Padma Lakshmi's Travel Journey | Nat Geo Traveller India

Padma Lakshmi on Love, Loss and What She Ate

Her career has helped fuse her two biggest loves—food and travel.  
Padma Lakshmi on Love, Loss and What She Ate 6
Eating her way through the world, Padma Lakshmi has learnt a lot about cultures, and more about herself. Photo by Bravo/Contributor/NBCUniversal/getty images.

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.

*****

Le Voltaire in Paris

“Off the Quai Voltaire, Le Voltaire in Paris is the quintessential cosy French restaurant. It’s very traditional, the waiters know what they’re doing, and the people-watching is fantastic.”
Photo by Markord/iStock.

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.

Padma Lakshmi giving an interview

“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.” Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Contributor/FilmMagic/getty images.

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.”

*****

chaat in India

“When I return to India, the one dish I long to eat is chaat, or my grandmother’s dosas, which are crisp at the edges and soft at the centre, or homemade yogurt—the yogurt in America doesn’t taste the same.” Photo by Pamela Joe McFarlane/iStock.

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.

*****

Padma Lakshmi

Cooking, she says, has always been her salvation. Photo by Innez and Vinoodh.

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.

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