If you haven’t heard, the hottest new television series of the season is the brainchild of our summer issue cover star, Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef fame. Debuting today on Hulu, Taste the Nation takes viewers on a culinary journey across the country to answer a couple very big — and very timely — questions: What is American food? And, in turn, who gets to decide what American food is?
The 10-episode docuseries (which is now available in its entirety for bingeing, BTW) is a career highlight for the actress, author and activist and is being hailed by critics, foodies and the like as the most relevant food show right now. Each episode takes Lakshmi to a different American destination — from Milwaukee to Honolulu to San Francisco to her hometown of New York City — to explore a specific immigrant or indigenous cuisine. Along the way, she learns about the culture, the traditions and the notable dishes that define that cuisine, be it German, Navajo, Persian or Thai. We as viewers, in turn, get to travel along with her as she breaks bread and explores the relationship between our food, our humanity and our history.
“I’m very proud of this show,” Lakshmi revealed to us in our exclusive interview. “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.”
Her motivation behind the series? “The idea for the show actually started out as a cookbook,” she tells us. “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,” she continues. “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.”
It’s an issue that’s very important to Lakshmi, an immigrant herself, who has long grappled with notions of identity and belonging after spending a lifetime caught between two contrasting cultures, American and Indian. Guests on Taste the Nation include Lakshmi’s mom, Vijaya; her daughter, Krishna; and comedian Ali Wong. But the real stars of the show are the people representing their cultures, their communities and their ancestors through their food.
There have been the inevitable comparisons to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, but Lakshmi insists there are fewer similarities than one might think at first glance. “I’m traveling and eating, but it stops there,” she told the Washington Post. “My point of view is infused with my life experience. I am a woman, and that affects my point of view. I’m a mother, and that affects my point of view. I’m a woman of color living in a white society her whole life, and that affects my point of view. I have been subjected to beauty standards that my male colleagues don’t even know what it’s like to be subjected to, and that informs my point of view.”
As for timeliness, the show’s debut couldn’t be more spot on. “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,” Lakshmi tells us. “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.”
Having binge watched all 10 episodes of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, I can tell you this: You will laugh. You will cry. And hopefully you will come away with a deeper, richer, more informed understanding of what American food truly is.