad that I wasn’t treated properly when I should have been—even though I had access to health insurance and ‘great medical care.’"
As one of the world’s top gourmet gurus, I feel compelled to ask what she thinks is next for culinary trends. “I think everybody right now is in love with things like miso paste, dashi, za’atar,” she says. “So my prediction is about using international ingredients in your cooking—which is the Bible I’ve been banging on for most of my 20-year career from my first cookbook to my Encyclopedia of Spices to Taste the Nation show. I think that trend will continue. I think you’ll see micro-spices and items from each culture become more and more prevalent in America’s kitchens.” Lakshmi also predicts that the Indian yogurt lassi will have a major moment—so much so that she became an investor in DAH! lassi. “As an Indian person, I’ve grown up with homemade yogurt and lassi all my life,” she says. “I think Indian yogurt is going to take America and beyond by storm in this decade because the way that we culture yogurt in India is a slower process,” she explains, noting that more probiotics are retained than any other drinkable yogurt on the market. “I like to enjoy it in the morning before a workout,” she says. “Or, if I do a really long workout, after just to have a healthy snack and give myself more protein. I am pretty plant-based when I’m not filming, so getting that protein helps. And then also, because I’m eating so many strange things at Top Chef or even Taste the Nation, it feels really healthy to put all these probiotics back in my gut.”
After Top Chef, Lakshmi will unveil the next season of Taste the Nation. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on it now in postproduction. So I’m deep in, you know, sound mixing and color correction and edits and writing the voiceover and things like that,” she says. In other words, she is adding her signature sauce.
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHRISTIAN WITKIN/PHOTOS COURTESY OF TRUNK ARCHIVE