The joy had already been sucked out of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center by the time Padma Lakshmi and her 6-year-old daughter had left the building around 10 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2016. Lakshmi, a surrogate for Hillary Clinton during her campaign, and Krishna had hoped to witness a piece of American history — the election of the country’s first female president — but instead they walked out onto the dark New York City streets and into an uneasy future.
The election wouldn’t be called for another few hours, when both mother and daughter were asleep. The problem was, Lakshmi had to wake early the next morning to catch a plane to Mexico for a photo shoot. She would not have time to talk about what had happened the night before with her daughter. On the way to the airport, Lakshmi emailed a long letter to Adam Dell, Krishna’s father, and asked him to read it to Krishna when she woke up.
“I just said sometimes life is disappointing and that, unfortunately, I have to deliver the news that the good guy doesn’t always win. But we have to respect the decision because it’s a shared decision with all Americans,” Lakshmi said in an interview. “In the process of writing the letter, I was like, ‘I have to do something.’ The policies that are being changed or reversed now will have a lasting effect on my daughter’s life and her children’s lives. I may not be able to change much, but I can at least die knowing that I tried.”
In the years since, the “Top Chef” host has taken her activism to new levels, beyond her work with the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which she co-founded in 2009 to help educate the public and the medical community about the disease, which affected her health and relationships for years. Lakshmi has been an ambassador for immigrants’ rights and women’s rights with the American Civil Liberties Union. She works on discrimination and inequality with the United Nations Development Program, and, more publicly, she has proven a serious ally to marginalized communities on her Twitter feed, where she provides no quarter to racists, abusive police officers, apologist politicians and the man who occupies the house at the end of Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Starting on June 18, Lakshmi will use her sizable megaphone for another kind of educational campaign: In her new Hulu series, “Taste the Nation,” she visits immigrant and Native American communities and asks them to share their stories with a country that has frequently ignored or demonized them. Over the course of 10 episodes, Lakshmi cooks with immigrants from Mexico and Iran, learns to make beer with a German home-brewer, investigates how Native Americans are reclaiming their ancient foodways, and even spends time in the kitchen with her idol, Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian-born actress who would blaze the trail for subcontinental cooking in America.
“People often say, ‘Oh, you’re doing your thing like [Anthony] Bourdain,’” Lakshmi explains during a Zoom call with The Washington Post. “And I’m like, ‘Well, yes, I guess I’m traveling and eating. But it stops there.’ My point of view is infused with my life experience. And I am a woman, and that affects my point of view. I’m a mother. That affects my point of view. I’m a woman of color living in a white society her whole life. 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. That informs my point of view.”
At 49, an age when many women find their star on the wane in Hollywood, Lakshmi is entering her prime. She practically embodies her given name, Padma, Sanskrit for “lotus,” the flower associated with spiritual awakening and overcoming obstacles. In Eastern traditions, the lotus is a symbol for life’s struggle: To reach its full potential, the lotus must take root in the muddy bottom of a pond and rise through the muck to find the light. Nearly a half-century into a life with great highs and lows, Lakshmi appears to be basking in the light.
“I feel like I’m doing more interesting work in this decade of my life than I have in any other decade of my life, because I’m older, because I’ve seen the world, because I’ve lived a little,” she says.
Shuttled back and forth between India (her birth country) and the United States (her adopted country) for much of her childhood, Lakshmi grew up in two worlds, never completely home in either. In both environments, there were codes to be learned, burdens to be shouldered and expectations to be met. As a Tamil-speaking Brahman from South India — part of the country’s highest caste — Lakshmi adhered to a vegetarian diet early in life. Her extended family believed in the importance of a good education and, although more matriarchal than many households, they still followed certain gender roles. Women were subordinate to every man in their household, marriages were arranged and wives wore thalis around their necks to mark their marriages, “a beautiful dog collar,” Lakshmi writes in her memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate.”
In a “Taste the Nation” episode, Lakshmi sits down with Jaffrey to talk about the gendered roles in India during their respective generations.
“I wanted to be a woman who worked, which I couldn’t do in India. I rebelled,” the 86-year-old tells Lakshmi in the episode titled, “Don’t Mind If I Dosa.” “As a woman in India, there was just a ceiling of some sort, and the family would treat you differently. You were your father’s daughter, your brother’s sister, your grandfather’s granddaughter.”
“And your husband’s wife,” Lakshmi adds.
“And eventually your husband’s wife,” Jaffrey agrees. “I thought of myself as a free person, and I knew I would find my place.”
Like Jaffrey, Lakshmi would find success in the United States, though her fame would not be as intimately connected to India and the country’s vast gastronomy as Jaffrey’s. In fact, Lakshmi’s first role model was not someone from the food world. It was her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi, who defied cultural traditions, divorced her first husband and moved to the United States to start life anew as a nurse in New York City. When Padma was 4, she joined her mom, witnessing firsthand the struggles of a single parent in a foreign country.
“I saw my mother working incredibly hard,” Lakshmi says. “I saw her will a life for us and sort of sculpt the mist out of nothing. To see where my mother wound up and to see where she started in life — and I guess the same could be said of me in large part — really, really made an impression on me.”
Lakshmi’s childhood in America was not easy. There were racist taunts: Peers wondered why she didn’t speak Spanish because she looked Mexican. They called her the “black giraffe,” because she was not only Indian by birth but tall, too, ultimately reaching 5 feet, 9 inches. At age 14, after moving to Los Angeles with her mom, she spent several days in the hospital with fever and lesions to her eyes, mouth and throat; she was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare disorder thought to be caused by a reaction to medication or infection. Two days after Lakshmi was discharged from the hospital, she was involved in a horrific car accident, in which the family sedan was rear-ended on Highway 101 in Malibu, Calif., and sent airborne down an embankment. Among her injuries: a shattered right arm, which left her with a seven-inch scar, first a source of embarrassment and later a symbol of her fierce survival skills.
But she also grew up without a father, which left a different kind of scar.
“I think there was always this hole about my own identity because of that,” Lakshmi says. “And when you don’t have a firm hold of your identity as human being, you also question the decisions you make. You become insecure. It’s a weird symptom of not knowing where you come from. … I was incredibly loved by a very large family on my mother’s side, whom I’m extremely close to. I didn’t want for any love. But I just didn’t know such a basic and integral part of who I was.”
After earning a degree in theater arts from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., Lakshmi pursued modeling and acting, then wrote a cookbook, “Easy Exotic,” published in 1999 by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Books, a business partnership that never would have happened in 2020. In March, the former movie executive was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women. Lakshmi, meanwhile, has been active in the #MeToo movement. In 2018, Lakshmi penned an essay for the New York Times revealing that she was raped at 16 and sexually assaulted at 7.
By traditional Tamil Brahman standards, Lakshmi’s career choices were unconventional. “Among Brahmans, it’s almost expected that you do white-collar jobs,” says Julie Sahni, the India native, chef and cookbook author who surrendered her career in architecture to pursue the culinary arts in the United States. Brahmans, she adds, are supposed to work in science-related fields, such as medicine, architecture or engineering.
But while Lakshmi had strong ties to her Tamil Brahman family, she wasn’t beholden to their traditions and rituals. She had other moderating influences, including her mother and family members in India who supported Vijaya Lakshmi’s self-empowering decisions. Vijaya Lakshmi “seems to have valued her background enough to want Padma to experience it, but knew well enough to keep it at arm’s length to prevent being bogged down by its negative aspects herself,” says Vikram Doctor, a food writer based in India who has followed Lakshmi’s career.
If Lakshmi didn’t feel weighed down by the expectations of her Brahman culture, she had other challenges as she moved deeper into the world of food television. She had hosted a season of “Padma’s Passport” on the Food Network in 2001 as well as one-hour specials for “Planet Food,” but her major break came when she agreed to host the second season of “Top Chef” on Bravo in 2006. (She was offered the gig for the show’s debut season but turned it down to shoot a miniseries for British television.) With her background in modeling and acting, Lakshmi had to fight the perception that she was hired to be the eye-candy next to Tom Colicchio’s intimidating Vin Diesel stare. It didn’t help that media reports at the time regularly depicted Lakshmi as the ornament on novelist Salman Rushdie’s arm during their eight-year relationship and three-year marriage.
The perceptions were off the mark, Colicchio says.
“Yes, she felt that she was in over her head, and I got a sense of that, but she put the time in,” Colicchio says of Lakshmi’s early seasons. “She would seek out advice of other chefs. … She didn’t have to, but she did. She didn’t come across as being in over her head because she’s a very confident and accomplished person.”
This is the Lakshmi method: When in doubt, research more and work harder. This was particularly true, she says, with “Taste the Nation,” in which she would be taking on a new role, the interviewer.
“That was the thing I was most worried about, because it wasn’t something that I had much practice in. It was something that I knew would either make or break the show,” she says. “If you don’t get information you need to tell the story and prove your point, you really don’t have a show.”
Lakshmi proves to be a sympathetic interviewer. Her glamour may dominate the frame — her stylish aviator glasses, her chameleon-like sense of fashion, even her utter poise while riding in the ridiculous Oscar Meyer wiener mobile — but with her questions, she willingly gives the narrative over to the subjects of her 30-minute shows.
“You know, I was getting pissed off with everybody else trying to tell the immigrant experience except the immigrant, whether it was politicians or journalists or op-ed people,” Lakshmi says. “I wanted to know what life was like for them. I wanted them to tell us what they thought and what their life experience was.”
But even as she gives voice to those not regularly heard, Lakshmi and “Top Chef” are also facing backlash for the show’s poor track record with black chefs and judges, including the controversial finale of Season 16, when apparent front-runner Eric Adjepong was sent packing for fumbling just one dish. Over the course of 16 seasons, and counting, only one black chef, Kevin Sbraga in Season 7, has won the competition, and black judges have been few. Lakshmi, who serves as executive producer of the series, says she can do better.
“I don’t and can’t have anything to do with casting the chef contestants who compete on ‘Top Chef,’ because it poses a direct conflict of interest with my position as one of the judges,” she notes. “But as an executive producer, I have been calling for more diversity among the cast and among our guest judges, specifically with more African American and Latinx voices, as well as women, for a long time. I bring it up at the start of every season, and I think while we have a long way to go, we are doing better. I hope we will continue to do more.”
Lakshmi understands the importance of honoring historic cultures, so that they don’t lose their power and resonance with younger generations. She has been teaching Krishna, now 10, about her own mixed heritage, not just her mother’s Indian culture but also her Texas-born father’s Jewish traditions. (Dell, a venture capitalist, and Lakshmi have been a couple again for a couple of years now.) As part of her education, Krishna has been taking classical Indian vocal lessons, which “she hates,” Lakshmi says.
“To hear my daughter’s voice singing devotional songs that I haven’t heard sung live since my grandfather sang to me when I was 7 or 8 years old is a joy that is so exquisite,” Lakshmi says. “It’s just something very deep, that is further than language.”
More from Voraciously: