The world is falling in love with summer issue cover star Padma Lakshmi all over again thanks to her critically acclaimed new Hulu television series, Taste the Nation. It seems the actress, author and activist leaves an incredible impression on everyone she meets, from Hollywood actors to renowned photographers to Top Chef contestants. We tapped some of Lakshmi’s closest friends and biggest admirers — from actress Susan Sarandon to comedian Ali Wong to photographers Inez & Vinoodh — to share their favorite stories about her.
There have been many, but one of the most outrageous took place on Halloween 2013, when we very proudly did each other’s makeup and did the rounds in Manhattan trick-or-treating as Day of the Dead husband and wife. (Check out the look in all its glory.)
We’ve had several amazing small and big dinners at Padma’s home, and what is most impressive about Padma is her ability to relax in any situation. She is at ease in any environment with anyone and always speaks her truth with a large dose of humor.
My favorite memory with Padma was taking a moment to bond over where we grew up. Not many people are familiar with this small suburb in East Los Angeles, so I was surprised to hear she spent some time there and that we both worked at the same neighborhood mall during our high-school years.
She’s such an intelligent, inspiring woman who has traveled all over the world building a successful career for herself that I was just taken aback to hear she came from where I came from. I admire her as an entrepreneur, as a food enthusiast, as a woman with a voice, and as a minority in this country, and she scored a few extra brownie points with me that day in that moment together.
Padma is truly a fantastic and passionate cook as well as host. I remember attending a dinner she was preparing in her home — feast would be more accurate than dinner, as she made the most amazing and delicious spread. The evening was transportive and detailed-oriented, but also very laid-back and cool — a rare combination perfectly executed by Padma.
I was surprised Padma came backstage after one of my shows because she spent all day working at Top Chef. She arrived in full hair and makeup, and we were lounging on this big blue velvet couch. Padma took off her shoes to be polite, and I was surprised to see that in addition to wearing a beautiful, tasteful, chic jumpsuit, she was also rocking socks from JetBlue. They’re the black ones with neon green toes that I imagine most people never actually wear or wear only once.
Then I went over to her house a couple days later, and she was sporting that very same pair of socks again. I think they were the only pair of socks she had while shooting in Los Angeles for that entire season of Top Chef. I was like, “Wow, Padma, you really need to renegotiate your Top Chef contract so you can at least get some new socks.” I love that woman to death. She is one of the most down-to-earth, intelligent and real people I know.
It was fun getting to know Padma as a real person; she was very approachable. Very early in the season, we were filming and she yelled, “Cut!” and told me I had food in my beard and came up to me to help pick it out. Every day after that happened, I put food in my beard on purpose. We had a running count of how many times Padma touched my beard; it got up into the double digits!
Another time, while we were filming — which during that time we had no access to the internet, our phones or current events — we were shooting a challenge and all the TVs were covered up. After the challenge was over, Padma came in not made up and looked very upset. She then shared the news with us that her friend and fellow chef Anthony Bourdain had passed away.
Padma was our houseguest when she came to Los Angeles for the Emmy Awards one year. My sister was also staying with us at that time, so she and Padma had to share a bathroom. It was funny watching the two of them navigate that obstacle, especially on the day of the Emmys.
Also, Padma had to have a wardrobe fitting for the finale of Top Chef while she was staying with us, and we encouraged her to have the fitting at our house, mainly so we could get a free fashion show out of the deal. The wardrobe team wheeled a rack of 20 gowns into our house, and Padma tried on every single one. I remember her walking the length of our kitchen in a couture gown, trying to get a feeling of how it “walked” while I sat at the kitchen island eating a peanut butter sandwich and giving my opinions. I don’t think anyone cared what I thought, but I liked being included in the process.
Padma and I cooked together a few times that week. At first, I was wildly intimidated to be in the kitchen with her, but she immediately put me at ease. I actually became a more confident cook after working alongside her. She encouraged me to trust my instincts and measure with my palate, not with spoons and cups. After she left, I received a box full of spices she thought I might enjoy working with. She probably didn’t even realize she was passing wisdom down to me, but I still think about what I learned from her just by watching and listening.
In the past two seasons of Top Chef, I have been judged by Padma along with Tom and Gail. Though I did not win either season, it was an amazing experience competing and getting to know the judges a bit more. This could all be in my head, but I always felt like Padma was secretly rooting for me. Maybe it was my food, my background of being from a culinary rich place (New Orleans) or being a woman of color in this industry. Knowing what she stands up for and feeling her words of encouragement really made my Top Chef experience so much grander.
On set, Padma has shown the entire cast and crew her appreciation by treating us to amazing family meals. In Kentucky, she highlighted a Sri Lankan chef who I am now friends with, and it was because Padma went to their house and enjoyed a meal with her and her family that she decided to have them feed the whole team as well. As a chef who cooks for others, it is so meaningful to me when someone else feeds me.
Padma is a super giving person. She would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. I’ll never forget five years ago, I had just moved into a new apartment in Queens. As I’m unpacking my things, I get this huge, super heavy box at my door. I open it and realize Padma had sent me a stunning full dinner set from her collection, which was exactly what I needed! I’m grateful to know such a thoughtful, generous person like Padma Lakshmi.
One of my deepest regrets in life is that I never took Padma up on her offer to give me a cooking lesson. She has always been an authentic and dynamic subject. What you see is what you get: passion and beauty inside and out.
In the crazy, high-stress world of Top Chef, Padma always had a calming voice. Yes, she was the messenger of the insane challenges, and yes, she was the one to tell us to “pack your knives and go,” but she does it with such grace it softens the blow. Her grace is equaled by her fire to lift voices, share stories and fight for what’s right for all undersung communities, both nationally and worldwide.
After 14 years shooting Top Chef together, traveling the world, and watching each other’s lives and careers grow and evolve immeasurably, there are too many memorable moments to count. I’d say a few at the top of my list include dancing on stage together at a Foo Fighters concert, eating our way through Singapore’s best hawker stalls (not to mention meals at restaurants and street food stands from New Orleans to Napa, Maui to Mexico), rushing the stage in disbelief and elation upon winning an Emmy in 2010, our many talks about the journey to motherhood, and holding each other’s newborn daughters for the first time.
GIRL BYE. When I got an Evite from Padma inviting me to her Diwali party, I said, OMG! I have to go!! Also, what is Diwali?! When I arrived at her house with my husband, I was just taken aback at how beautiful, diverse, warm and welcoming everyone was. Padma was sitting on a beautiful, expensive pillow on the floor, and when we came in, she effortlessly got up without moaning or saying ouch. I was so impressed.
She introduced us to her homemade Indian food then scolded me for not eating it fast enough: “This will get soggy; you have to eat it now!” I popped whatever the delicious tamarind lightly fried spicy dough situation was in my mouth, and she yelled, “There’s still juice in here!” She then took my bowl, slurped it down, wiped her mouth and said, “You can’t waste that shit; it’s delicious.” I will forever be changed and utterly impressed by yes, how strikingly beautiful she is, her advocacy, but also how down she is. Thanks to Padma, I’ll always be sucking the juice, ’cause you can’t waste that shit.
I have been lucky enough to know Padma for a long time now, and there have been some great memories and moments along the way. I have to say that my favorite thing about Padma is current Padma. Right now, she’s the most brilliant, impressive and impactful version of herself — an activist, mother, storyteller, social justice warrior, home cook and human rights champion.
If I look objectively at where she is right now, at this moment, my own favorite memory of her is looking at her Instagram profile or reading an interview with her. I think as human beings, we evolve into the best version of ourselves, and I look at where Padma is in her life right now, and she is there. She has become a superhero.