By Timothy Cooper
This interview originally appeared in ICE’s Main Course newsletter.
Padma Lakshmi is perhaps best known as host and executive producer of Bravo’s Emmy Award–winning “Top Chef,” currently in its 14th season. But prior to that position, she was also an actress, food expert, model, and award-winning author.
Born in India, she grew up in America, graduated from Clark University with degrees in theater arts and American literature, and worked as a fashion model in Europe and the United States. Early on, she hosted two cooking shows on Food Network: “Padma’s Passport,” where she cooked dishes from around the world, and the documentary series “Planet Food.” She also wrote the best-selling cookbook “Easy Exotic,” and a second cookbook, “Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet.” In 2016, she published her memoir, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” as well as her new culinary compendium, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”
For her hosting and judging role on “Top Chef,” she was nominated for an Emmy. Her line of culinary products, called Padma’s Easy Exotic, includes frozen organic foods, spice blends, teas, and more.
In 2009, she cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to bring attention to the disease she’d suffered from for years. In addition to helping launch a research facility for the disease, she helped get a bill passed in the New York State Senate to expand teen health initiatives throughout the state.
You’ve already had such a varied career, in areas including acting, modeling, authoring, TV hosting, and more. How did that develop into a focus on food?
Padma Lakshmi: My earliest memories are all about food, actually. They occurred mostly when I was a toddler in India. I still remember being on my grandmother’s cool marble floor in her kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to really cook back then, but I could still shell peas out of their pods or break the ends off of beans. From very early on, I associated cooking with womanhood. All the fun stuff was always happening in the kitchen.
Now you can get everything everywhere, but when I was a child there were certain delicacies that you couldn’t get in the south [of India] that we would have relatives bring us from the north. So just being covetous of different ingredients from different places started very young for me. I have been hunting and gathering ever since. My new spice book is definitely an offshoot of that lifelong passion.
Those ingredients you coveted—were a lot of them spices and herbs, or did they span the gamut?
In the case of coming from north India to south India, I remember my uncle used to always bring us something called aam papad, which is like a slightly thicker version of fruit leather. There’s sour mango, and there’s also sweet. I always liked the spicy, sour kind. So they weren’t necessarily all spices. But a lot of times, we were transporting things from different ends of the country, like dry lotus root from Kerala that was dehydrated and refried to accompany some rice dishes.
The spices that my mother uses—luckily they were all available at Kalustyan’s [in NYC’s Murray Hill neighborhood], but that’s because we lived in a major city. I think a lot of people experienced a sort of culinary homesickness. So what I’m describing is not that uncommon.
It sounds like Kalustyan’s was a major access point for the ingredients you longed for.
Yes, definitely. For several generations of immigrants in New York, Kalustyan’s was a real godsend. When I was growing up, there was only Kalustyan’s; and certainly when my uncle and my mother first came to this country, they didn’t have much else. Kalustyan’s started out as an Armenian shop. It wasn’t even Indian. Then over the years, as the neighborhood changed, the store changed along with it. And because they sold a lot of Eastern ingredients, meaning Armenian or Turkish, a lot of Indian people started going there to buy some overlapping spices. Now it’s become this gourmet ethnic food store that just covers the whole world. Every student should make a trip to Kalustyan’s. It’s very inspiring.
How did the concept develop for your latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World” (HarperCollins)?
It’s actually an encyclopedia. It is an A-to-Z compendium. It’s a reference book. There are some recipes to make teas or tisanes [herbal infusions] or oils. There’s a section on how to roast spices, how to keep them fresh and store them. It’s cataloging every single spice on earth and telling you where it comes from, how it’s traditionally used, what cultures use it, if it has any historical significance, how to use it, what flavor notes are in it, how to store it, how much of it to use—all of that. It’s meant to be a guide that a cook, whether novice or professional, will reach for every day.
I was always curious about spices from other countries and how to change up my cooking and learn about other cultures through how they eat. I wanted one place I could go to. Of course you can go and Google anything these days, but it’s wonderful to have a tactile book in your hand—that pleasure of leafing through the pages, seeing a beautiful, vibrant picture. I was also itching to do something scholarly—something very empirically, scientifically accurate that wasn’t subject to taste or anything else. This book seeks to be that.
At what point did food media, food hosting, and culinary publishing start becoming a career for you?
I always loved to cook. I did a movie that I had to gain weight for, but aside from that, I had never tried to lose weight in my life. I was still in my 20s. So I really discovered how to trim the fat out of the food I ate and make it more healthy, and a book naturally came out of that. Nobody thought the book was going to do very well, but it did do well; it won a prize in Versailles. So I think people were surprised by that. I really fell into it by accident. I went on Food Network as a part of my book tour to publicize the book. After I was on there twice, they asked me again, then they offered me a development deal, which is how I started.
But before we get into food media or food hosting: Everybody wants to be a star these days by the time they’re 25. Sure, that happens to a lot of people, but you have to educate yourself. Whether it’s culinary school or working under a great chef that you admire or traveling with your backpack, going and literally tasting the world—or all of those things, hopefully—that will start to establish in you a point of view that is unique. Ask yourself, “Well, why do I want a career in this?” It’s not good enough to say, “I’m interested in food.” I’m interested in dance, but that doesn’t mean I should be a dancer.
What you want to think about is, what can you add to the food culture that already exists that is different? There are so many cookbooks. There are so many young people out there that say, “Oh, I want to be a chef, or I want a food show.” Well, why? Cooking is actually manual labor. It’s hard work. The hours are horrible. Just ask any chef! But if this is your passion, then I strongly suggest you live a little. Go and eat at great restaurants. Educate yourself. Buy books to gain knowledge. You just have to be hungry for information and experience.
I was recently working with a young person who was assisting me. They were testing a recipe with me, and they made the recipe to see if it worked. Then they said, “Well, I don’t know what this is supposed to taste like.” Of course they don’t—in this case, it was a spice blend, baharat. So they’ve led a particular life, and they haven’t had the chance to go to Turkey. But I think you owe it to yourself to go to a Turkish restaurant, if you can’t fly to Turkey. It’s a wonderful time to be young these days, because you have the Internet. You have mail order. The good news is, of course a rack of lamb is going to cost you a lot of money, but spices, for the most part, are relatively inexpensive and require little effort. It’s a great way to open your horizons.
When I was a kid, there was a guy on TV named Jeff Smith. They had a show on PBS called “The Frugal Gourmet.” Jeff would pick a country every show, and he would make all the dishes from that country. Through those recipes and talking about the ingredients, he would tell you about the history of that country, what grows there, the climate—all this information. You really got to immerse yourself, just within that half-hour, in the culture through the food.
It’s what I tried to do with “Planet Food,” these hour-long documentaries I did over a decade ago. Tell me what somebody eats, and I will tell you who they are.
So I think those young people who want a career in this business—it’s important to set yourself apart. It’s important to develop skills and tastes, and develop a palate, and really challenge yourself; really think about what your unique point of view is. If you were to open a restaurant, why should somebody invest in you? It costs a lot of money to open a restaurant and to keep it going. Most restaurants in New York fold within the first year.
Even if you don’t want to be a chef, if you want to be a writer, now everyone’s blogging about every other thing. You have to sharpen your literary skills, your writing skills, and your food skills, because every person with a computer is your competition now.
Through hosting “Top Chef,” I imagine you’ve seen many examples of people with a distinct culinary point of view. How can chefs start to recognize and develop their own voice?
I think a lot of people who have succeeded have a particular voice and a point of view that is instructive. I think Ina Garten is great because she’s very straightforward and in command of what she’s doing. She believes in common sense. That shows through. It’s simple recipes; but they work, and they’re very crowd-pleasing. They’re very elegant but still approachable. So that is her particular métier.
Somebody like Diana Kennedy, who’s English—she’s not even Mexican—has devoted her life to researching Mexican food, its heritage, its nuances, its regional differences; where things grow, why things grow. So she’s coming at it from a particular point of view. She’s so committed that she moved to Mexico years ago.
Even with Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook “Plenty”: I think the reason that “Plenty” did so well is because there were a lot of people who were eating like that, and there weren’t a lot of vegetarian cookbooks or recipes that were colorful and interesting and that didn’t feel like substitutes for meat and were full of flavor. Where Yotam comes from—I used to live right around the corner from his little gastropub in Notting Hill. So I know how he prepares his food. I’m a big fan of it. It’s got a beautiful point of view. It’s always very herbaceous, always very fresh, always has a lot of pomegranate and za’atar, these beautiful ingredients from the Middle East, but it’s not traditionally Middle Eastern. It’s much more contemporary and cosmopolitan than that, because he’s from London.
So you have to know what audience you’re talking to. For me, my audience is always me. Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a recipe, I’m creating that for me or my friends. I don’t want to create or make anything that I wouldn’t feel really enthusiastic and proud to either use myself or give to someone else. So you can’t phone it in. You have to think about pockets of the culinary landscape that maybe haven’t been explored as much. When I first started, people were saying, “Wow, people aren’t really into global cuisine. Sure, you’ve traveled, but not everybody’s interested in using all those strange spices or whatever.”
But I think now the world has caught up to me. I probably seemed exotic in 1999, but I think everybody eats like me now.
Can you talk a bit more about how what were once considered niche cuisines are now going mainstream, or becoming targets of fusion with American or other cuisines?
The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. The possibilities and opportunities to taste different kinds of foods are much more prevalent today than even 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, because people are traveling, in spite of certain parts of the world that are dangerous, you do get to try more things. With the Internet and Instagram, you get to know about all these funky dishes.
If you have an interest, there is a portal for you to see that interest now where there wasn’t necessarily any before. For somebody like me, social media has been a huge boon, even though it is kind of tiring to always keep it up. But it’s important to remember that there are people out there who share your likes and passions. If you can tap into those people, then you’ve got something. My thing is, I always like to take classic dishes like macaroni and cheese, or chicken pot pie—very classic American comfort food—and then turn them on their heads; make them a little more modern, maybe slightly healthier.
In my last cookbook, there’s a recipe for Mexican macaroni and cheese. Just by adding two or three ingredients, like Mexican oregano, shallots, and pickled jalapenos, it does change the character of a dish. Subtle changes like that are also easier for people to explore certain new flavors with.
What do you personally like to make at home?
Well, I think one thing to do is just pick a handful of spices that are probably already in the spice rack. They kind of came with the kit, so to speak, and there they are, still sitting there. Herbes de provence is a good one, because you can use it in everything from pasta sauce to ratatouille to poultry and fish and roasted potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Curry powder is another—it doesn’t have to be spicy if you don’t want it to be.
I think a nice way to use these spices—and these are just two—is that I would make a compound butter. You just basically let the butter come to room temperature, and you just smash in some salt, some pepper, some curry powder or herbes de provence, and a little bit of pureed garlic or ginger, then just whisk that together and let it set in a ramekin. You can get fancy and make a log to slice.
Once you’ve done those two compound butters, you can take a nice, healthy pat of it, melt it in a frying pan, and toss some shrimp in it or sear off a chicken breast or a duck breast, or do some fish. Something like that you can use as an all- purpose weapon to flavor your food.
Another spice blend is ras el hanout, which is a Moroccan or North African blend that has a lot of different spices in it. And keeping a jar of preserved lemon is great; you can just remove the seeds and cut half a lemon up into small chunks. All you have to do is sauté that with some shallots and some parsley, and you can sauté any vegetable you want, from green beans to zucchini to parsnips and carrots and potatoes. You can do any kind of protein, like veal scaloppini.
I think people get intimidated by spices because they don’t understand them. They don’t want to measure. They don’t know how to mix it or what to use it with. So just pick one spice. Start small so you’re not overwhelmed.
You mentioned traveling and expanding your horizons, especially for young people. Do you have particular recommendations of destinations that changed the course of your life or your palate?
I think we really don’t have any clue about Mexican food. What we get is guacamole, but Mexican food is so layered and so elaborate. The spices are really beautiful. The more you go into the Yucatan and to Oaxaca, you can see how complex the cooking is. It’s quite sophisticated, and there are just so many flavors that never trickle up to us in the north. But you have to get out of the resort towns and go to Merida, places like that.
The regional food of Spain is also quite fascinating. And Turkey—while they’ve had some political unrest, I think Turkish food is really beautiful and delicious. I think it’s going to have its moment soon, because there are a lot of vegetarian dishes that are full of flavor and are not step-downs from meat dishes. They’re just holistically and proudly vegetarian dishes. Also, lentils and pulses and beans—all that kind of peasant food around the world that we haven’t really paid much credence to—deserve a deeper look.
What’s some advice you’d like to leave people with, especially those who are working on expanding their culinary horizons or even exploring a career in hospitality?
When you go to sleep at night, you should know something you didn’t know that morning—whether it’s going on the Internet for 10 minutes, picking up an old cookbook, going to an ethnic market, trying a different culture’s food, or watching a different show than you would normally watch. Whatever it is, you should try to always educate yourself.
My grandfather was hired as a civil engineer when he was 16, but after he retired, he went to law school. I think that thirst for information, that thirst for skill, should never cease. You should always be a lifelong student, because those are the people that not only have interesting lives, but continue to evolve and have stage two and stage three and stage four of their careers.
Ready to follow in Padma’s footsteps and launch your own exciting culinary career? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.