TIME | Opinion
The Food World Needs to Listen to the Real Cultural Experts, Not Just Use Their Ingredients
Lakshmi is the host and creator of Taste the Nation, a new show on Hulu that tells stories of the food of immigrants, African Americans and Native Americans.
JUNE 24, 2020 7:00 AM EDT
It’s Emmy season. The weeks leading up to the big day are always a mix of professional pride and sartorial anxiety. Top Chef luckily has been nominated every year since I took over as host in 2006. I find myself in the unique position of eating for a living while still being expected to look a certain way — let’s call it “red carpet ready.” While I can clearly point to the many ways our society constantly reinforces this pressure, the truth is, my own vanity also plays a big role. I want to look good, to be fit and to fit into those fancy couture dresses. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that in the last few years, we’ve filmed in the summer, just a few months before the awards.
When filming Top Chef, I consume about 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day. We start with anywhere from 15 to 18 contestants, and I have to take a bite or two from each of their plates to adequately judge each dish. Every day. It adds up. I typically gain anywhere from 10 to 17 pounds every season. Once I get home, what’s taken me six weeks to gain takes me 12 weeks to take off.
Like many women in Hollywood, I gear up for the awards by dieting, vigorously exercising, searching for a dress no one else will have and hoping for the best. It’s always a nail-biting extravaganza at fittings, praying that a few pretty dresses that came down the runway on a teenage model who is a size 0 will miraculously fit my 40-something body. Getting ready for the Emmys is always fun, and it’s truly an honor to be nominated. But at the same time, in spite of my high metabolism, I worry each year that I’m not going to fit into anything nice.
Every year I manage to somehow make it to the awards, usually with two hours of working out a day and a disciplined diet. My diet for the Emmys is pretty straightforward. It’s like a poem: no meat, no wheat, no cheese, no fried foods or sweets. And, of course, no alcohol. This time, I have the added obstacle of attending a carb-filled family wedding in India. I will lose three weeks in the middle of my training.
Recently, I realized my daughter, who is 7½, has been listening to me talk about my weight. When we have taco night, I have taco salad with just a few crumpled chips. No tortillas, sour cream or cheese. When we order pizza, I get it for her, but I have leftovers of brown rice and lentils. When we make pasta, I have only ragu with greens.
While I’ve been working to lose weight, she has been going through a growth spurt. She still asks me to carry her, but now she’s 4 feet tall and weighs nearly 60 pounds. So, I’ve inadvertently been telling her, “You’re too heavy now to lift.”
She’s noticed, and suddenly she’s told me and others in our circle, “I don’t want to eat because I’m watching my figure,” or, “I weigh too much.” I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort when I was 7 or 10 or even 13.
Her comments stopped me dead in my tracks. Her words scared me. Language matters. We send signals to our daughters every day. And I am her first touchstone of femininity.
Nobody asks Tom Colicchio how he fits into his tuxedo for the Emmys; nobody asks men who they’re wearing on that red carpet. On the other hand, I spent years as a model and writing for fashion magazines, and I’m genuinely interested in fashion — I too enjoy the spectator sport of seeing what everyone wears on the red carpet. In my household, where I’m constantly getting my hair and makeup done for press regarding Top Chef and other projects, my daughter bears witness to an unnatural focus on my appearance, by me and other professionals.
She’s not getting these messages only from me, she’s getting them from every billboard, from every magazine that’s casually lying on our coffee table. I can’t block my child from reality and the culture that we live in. But I have a responsibility to make sure that she has a healthy self-image and a normal childhood. I don’t want her to ever be ashamed of her body. I want her to cultivate her mind. I always say, “Beauty is skin-deep, but dumb and dull are to the bone.”
Every message I telegraph about food and our bodies is important. So, this year, I’ve decided my weight will not be my focus. If I need a bigger dress, so be it. That one day — or any day — on the red carpet isn’t nearly as important as making sure my daughter doesn’t measure her worth by her dress size.
And if at my family wedding I have a few more samosas, so be it.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.