If you think Padma Lakshmi’s only place is in the kitchen, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Sure, the 49-year-old Indian-born American actress, author and activist is best known for her role as host and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, but she’s so much more than that.
A little history: Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her mother immigrated to the United States to escape the stigma. Lakshmi lived with her maternal grandparents for two years before rejoining her mom in New York City. She spent much of her young life traveling between America and India, existing somewhere between two vastly different cultures. When she was 14, her family was in a horrific car accident; they survived but not without some scars, like the seven-inch-long one on Lakshmi’s right arm that has become her brand statement.
While studying abroad in Spain in the nineties, she was spotted by a modeling scout, which led to a lucrative career working for the likes of Armani, Versace and Ralph Lauren and ultimately propelled her to become the first internationally successful Indian supermodel. Soon she branched out into acting, but that was all really just a precursor to her success as a cookbook author. Which in turn was the perfect precursor to her role on Top Chef, now in its 17th season. (Keeping up?)
All the while, Lakshmi has proven she’s as brazen as she is beautiful, championing issues like women’s and immigrants’ rights. In recent years, her voice has become stronger on both fronts amid the current political climate and as she strives to set an example for her 10-year-old daughter, Krishna. Today, she’s a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador as well as an ACLU spokesperson. After all, it seems she can’t move a muscle without the whole world watching, so why not use all that attention to effect some change?
That’s a driving force behind her latest project, a television series called Taste the Nation that premieres on Hulu this summer. In it, Lakshmi visits indigenous and immigrant communities across the country to break bread with her fellow Americans and to reveal the relationship between our food, our humanity and our history. It’s a magnum opus of sorts for the international icon who’s spent a lifetime wrestling with ideas of identity and belonging.
She spoke to us from her New York City home (where she’s pictured here), getting candid about everything from comedy to immigration reform to notions of beauty. And if you can’t stand the heat, you best get out of Padma Lakshmi’s kitchen.
You’ve lived in New York City for a great deal of your life. What is it about the Big Apple that feels like home?
New York City was my first introduction to America. It was a beautiful welcome because in the streets I saw people of all colors, wearing different outfits, clearly from different parts of the world. While I was still feeling like a foreigner, an immigrant, an outsider, there were so many people I could point to even as a young child who looked completely different, too. I didn’t feel as much like an outsider in New York City as I think I might have if I had landed somewhere else first. I love the diversity here; it makes for a much more interesting life, both culturally and gastronomically. It’s also a great place to raise kids. I don’t think I could live anywhere else.
What does the idea of home mean to you? And how have you created a home for yourself and your daughter?
To me, the idea of home is where you feel most comfortable, where you feel most at ease, where you feel most relaxed and happiest. For me, that’s wherever my daughter is.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned after 17 seasons of Top Chef?
That’s a big question. [laughs] What makes the show really great is the chefs who are so passionate about what they do. They treat it like a calling, which it has to be because the hours are so long and you really have to love it to want to make a career out of food. No matter how many seasons of Top Chef I do, I always marvel at how hard these chefs work not just because they want to win, but because they want to challenge themselves. You don’t compete on Top Chef if you are afraid of a challenge and just want to get by. So just watching the chefs compete has taught me a lot.
Another reason the show is a success is because everybody gets along so well. Who you work with really matters. I don’t know that I have any great pearls of wisdom, but one thing that’s clear is that nobody does it alone. After so many years doing Top Chef together, we have a shorthand between us. Everybody understands the role they play and appreciates the parts others play. Your team is very important, and you want to function like a well-oiled machine.
Your new series, Taste the Nation, debuts on Hulu this summer. What was the inspiration behind this show?
I’m an immigrant, and I’d never really thought much about the immigration story beyond my own. But then, after the 2016 presidential election when immigrants were singled out and discriminated against — whether it was a Muslim man or people at the border who were detained — it really made me upset. So I wanted a way to tackle that.
The idea for the show actually started out as a cookbook. In doing research for that cookbook and writing the proposal, I just got deeper and deeper into it, then I shared it with my producing partner. We were supposed to do a different show about immigration, not about food. But that’s what I became interested in.
And from a food standpoint, the most exciting developments are what’s happening in these little mom-and-pop restaurants. In food, things don’t trickle down; trends actually trickle up. So that made me wonder: Why are we vilifying these people when they built our country and we don’t mind eating their food? We somehow have a disconnect between the food we’re eating and the people who are making that food. So I wanted to look at that.
And now of course, as if immigrants working and cooking in these small restaurants didn’t have enough hurdles to jump just to be able to live and work in America, so many of their livelihoods now hang in the balance because of the coronavirus. The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit in this pandemic; more than eight million people have lost their jobs. My hope is that on the other side of this, we will be able to rebuild from the ground up a more equitable industry that appreciates the labor of those working in restaurants as well as the need for high-quality produce. I hope that people will place even more value on the special experience of dining out rather than taking it for granted and always expecting it to be a cheap commodity.
I’m very proud of this show. It’s something I’ve worked really hard on for more than two years. It was a real labor of love. And I’m really excited for people to see it. I’m very thankful that Hulu saw fit to greenlight it, because it’s a very important issue that is not going to go away. Plus it’s very timely.
You were named a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador last year. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
My role with the United Nations is specifically with the Development Programme. It’s looking at development through the lens of equality, which I don’t think we’ve done before, at least not in a profound way.
We talk about microloans and about getting food or supplies or education to people in need. But often the reason these people are in need of those things is a cultural reason at the local level that discriminates against certain bodies of the population. In many third-world countries, this shows up as a product of misogyny, chauvinism and a lack of equal rights for women — property rights, hereditary rights, things like that. And so it’s really looking at very hard-nosed economic development through this lens of equality.
As an immigrant who was separated from your parents for two years, you often use your platforms to champion immigrants’ rights. What changes would you like to see on this front?
I think we have to start small before we can go big, and we have to look within the borders of our own country. History is written by the winners, and we don’t want to admit certain truths about the history of this country. One big truth is that immigrants built this nation, whether they were Scottish, Italian, German, Chinese. Throughout all the different generations and waves of this country’s history, you will see again and again that America needed people from different countries to come here, whether it was to domesticate the land or to build the railroads.
In the seventies, there weren’t many medical professionals here, so a lot of doctors and nurses came over from India. Which is how my mom got here — she’s a nurse — as well as many of my uncles and aunts who were doctors. There’s always a historical reason why certain groups of people have come to this country en masse, and it’s high time we recognize how much we needed them at that time and how much they’re vital to the economy and the evolution of this nation.
As time goes on, the world will become a much more migratory place, by choice or by need because of climate change, because of crop failure, because of war, because of disease as we’re seeing now. So on this issue, I think we just have to treat each other better, regardless of the god you pray to, the language you speak, the food you eat or the clothes you wear.
At the end of the day, whether we’re Chinese or Russian or Guatemalan, we all want the same things. We all want to make sure our kids are safe. We want to make sure they are fed and have a good education. We want to provide for them. We want to have a home for them. We want to live peacefully and in harmony. We want to be able to take care of our parents in their old age. Those kinds of values are human values that transcend nationality, religion and political inclination. And if we look at those values, we realize there’s so much more that connects us than separates us.
So we have to have that kind of attitude when we are creating policy. I’m not so crazy that I believe we should open all the borders and everyone should just come and go as they please. I do believe in immigration reform; I do believe in a process. But I believe in a humane policy that allows for every sector of the economic makeup of the world to be let into this country in certain numbers. We have to take a broader minded view about that given the history of this country.
You’ve been very vocal in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. How can we all do better at being anti-racist?
The best way to improve matters in your own actions is to first understand and accept the reasons for systemic prejudice and how that discrimination manifests in people’s lives over generations. Then you have to accept the ways in which some groups — perhaps your own — have benefited from this societal favoritism. And then you have to open your mouth and be an active member of your community to vote out elected officials who are part of the problem.
You must work on your empathy by putting yourself in their shoes — the mothers who have buried their sons, the fathers who cannot overcome a system designed to prevent their success. You must be careful about not only what you say to your children but what your actions or inactions say and demonstrate to your kids who are looking to you to teach them how to be human. It’s such a big topic and one that is hard to address in one question.
You are also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and protested for the first time in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington alongside your daughter. What example do you want to set for future generations of women?
What’s important is the knowledge that your actions determine your future, which can seem like a futile philosophy. Honestly, four years ago, if you had told me I was going to be very outspoken like this, I wouldn’t have believed you. Sure, I donated to Obama’s campaign; I even campaigned a bit for him. But I wasn’t one of those people you would see on the protest lines at the drop of a hat. I had never demonstrated before. Things just got so bad that I felt I had to do something out of my responsibility as a parent, to say, This is not OK. Because I saw a lot of the things my mom fought for in her generation, when I was my daughter’s age, being threatened all over again: our right to choose, our right to reproductive health, our right to equal pay for equal work.
Just by the very fact that my mother divorced my father — it was so taboo to have a divorce in India and you were ostracized — I saw her break barriers within her own life. She worked full time and raised me alone, mostly. She went to night school to get her master’s degree, and she couldn’t afford childcare, so I often went with her. I just sat quietly in the back of the classroom and colored. And so all her efforts to change her destiny in a very real, palpable way made a really big impression on me. She didn’t have the privilege of having extra time on her hands to go march on Washington, but her very existence was a fight for equality and equal opportunity for herself every day.
There’s an expectation when a man starts a family that there’ll be childcare, and that childcare is usually borne by the person who’s already borne the child for nine months. That’s not the expectation if you’re a woman. If you’re a woman, you somehow have to make it all work. You have to have as much career ambition as your male counterpart, but you also have to be a great mother. Our notions of what a great mother is and what a great father is are really different. We sometimes applaud fathers — and we should — for doing what mothers have been doing forever.
And so, if we don’t act like we have a voice in our own destiny, we really won’t. That’s what I want to show younger generations of women: that you can do something. You may start behind, you may not start on equal footing with your male counterparts, but that is all the more reason to fight for what you want and not sit idle.
In 2018, you chose to come forward about being raped as a teenager with an essay in The New York Times. Why was it important to speak up after so many years of silence?
Because I thought it was something that most rape victims don’t want to talk about. It all happened very quickly. It was a Friday night during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and there was a tweet from the president asking why, if it was so bad, didn’t Christine Blasey Ford report it all those years ago. But if you look at what happens to survivors who do speak out, especially about a powerful man who is up for a Supreme Court nomination, none of it is good and you wind up being traumatized all over again.
So any smart woman would think really long and hard before opening her mouth. Sometimes your own survival — mental, physical, economic — propels you more than doing what’s right. It doesn’t mean that what happened to you is any less devastating or traumatic or completely life-altering. I know for a fact that I would have been much less insecure, that I would have conducted my life in a different way had that not happened to me. I resented the president using the fact that she hadn’t come out before as evidence that it wasn’t actually true.
Nobody actually knows. There are two, maybe three people in the world who know whether Brett Kavanaugh did what Dr. Ford says he did. But regardless, we should make it easier for women and men — it happens to men, too — who’ve been through this to come forward. And I just felt like, since I’m now in a position where I feel secure, where I make my own money, where I have a business, where I’m a mother, that I’m in a different position than that scared 16-year-old girl being raised by a single mom.
I was just tired of people telling women that their lives aren’t as important as men’s lives. Because that’s really what it is. At that time, people were saying horrible things like, “You’re going to ruin a man’s life for something that happened when he was in high school?” But what about her life? There’s not one day that you don’t think about it. It never goes away. It’s like an iron shackle on your soul.
We treat rape like it’s not something serious, but it is the most serious of crimes. It is literally the murder of your innocence. Because once you are violated physically, you are never the same. You are never totally relaxed. You are never totally free in the way a person who hasn’t had that happen to them is. There’s always this lingering fear in the back of your mind, even if it’s not conscious anymore, about every date you go on, about every person you’re interested in, that affects the way you move through the world at night, that affects the way you talk to your child about sexuality.
Afterward, you had people approaching you to commend you and to share their own story. What was that like?
At first, it was scary. I didn’t go out for three days after I wrote the article. Kavanaugh’s hearings were really triggering, which is what made me write the piece in the first place. But when I did go out, I walked literally half a block to my gym and people were coming up to me, even coming into the gym.
It was jarring, and I felt like crying because it made it real. Up until then, I hadn’t really left my home. I could look at it online, but I wasn’t going online. It was very difficult emotionally. When you rip off a 32-year-old Band-Aid, it is devastating. Then after a while, it got easier and easier. I don’t regret writing that piece. It was a very healing moment for me to be able to say out loud something that I had never even said to my own mother.
Your own painful experience with endometriosis prompted you to cofound the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009. What are some of your proudest achievements with this nonprofit?
I’m very proud of the partnership with MIT and Harvard Medical School. Very early in our evolution as an organization, we were able to help launch the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research, which has developed biological models to study the disease. Also, there are now a couple drugs on the market, and just the fact that they exist is quite an achievement — because when we first started, people couldn’t even say endometriosis, let alone know what it is.
I’m also really proud of our education program. We go into Boys & Girls Clubs, middle schools, and high schools to teach about endometriosis in science classes. We don’t want to go into health classes even though it’s clearly a health issue because we don’t want to sexualize it. It’s a common occurrence in your body if you’re a girl or woman of childbearing age, but it’s a scientific ailment. So we wanted to attack it free from any stigma that exists with issues like that.
I remember riding along on one of these seminars at a school on the Upper West Side, and after the presentation was over, a little boy raised his hand and asked, “If you think somebody has it, what should they do?” And I explained, “You can go on our website and look for a specialist in your area.” And he said, “Hearing what you’re describing, I think my mom has it and I want to get her help.” That was a beautiful moment for me, because that means that young boy hopefully will turn out to be a loving partner, a caring sibling, a helpful colleague, somebody who understands these issues and will know to look out for them.
That’s why we wanted to talk to both boys and girls at the same time. Nobody wants to talk about their period — it’s a very icky subject, right? But it’s the very nature of human life. That is where we all come from. We all come from a woman’s womb, and we need to destigmatize it.
Early on in your modeling career, famed photographer Helmut Newton saw beauty in your now trademark scar on your right arm. How did that help you learn to love your body?
We all see ourselves through the opinions of others, especially as women, because we are trained to do that. We get indications from all parts of the world, whether it’s our parents, our peers, magazines, books, television, film. And so it’s hard not to determine your self-worth by what you’re comparing yourself to.
For the first time, this really respected, highly successful artist whose opinion carried weight saw beauty in my scar. He actually thought it was one of the most interesting things about me and that it set me apart. Then all of a sudden, everybody else started treating me differently. I was no different; my scar hadn’t changed appearance because this photographer shot it. But it changed my opinion of myself and it gave me an understanding of how arbitrary our notions of beauty are.
I remember when I was a child going back and forth between America and India in the seventies and eighties that it was not desirable to be skinny in India. If you look at the Indian movie stars even from the nineties, they’re all very round and plump; they look like fertility goddesses. Then I would come here and see all these super thin girls. So I always straddled two different notions of beauty. And when that happened with Helmut, it made me realize that beauty is just what you think it is. It’s what you give value to. One person’s beauty is another person’s ugliness.
You’re a big comedy fan. Aside from Ali Wong — who cheekily referred to you as “stupid, beautiful, talented Padma Lakshmi” in her Netflix rom-com, Always Be My Maybe — who else makes you laugh?
My daughter makes me laugh. She’s very funny, and I’m very happy about that. If I had to choose between her being beautiful and being funny, I’d pick funny because beauty you can buy, but humor you can’t. [laughs]
Who else do I think is funny? I’ve done some comedy shows where I featured a lot of young comics. I love Ali. Nikki Glaser is funny. Michelle Buteau is really funny. Amy Schumer, of course, is hilarious. Bowen Yang is hysterical; he has actually hosted our comedy shows along with Matt Rogers twice. I didn’t realize just how funny he is until I got to see even more of his work on Saturday Night Live. I also think Leslie Jones is fantastic.
And of course, we can’t not talk a little more intimately about food. Specifically, what would your last meal be?
Oh, that’s a hard one. That changes constantly. I love eggplant Parmesan. Or a really good grilled cheese, which is what I’m smelling right now. I love In-N-Out cheeseburgers. I love Spunto pizza. I love fried chicken. I love Bolognese. I love Indian food — probably just a simple bowl of yogurt rice with really good mango pickles.