Scheduled to air later this year, the new season of Top Chef will be its fifteenth. By now, the format of this reality television series is familiar. Eager to show their chops, amateur chefs sweat it out in a well-kitted kitchen.
One raw shrimp or a not-so-tender piece of pork is often ground enough for elimination. The judges are unforgiving, and at times didactic. But unlike its several emulators, this American reality cooking competition remains compelling. Padma Lakshmi, the show’s presenter, does make sure of that.
A five-foot-niner, Lakshmi is arguably statuesque. Her gaze on television oscillates between stern and empathetic. There is warmth in her consolation, and an honesty in her accessible reviews. Surprisingly, however, this poise was once shakeable. In her recently released memoir, Love, Loss and What We Ate, Lakshmi has confessed to suffering an initial “touch of the imposter syndrome”. Worried that star chefs would dismiss her as just another pretty face, the model found confidence in a sanguine monologue—“Sure, I hadn’t broken down a side of beef or cooked on the line. But I’d eaten and learned about good food all over the world—the finest bastillas in Marrakesh, tons of meals in Paris bistros, fresh pasta made by expert hands in Milan, the best biryani in Hyderabad, and the most exhilarating chaat in Delhi.”
Travel, inference then suggests, is a requisite for success in the culinary world. In an interview with National Geographic Traveller India, Lakshmi seemed to agree with our premise. She says, “I think that travel is the most important thing any person can do for their education. You learn so much abroad that you don’t get in a classroom or textbook.” The author went on to list some common benefits that travel affords cooks and chefs—“Being well-informed certainly helps on the road to greatness. Travelling also expands your palette and teaches you about ingredients and different cooking techniques from cultures other than your own.” For Lakshmi, you only come to know a place when you taste your way through it.
Lakshmi’s culinary career has fused the three things she admits to loving most—“food, travel and hosting on television.” She first anchored a show called Padma’s Passport in 2001, and later hosted documentaries that were given the name Planet Food. One of these documentaries took her back to Spain. She had spent the last months of her college life in Madrid. “Yes, I studied abroad in Spain,” Lakshmi tells NGTI, “but filming a documentary there later allowed me not only to experience the food, but about the people who made it, and in turn, go deeper into Spanish culture than I would have otherwise.”
Lakshmi’s memoir makes clear that places and people are both catalysts. They have a vital consequence. Struggling to earn her living as a model, Lakshmi found herself in Paris. She didn’t have much money, but to lift her spirits, she “tried to buy a small piece of Paris through its food”. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with French cheese. In the Bastille street market, she discovered that cheese wasn’t just white or orange, it was also “blue, beige, veiny, creamy white, yellow, deep sunset orange, or even burnt sienna”. In faltering French, Lakshmi stammered her questions to a large, sweaty cheesemonger. An Alfred Hitchcock doppelgänger, the man, though gruff, had become a friend. Knowing the limits of her purse, perhaps seeing the hunger in her eyes, he’d often throw her a razor-thin slice of cheese or a crumbled edge.
“The amount was always perfect,” writes Lakshmi, the model who ate too much cheese. Seeing Lakshmi sit at the high table of food, it is hard to believe she once had to rely on scraps of cheese to sample Parisian fare. She knows how to eat the hard way. If given the opportunity to spend a day roaming the streets of a city, tasting food along the way, it isn’t surprising that Lakshmi would choose Paris. Though “it’s gotten better over the years with its ethnic food”, Lakshmi says, “You really go there for the cheese, wine, crepes, and the hole-in-the-wall shish kebab joints. I’d eat at Le Monde de Joël Robuchon for the mashed potatoes. I’d have the vegetarian tasting menu at L’Arpège, and I’d go to the food markets behind Saint Germain.” Lakshmi’s map, though, doesn’t just outline destinations.
In many of her iterations, the TV host seemed to make a strong case for the foodie as anthropologist—“You can tell a lot about a place by where its people congregate to eat. Experiencing both high and low ends of the food spectrum is vital. It allows you to see how people really live. Most of the rituals that we practice are centred around food, so you can tell a lot about a culture by the way it eats.” Cultural and culinary exploration, however, can sometimes be prone to accidents. Lakshmi, for instance, once ordered a pepperoni pizza in Milan and was given a pizza with marinated peppers instead. In Italy, she learnt, peperoni meant bell peppers. For those unnerved by the idea of eating abroad, Lakshmi has some pragmatic advice—“There’s always a language barrier when you go to a foreign country. So when I travel to a new place, I try to learn the words of my favourite foods so I can communicate to the waiters effectively. That’s part of the adventure of discovering food in a new land.”
Lakshmi speaks about food with a lucidity that is learnt, but with a passion that is childlike. Her love for food, she says, was born in India, where she spent the first four years of her life and then several summers growing up. In the early chapters of Love, Loss…, she writes, “Coming from India and spending what seemed like most of my upbringing in the kitchens of my grandmother, mother, and various aunts (that’s where all the action is, after all), I valued and took a keen interest in spices.” Her suitcases have for long been packed with “spices and sauces, seeds and twigs”, but of late, she doesn’t just bring back spices, she even has some in her bags when taking off. She tells NGTI, “I travel a lot for work, often to places that don’t have fresh Indian ingredients, like curry leaves or kaffir lime leaves. I have a mini spice kit I often take when I’m away filming. The best way to fight homesickness is to prepare a beloved meal. It helps give you a little taste of home when you cannot get there physically.” Jason, Top Chef’s on-set assistant, makes Lakshmi chilli cheese toast when she is tired and hungry. The recipe is Lakshmi’s, and the taste is that of her Indian childhood, but not everything, she finds, is replicable.
The yogurt in America, for instance, never quite tastes like the “homemade yogurt” of India. She misses her grandmother’s dosas, “which are crisp at the edges and soft at the centre,” but when asked what is the one dish she longs to eat each time she returns to the country, Lakshmi is unequivocal—“Chaat.” Even in the States, when eating a double bacon western cheeseburger at Carl’s Jr., Lakshmi felt the bacon, cheese and sweet barbecue sauce amounted to chaatpati. “Given the crunchy onion ring that topped the patty, I was basically eating a chaat burger,” she writes. Nachos had an unmistakable chaat-like quality, and hot dog vendors, for her, were the chaatwaalas of New York. Lakshmi claims to have visited cities through her fork, but India, one thinks, she devours with her hands.
When authors Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Siri Hustevdt and Susan Sontag came home for dinner, Padma Lakshmi made a creamy chicken curry, pav bhaji, lemon rice and raita. Intimidated by the collective intellectual heft of her former husband Salman Rusdhie’s friends, Lakshmi overcame her presumed feelings of inferiority by cooking, for “who doesn’t like the cook?” Her menu, though, also had another, sweeter agenda. With her cooking, she wanted to take Rushdie back home, “to a sweet, idyllic place and time, back to those smells of childhood and India.” Food, a vehicle with wheels that takes you back, also proved to be transport that pushed Lakshmi forward. With her marriage broken, still coping with endometriosis, Lakshmi checked herself into the “Sorry Hotel”. Her melancholy only ebbed when she made a batch of chutney with kumquats that her mother had sent. Cooking, she says, has always been her salvation. “Food is one of the most basic ways we comfort ourselves and each other. Oftentimes when I have been worried about something, cooking calms me. The act of cooking is itself therapeutic.”After the birth of her daughter Krishna in 2010, Lakshmi doesn’t quite travel and eat the way she always did. Strangely, she seems to eat more. She tells us, “Because of Krishna, when I go to Mexico now I usually have to try all the flavours of paletas or popsicles. She loves sweets, so it’s tempting to do so myself when I see her enjoying all the exotic flavours.” In Love, Loss…, Lakshmi writes, “Krishna was a great traveller. Over the few short years of her life, she had clocked more miles than most adults.” There is of course much that the world will teach her daughter, but if Lakshmi’s own travels were to be a manual, there is a lesson that merits memorising—when coming a long way, having a full stomach helps.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.