There can be little doubt that Padma Lakshmi is experiencing a deluge of life-changing events right now: She stars in the second season of her Hulu travel show, “Taste the Nation”; she posed in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; and she recently announced that she’s stepping away from Bravo’s “Top Chef,” the reality TV show she hosted for 17 years.
But if you ask the 52-year-old cookbook author and activist (Lakshmi is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and advocates for women’s and immigrants’ rights for the ACLU), she says that being on 2023’s Time 100 list of most influential people ranks better than any other accolade she’s received to date.
“That was the highest pinnacle I’ve reached in my professional life,” she says. “I’ve written for Time when others have been on the list, but to actually have the gold pin and be part of that eclectic and brilliant group was the best award I’ve ever been given.”
We sat down with Lakshmi to discuss more about “Taste the Nation,” and how she connects with food in her daily life, from fine dining to delicious takeout. Spoiler alert: she’s never one to shy away from spice.
The importance of “Taste the Nation.”
When Lakshmi is filming, there are a few things she always has on hand: an electric kettle and a thermos for her favorite tea, Washabarie masala chai.
“That tea is my home,” she says. “I always have a thermos of hot tea with me.”
And she deserves that anchor, given all the travel Lakshmi does for “Taste the Nation.”
“The show has been a whirlwind,” she says. “But I’m so happy people can see what we worked so hard on.”
The show highlights immigrant groups around the U.S. through the lens of food. The project is personal for Lakshmi, who was just four years old when she immigrated to the U.S. from India.
“I hope that people feel more empathy for their neighbors,” she says of what she wants viewers to take away from her show. “I hope that they become more curious about their fellow Americans and that I’ve made the unfamiliar a little bit more familiar.”
Ordering in? Make it spicy.
When Lakshmi’s back home in New York City, she loves ordering from Hao Noodle, a fine-casual Chinese restaurant that mixes traditional recipes with progressive culinary trends.
“I usually get hot and sour fish soup and add steamed rice to it,” she says. “It has steamed fish, cabbage and other veggies, tons of red chilies, and Szechuan peppercorns. When I eat it I’m sweating and sucking my cheeks the whole time!”
She also loves to order the fava bean hummus, labneh, and chicken shawarma from Shuka, a Mediterranean hotspot in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
“One portion is enough for two people,” she says. “I will cut it down the middle and share with my daughter or the other people in my office — it’s super delicious.”
Spicy food is often on the menu for Lakshmi.
“We tend to order from Mala Project if we need to be woken up from our daytime doldrums,” she says, referencing the popular Northern Chinese restaurant with multiple locations across Manhattan. “One of my colleagues will say ‘taste this,’ and he’s purple in the face and sweating.”
And, when it comes time to order an all-American burger, West Village mainstay Minetta Tavern is Lakshmi’s go-to.
“It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the city,” she says. “It has a good New York City vibe and so much history.”
The “Top Chef” legacy is going strong.
Though Lakshmi is stepping down from the show that rocketed her to fame, she’s proud of Top Chef’s legacy, including the restaurants of two finalists who appeared on the show in 2015.
“A great example is Kann, a restaurant Gregory Gourdet recently opened in Portland that won [James Beard’s 2023] Best New Restaurant,” she says. “I’ve eaten so much of his food — he deserves it.”
Kann, a Haitian restaurant in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, is routinely celebrated for its live-fire cooking with local ingredients.
The other example is Tatiana, an Afro-Caribbean-inspired restaurant in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Owned by Chef Kwame Onwuachi, Tatiana has been lauded with a flurry of positive press.
“He’s brought a whole new population of diners to Lincoln Center,” she says. “I went there on Valentine’s Day with my daughter and it was beautiful to see diversity in a fine dining restaurant. There were all of these beautiful Black and brown faces dining there.”
We have Lakshmi to thank for bringing these incredible chefs to the spotlight… and lots more exciting people, places, and restaurants to come.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Padma Lakshmi