By David MarchesePhotograph by Mamadi Doumbouya
If you’re only familiar with Padma Lakshmi through her work as a host and judge on Bravo’s long-running cooking competition “Top Chef,” then the 49-year-old’s new show might seem like a detour. Part food travelogue, part exploration of the benefits and blind spots of multiculturalism, Hulu’s “Taste the Nation” finds Lakshmi cracking crab shells with South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee community, partaking of brats and beer at Oktoberfest in Milwaukee and comparing flour and corn tortillas along the border in El Paso. It’s a long way from the glamour of “Top Chef,” but as Lakshmi tells it, the show is the culmination of her aim to “demystify foods that are part of our culture but get othered by the greater American culture.” Pursuing that aim has been the hidden throughline connecting her three cookbooks, her pre-“Top Chef” TV appearances on the Food Network and even her well-regarded 2016 memoirs, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate.” It is, she says, “something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
An idea that’s implicit in “Taste the Nation” is that the more we know about the cultural history of our food, the more that leads to cultural openness. What makes you believe that this idea is more than just a platitude? Listen, I’m under no illusions. I’m not one of these kumbaya people. But I think the willingness to break bread with someone shows a crack of openness. I believe in that quote,
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Through food, you can tell a lot about not only a person or a family but also a community. You can trace history through foods. You can trace colonization. Food can be a great instrument, and that is how I try to use it.
The new show is really about diversity. “Top Chef” hasn’t necessarily had the greatest track record in that area. Could the show be doing more? Everybody should be doing more. I think that we have gotten better. I think we have a long way to go. As a producer, I have power now that I didn’t have when I started on “Top Chef.” I think we’ve done well in the last few years, but there has to be a revolution from the ground up. What I mean by that is: Why don’t we teach African-American cuisine in our cooking schools in this country?
Why does it always have to be French-centric? Why isn’t it a requirement in culinary school to understand the Native foods of North America? And these chefs who have power now, usually white male chefs, they’re often mentoring people whom it’s easy for them to mentor. I would love to see those chefs go into urban environments and high schools or colleges and search for people to mentor who aren’t necessarily already in their universe, so that when people want to come on “Top Chef” they’re trained properly and can compete on equal footing.
There has been a ton of discussion and controversy lately about race and cultural appropriation in food media. Did you have much sense of the dynamics going on at a place like Bon Appétit? Or in food media more generally? I didn’t know to what degree they went on at Bon Appétit. I certainly didn’t know about the pay discrepancy. I don’t know Adam Rapoport socially beyond food-world things. That picture of him and his wife dressed up is the least of the issue, in my opinion. I think Adam Rapoport is a symptom of something much bigger and more insidious, which is that there is unconscious racism and subconscious racism and bias and favoritism because we are attracted to people like us. Look at the people who get things greenlit. For the most part, they’re white. That’s what it feels like. When I walk around New York City or El Paso or Las Vegas, I see a whole bunch of different kinds of people. There’s such a laziness — it’s not often malicious — about reaching for the thing that is most familiar. But it’s not only ethical to be more inclusive; it’s good for business.
You’ve said elsewhere recently that over the years you’ve had trouble getting attention and coverage from certain outlets and publications. Can you tell me more about that? Listen, I pitched “Taste the Nation” to several networks. I flew to Los Angeles on my own dime two or three times, and everybody said no. When my agent told me that Hulu called and said they’d love to talk, I said: “I’m not flying to L.A. again. I’m done.” I hated coming home after being away from my kid, and she’s saying, “Mommy, did you sell it?” and I have to look at this 9-year-old and say, “No, I didn’t.” One entity — I won’t name names, but he’s no longer at the network — even wrote me a long email about why he said no. I guess he was trying to be respectful, but I don’t need a 900-word email about how my show idea is derivative. Especially when there’s nothing that I can see on TV like it. I’ve heard an Italian expression, “È come essere schiaffeggiato nel buio,” which means “It’s like being slapped in the dark.” You don’t know where it’s coming from, and you don’t know why it’s happening to you. I have experienced this in a million ways. You have to remember, I’ve been on prime-time television for 14 years. I have a show that airs in countries all over the world. I was well known before “Top Chef.” My show has been nominated for an Emmy every single year that I’ve been doing it. And yet all these networks that claim they want diversity — and here was “Taste the Nation,” a show about the diversity of our country, and they said no. I started to think, Maybe I’m the only one interested in this stuff. It’s the same thing when I see other, white women being published constantly, and their books selling, and I know that their recipe is a watered-down version of an Indian recipe or a Moroccan recipe.
Is that a reference to Alison Roman’s stew? I’m not going to comment on anybody specific, because I don’t think that’s productive. Without commenting on individuals, what did
the blow-up with her and Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo signify to you? I think she, like all of us sometimes, suffered from a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. It’s unfortunate. I think all three of those women probably want the story to go away. That’s all I will say about it.
Has your thinking about cultural appropriation and food changed? There was a profile of you in New York magazine last year, and in it you said — I’m paraphrasing — that if cultural appropriation gets more people open to more flavors, then you’re OK with it. Do you still feel that way? Look, I’m not saying that you can’t use turmeric on a menu or in a cookbook unless you do a doctoral dissertation on ayurvedic medicine. I’m just saying that a couple of sentences at the top of a recipe would place it in context. I love the commingling of cultures. My cookbooks are not all Indian, because I don’t eat like that. I don’t experience life like that, and I don’t think most Americans do, either. So I’m not saying that Indian food should only be cooked by Indians. But it would be great if a recipe that went viral were placed in the context of its own history. It’s not taking anything away from creativity to do that. It is acknowledging that these things didn’t come out of a vacuum.
Aside from that, what might a more culturally equitable food world look like to you? I would like to see the food section of papers like The New York Times not be so white. I would like to see Condé Nast have more editors who are not white. That’s a real, concrete ask that I’m making. You have to make sure you’re hiring writers who have a different perspective than the rest of your staff, because that’s good for your newspaper or magazine. I would like them to consider balancing whom they interview, even bending over backward a little bit, to even out our presence.
“Top Chef” excepted, the other food-related shows you’ve done have been weighted toward non-European food. Does that suggest biases about what television executives are comfortable with you doing? Would it give them pause if you pitched a show about French cuisine? I don’t think so, because I have 14 years on “Top Chef.” But I am a brown woman working in a white, male Hollywood. It is very hard for us to get a show to begin with, never mind the subject matter. But it’s a good question. If you’re talking about my situation, I would never pitch a show like what you described. I already have a successful show. I’m very thankful for it. It has provided my daughter and me with a great lifestyle. If I’m going to take time out of my life, it’s got to be something that I feel is worthwhile. And “Taste the Nation” is what I feel is most worthwhile. A lot of immigrants, we live in this weird in-between land; there is a lot of code-switching that goes on when you walk into your family home and then when you go to school. We have to navigate that. So on “Taste the Nation” I want to show a Thai grandmother making her dish so that the Thai immigrant version of me who’s in elementary school now can see her and say: “Oh, OK. My grandma is not that weird, because this other grandma was on Hulu.” I know that sounds like a little thing, but it’s not.
What you’re talking about is a kind of acceptance, which connects to something you wrote about in your memoirs: You had a hard time during your modeling career reconciling your intellectual interests with the work you were doing, and that struggle turned into low self-esteem or even self-loathing. Was it hard to manage those feelings in a productive way? I didn’t start modeling until I was 21, which helped psychologically, but I had to disassociate what I did for a living from my sense of self. I was able to do that because I would write. That was my outlet. I also had to remind myself constantly that modeling wasn’t personal, that it had to do with the color of your skin or that they just wanted a blond girl or a flat-chested girl. It takes time to develop who you are as a person, and I spent a lot of years trying to be as girl-next-door as I could, as salable, commercial, whatever the job market told me I needed to be in order to succeed. And in the end, when I finally got success, it was because I just did whatever the hell I wanted.
Did you have to make certain market concessions in order to get your first cookbook published? It’s hard to imagine your using a title like “Easy Exotic” and using similarly sultry photos in a cookbook today. Of course. I wouldn’t have gotten that contract if I wasn’t a model. It was because I was a really good cook who also happened to be a model. It was also not my lifelong dream to be a lingerie model, but guess what? That is how I paid off my college loans before any of my classmates. We all do what we have to do to get by. I love the pictures in “Easy Exotic,” but that’s the thing, we put people in these boxes: I have to be a pretty model who doesn’t eat or I have to be an intellectual person who’s not wearing certain clothes or I have to be a cookbook author and be very Martha Stewart. Well, I’m not. There are different sides to me, and I think today people are accepting of dimensionality in a person. I’m a complicated person, like most human beings.
This last question doesn’t have to do with food: You’ve had a lot of traumatic events in your life, and it seems as if it would be easy for somebody who’s had those experiences to end up cynical or pessimistic. You’re not. How did you avoid that? Yes, a lot of [expletive] has gone down. I do have a bit of “the sky is falling”; people who are close to me would say, “She’s always worst-case scenario.” But I remember something my grandfather said to me. He said, “Whenever you go to sleep, I want you to feel like you did something good today.” You have control over what you accomplish. You don’t always have control over what happens to you, but you have control over how you react. In spite of everything that happened to me, look where I am today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.