Padma Lakshmi devours BLTs and crab cakes and berry pies. She does so because it’s her job. Because to her, a great meal is a euphoric shared experience and an emotional journey that goes beyond one’s taste buds. The woman loves food. She appreciates food. She cooks a lot of food. But because she’s on TV, she, unlike her male counterparts, just can’t actually show it. “I live in the gym. I’m not going to lie,” she says.
To her credit, Lakshmi is this delightfully candid and matter of fact about most things. Take her radiant, polished, regal look during this Zoom interview.
“I’ve had my makeup done today. I’ve had my hair blown out to do this interview and it’s important to be upfront and honest about that. It’s not easy for anyone and I’m somebody who’s in front of the camera an awful lot of my life. And it’s still very distracting, to say the least, and women in our society have it much harder than men in our society,” says Lakshmi.
Lakshmi, the endometriosis activist, outspoken sexual assault survivor, and droll host of Bravo’s Top Chef and Hulu’s Taste the Nation, has turned her love of all things culinary into a sweet ode to the importance of food in “Tomatoes for Neela.” The picture book was inspired by her daughter Krishna, 11, whom she affectionately calls Little Hands on social media.
“Neela is named after my aunt Neela, who I’m very close to and grew up with. A lot of times we would Skype my family in India or my mother in California and cook with them because they couldn’t always be with us. So the book is really about the importance of sharing during cooking with your children, but also for your children to learn from different members, different generations, of family members, all involved in the process,” says Lakshmi.
“And also it talks about the importance and joy of writing down your recipes. So the mother and daughter test recipes in the book and they write them down in a big book. It’s about honoring our family members, honoring the traditions, writing it down, making sure kids know that cooking is a fun activity that can teach them so much, but also just bring them closer to the way they, to the food they eat and the people who would share those foods.”
I know you just got back from Paris. How was that?
It was weird. We’d never been there in August and everything was closed, but that’s why we went because we thought there would be less crowds, you know? Actually, we roller skated everywhere. The museums were all open. We went to Versailles.
And I’m sure you ate some very good food. Your book is absolutely wonderful in that it really shows how cooking goes way beyond throwing ingredients together. It’s a way for families to bond.
I used recipe writing to teach Krishna a whole host of developmental skills like fractions, like spelling, like concepts, like sequential ordering of ideas and writing down directions, just even writing down the ingredients in the order that they appear in the recipe. So I think recipes are a great way to teach kids those skills, but they also make cooking fun and make it an interactive experience so that you’re learning the recipe by doing it. And by watching an elder do it. I used to carry this five subjects spiral notebook around with me everywhere. Even when I went to visit relatives all the way through college and I still have it somewhere and I can refer to it, because a lot of those relatives that gave me those recipes are no longer with us, but I have a little piece of them.
You live in the world of food. You eat for a living. And yet, you look the way you do. How?
I work out so much and it’s not that I’m such an athlete. I’m not — I’m actually quite clumsy. I cannot hit a ball with an object to save my life. I have no coordination. But I do know how to go on a treadmill and lift weights and do all of the boring things that I try to make fun with a podcast. But it’s a struggle. I work in food. I’m a 50 year old woman, you know, so it’s just a constant push and pull.
Given the focus on women’s appearances, especially famous women, how do you not let your daughter become quote-unquote infected by that fixation?
Krishna is 11 and I want to make sure that she also doesn’t have too much of a focus on her body because the whole world will focus on that. I tell her that your body is growing every day and you’re not done cooking. So the most healthy thing you can do is take care of yourself, get enough sleep, get enough exercise, eat a variety of things.
There’s only so much control you have over those things because of your genetics. So focus on the things like your music or your other interests that you do have control over. You can’t spare them from the world. You just have to give them perspective every day. You have to be willing to be vulnerable in front of your child. I’m lucky in that Krishna is super emotionally precocious and she’s with me in a lot of different situations. She’s a very mature little girl — I just want her to have, you know, as much of her childhood as she can.
Let’s talk the new season of Taste of the Nation, which premieres November 4. I love how you use food as a way into very personal stories we don’t hear very often.
I always love looking at food and culture together. If you look at the most exciting parts of food in America, it is in the immigrant enclaves that stuff is going on. Food trends trickle up. They don’t trickle down. A lot of professional kitchens will have a white male executive chef, but most of their kitchen staff is brown and black, from various countries around the world. I thought it was really interesting way into the immigration piece and people are used to me speaking in the language of food in media anyway. Using food as a Trojan horse, I could talk about all of the other things on my agenda that interest me, like immigration, like family.
I also wanted to talk about food in context. Most of the food that’s prepared in the world is prepared by women. And yet most of the professional food world is very male-dominated. So I wanted to do a food show through my lens, through a very decidedly female brown lens. I wanted to look at how a lot of immigrants in this country also pass down the traditions and the values of their own ethnicity through food, because that’s all they have left.