by: MAYUKH SEN | October 6, 2016
There’s a photograph, taken at some point in the 1970s, of Padma Lakshmi clutching a doll named Helen. In it, Lakshmi is a dark-skinned, little-limbed girl with a bowl cut. She stands above a baby relative’s crib.
“This is me and my doll Helen, plotting to kill my sweet little cousin sister Rajni!” Lakshmi’s caption on Instagram reads. Because of the way the photo has aged, Helen looks like a discarded extra from Child’s Play—eyes lifelessly blue, skin Casper-pale, hair peroxide blonde. Nothing I would let a child near.
Lakshmi surfaced this photo six months ago, just weeks after she had released her memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate. Helen appears in a mere two pages of the 328-page memoir, but it’s an utterly arresting passage; it speaks to an experience I think many Indians in the West may share. I certainly do.
“I began to change into a person who contained two people within herself,” Lakshmi writes of her preteen years in La Puente, California, where she’d moved from New York’s Upper East Side at the beginning of junior high. “A girl proud of and connected to her culture and native country, and one who wished she just looked like her old doll, Helen.”
Lakshmi howls when I open our first meeting by asking her what became of Helen, finding it perplexingly random. ”When we moved from Delhi back to South India, I don’t know that Helen made the crossing,” she tells me the day before the release of her newest book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs. Lakshmi speaks with staccato precision. “I don’t think we got brown-skinned dolls back then.”
Upon its release in March, Love, Loss, and What We Ate received deservedly rapturous praise. Zoomed out to its vagaries, Lakshmi has lived a charmed life flush with accomplishments: She’s authored two books on cooking, Easy Exotic, winner of Best First Book at 1999's Gourmand World Cookbook awards, and Tangy, Tart, Hot, and Sweet in 2007; hosted a seismically successful cooking reality show, Top Chef, for over a decade; held a steady job as a model in Europe throughout her twenties; acted across film and television; and co-founded the National Endometriosis Foundation. Her memoir reclaimed the particulars of her experience as a woman who came of age in two countries, India and the United States, raised by a single mother who got divorced in a time and place wherein it was gauche to do so. Lakshmi splayed open the vulnerabilities that her hypervisibility in the public eye had, for nearly two decades, obscured.
With The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, Lakshmi has returned to a register familiar to her lifelong obsession of food. She intends for The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs to be an exhaustive resource that readers can refer to in times of mid-cooking crisis or curiosity. This refers to any reader, neophyte or expert. I fall squarely in the former class, and taking a few passes through the book, I find that it fulfills Lakshmi's aims of being “user-friendly.” She and her co-author, Judith Sutton, write with easy, casual language that doesn't assume anything of the reader's intelligence. She hopes it is a text that people will dog-ear when they go on their own travels to Istanbul or Marrakech, two of her favorite places in the world.
The undertaking was such a labor of love for her, years in the making (she doesn’t say exactly how many when I ask), that she's eager to discuss it. She has rehearsed boilerplate answers, and she's prone to slipping into buzzword-laden neologisms when speaking about the book—like the fact that this lifetime of travel has given her a "panoramic cultural point of view.” And so when I scrutinize the details of her childhood, asking her to build on what she intimated in her memoir, she’s thrown a little off-guard.
“Are you just gonna focus on everything, or—I thought it was mainly about the spice book?” she asks me as we near the end of our first conversation, quietly aggrieved. “Which is fine. It’s whatever you want.”
I explain: I tell her that though I’d grown up watching her on television for many years, I’d been flummoxed that no publication has given her a long, definitive profile that assesses her along the very lines she has long fascinated me—she's risen to prominence as a South Asian woman in an industry that has very few figureheads who look like her. I wasn’t quite sure why no publication, this side of Vanity Fair in a 2007 Nancy Jo Sales profile, had given her career the proper real estate I thought it demanded. And I professed a particular eagerness to do this because I was, like her, South Asian.
She's risen to prominence as a South Asian woman in an industry that has very few figureheads who look like her. I wasn’t quite sure why no publication, this side of Vanity Fair in a 2007 Nancy Jo Sales profile, had given this topic the proper real estate I thought it demanded.
“Ah! Okay!” she crows cheerily. “Yes, it is very obvious you are South Asian. Are you Bengali?” She recognizes my last name, quite common in the region of West Bengal and its diaspora. I confirm that I am.
“That’s wonderful! How old are you?” I tell her I’m 24.
“Oh, yeah! You would have grown up watching me. Will you be coming tomorrow? Will I be able to meet you?” she perks up, verbally cradling me. In this moment, Lakshmi becomes startlingly verbose. She is an entirely different person, less calculated and more spontaneous. She suspects she is no longer speaking to a probing journalist, but, perhaps, an avid fan.
“You know, I love meeting people in their twenties. I have a lot of young Indian women coming up to me and saying, It was so great to see you on television because I never saw someone who looked like me,” she says. And though she's aware I’m a guy, her tone is knowing; she seems to detect that I’d relate to her, too. “My memoir is really for all of them. I wish I had a book like mine at their age.”
The following afternoon, I meet Lakshmi at Kalustyan’s, the specialty foods shop that helped supply her with the knowledge for her Encyclopedia, in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan. The grocery store has been in operation since 1994, and it was the first of its kind to sell goods from India, Armenia, and Turkey. It was the only place in Manhattan where Lakshmi’s mom could find spices like the ones she knew back home.
“I love this place,” Lakshmi says, walking by canisters of medjool dates and Jordan almonds. “You know, when I was little, they used to ply me with a bunch of sweets when I came in here. And that’s what they do to Krishna when I bring her here, too,” referring to her six-year-old daughter. Lakshmi splits custody with Krishna’s biological father, Adam Dell, whom she never married.
When Lakshmi steps in, it is clear that Kalustyan’s has adopted a quasi-religious significance for her. She tells me the only similar stores when she was growing up were in communities teeming with Indian immigrants, like the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights or Edison, New Jersey—my hometown. She makes her way through its labyrinthine aisles with ease and generosity, scanning for faces she’s seen before. Lakshmi treats the workers, mostly Bangladeshi, as she would her extended family. She greets each man as “ji,” an honorific attached to elders in India and parts of the subcontinent, and women with “auntie,” another term of endearment used for older women we're told to respect.
Lakshmi begins walking through the store’s aisles as I lag awkwardly behind her, her fingers trailing the shelves full of spices. I wanted to take pause at this—a normally overwrought, dramatic gesture you’d see in a Zales commercial—but it was actually graceful. She asks me to point out any spice that catches my eye, and she promises to explain each one. Each bagged-up spice conjures a specific memory of a particular aroma she’d known growing up, and it’s often tethered to a woman in her life. When she lands on cumin, she remembers her own mother shedding the skin of her day job as a nurse at Sloan-Kettering and donning an apron, soaking her fingernails with the scent of the seeds. Or even her mother’s mother back in Madras, who would crackle cumin atop a stove, its sound reminding Lakshmi of gunfire.
In the foreword to her book, Lakshmi writes of her female relatives in India and how they possessed a scarily exhaustive knowledge of spices. They could “sniff out the identity of anything I brought back to them” and recognize its origins immediately. With The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, Lakshmi has transposed the knowledge of these women to a book and expanded its horizons geographically.
Indian home cooking, she tells me even though she knows I know, is much different from what most Americans eat in restaurants. “To most Westerners, Indian food is really Punjabi food,” she explains. “It conjures up images of northwestern Indian food—stuff with tandoori, dal makhani, curries and stews that are brown or red or orange with mystery meat floating in them.” Lakshmi has spent a good part of her career in food trying to rectify this, and she suspects that the American understanding of Indian food will change upon the introduction of different voices from all over the subcontinent, composed of over a billion people. She turns to me specifically for affirmation when telling me about Bengali food, reminding me that it is very spicy, and I nod silently—yes, that’s true, yes. When she speaks to me, her eyes widen, as if examining me with zoological curiosity, and I become someone who's eager to please.
“In the 1990s, there weren’t that many voices talking about a global perspective in which you could take authentic ingredients and use them in an intentional way that was rooted in that particular place and culture,” she tells me when justifying why she entered the cookbook space at all. “It wasn’t like you were making tandoori chicken pizza, which is horrible. You were actually modernizing and making dishes user-friendly and still maintaining that global perspective.”
“Global perspective” is an eyeroll-inducing phrase when stripped of context. But consider Lakshmi’s peripatetic upbringing: She’d spend her adolescence between the United States and India, a casualty of a divorce that had left her mother Vijaya with sole custody of her. Vijaya eked out an existence for her daughter in New York, but Lakshmi would periodically stay with her mother’s family back in Madras.
Straddling this binary—New York as what she paints as a United Colors of Benetton utopia, Madras saturated with, well, South Indians like her—had shielded Lakshmi from the more sobering experiences of racism she’d encounter later in junior high when she moved to California. Lakshmi found her peers were more homogenous—that is, white—from the diverse lot she’d encountered in New York. These new classmates would attach her to the noxious stereotypes of Indians that ricocheted across the media, namely the belief that we all stunk like curry, that the food’s odor would affix itself to our blazingly fluorescent saris. Or that we all had malaria.
These new classmates would attach her to the noxious stereotypes of Indians that ricocheted across the media, namely the belief that we all stunk like curry, that the food’s odor would affix itself to our blazingly fluorescent saris. Or that we all had malaria.
All of this would prove to be cosmically irritating for Lakshmi; it gnawed at her sense of self-worth. It was so traumatizing that she was persuaded to abandon her aggressively South Indian given name, Padma Parvati Vaidyanathan, in eighth grade. She would opt instead for something more comfortably exocitized that wouldn’t register as off-puttingly foreign to her peers: Angie, elongated to Angelique one year later. (She borrowed the name of a Colombian neighbor whose sophistication she admired.) Lakshmi was determined to sail through the rest of her life in America visibly invisible, and her mother acquiesced reluctantly.
There were, too, health crises that marred Lakshmi at this point in her life. At 14, she developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome that assailed her with lesions across her eyes, mouth, and throat and hollowed her out to a gaunt 98 pounds. Mere days after being released from the hospital, she was involved in a near-fatal car crash on a freeway back from Malibu. The accident had left her dazed, gifting her with a seven-inch scar that would balloon into a keloid. This period also saw the beginnings of endometriosis, the gynecological disease that debilitated her violently whenever she got her period. She would first feel its effects upon menstruating at age 13; it would not go diagnosed until she turned 36. Her mother had suffered from endometriosis, too, yet she hadn’t gotten a name for it in India. She simply accepted it as a form of suffering she was born with, an undiagnosed part of womanhood’s torturous bargain.
Angelique would return to being Padma only when she began college at Clark University in Massachusetts, from which she would graduate in 1992 with a degree in Theatre Arts. Her choice of career shell-shocked her mother. “I remember my mom being afraid when I told her I wanted to major in theater,” she remembers. “She was saying, what will you be able to do after that?”
On stage, though, Lakshmi came alive. “I was liberated,” she says of acting. “I felt like another person: not just a character but another me.”
With this came a self-acceptance of her scar, once her great shame. Theatre offered her to indulge the fantasy that her scar simply didn’t exist.
With this came a self-acceptance of her scar, once her great shame. Theatre offered her to indulge the fantasy that her scar simply didn’t exist, because she would apply gobs of makeup to it in preparation for her roles.
Her modeling career began by chance while she was studying abroad in Madrid during her senior spring semester, when her friend begged her to attend a casting call so he could meet models. She began as the lowest on the totem pole—a fitting model—and incrementally worked her way up.
For a few months after graduating, she tried her hand at modeling in Los Angeles and New York and found that her scar was anathema to most casting directors in the States. “All I understood was that in Spain, I was a woman, beautiful and confident,” she remembers. “Back home, I was a young girl again, uneasy with herself, scarred, and brown.”
And so the October after she graduated in 1992, she returned to Europe, moving to Milan. She would spend the next years, until the end of the decade, splitting her time between that city and Paris. She'd receive consistent work after being spotted by photographer Helmut Newton, who, shooting her for Vogue, chided her for covering up her scar at all. According to her lore, Newton, the minute she saw her, declared, “I have to photograph her.”
All I understood was that in Spain, I was a woman, beautiful and confident. Back home, I was a young girl again, uneasy with herself, scarred, and brown.
It was through the benevolence of Newton that other designers and photographers begun to court Lakshmi more seriously as a model. Lakshmi would begin to appreciate modeling in the same way she did acting, finding that casting directors were drawn to her scar, no longer desiring to cover it up as she once did on stage. “My scar became adornment, like a string of pearls," she recalls. "Almost overnight, it had transformed from a stain into a sort of talisman, a source of power and confidence."
As she began modeling, Lakshmi realized that few women had her complexion. Her sole idol was Yasmeen Ghauri, the half-Pakistani model who belonged to the same supermodel class as Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell. “Designers would say to me, Oh, you remind me of a young Yasmeen, even though we looked nothing alike. We were both just South Asian!" she laughs. "But I always thought she was beautiful. Like, seriously beautiful. I met her backstage at a fashion show, in Milan or Paris, and she just looked beautiful and luminous."
My scar became adornment, like a string of pearls. Almost overnight, it had transformed from a stain into a sort of talisman, a source of power and confidence.
In 1997, nearing the twilight of a modeling career that had spanned the two cities, Lakshmi began a career in television. She’d been asked by Italy’s RAI television to join Domenica Inn, the Italian analog of the Today Show, filmed in Rome. No matter her love for modeling, and the way it eased her scar-induced anxiety, Lakshmi would find appearing on television more satiating than modeling for the simple reason that it wasn’t tied explicitly to commerce. Being on camera was an extension of her desire to be seen and abandon her anxieties. This still holds true; she's always playing a role. Through the course of our conversation, she even refers to her role on Top Chef as just that—a role, a stylized version of herself rather than an unfiltered one.
“I’m on television playing a role that isn’t Indian. I’m just playing a role,” she says. “I wasn’t given this job because they needed an ‘ethnic’ person in this role—that’s exciting. Usually when we get jobs as actors, we have to play the 7/11 guy or cab driver.”
When talking to her, I am reminded that the first time I saw her wasn’t even on Top Chef, but the near-universally-reviled Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter (2001). (I know.) In it, Lakshmi’s character plays an aspiring but godawful singer named Sylk (I swear to God I'm not making this up). Lakshmi’s done everything in her power to distance herself from it without actively disowning it (she couldn’t stop laughing when I first asked her about it; she prefers her stint in 30 Rock).
I rewatch Glitter the night before I first speak to Lakshmi. There’s a scene in Glitter that sticks out in particular, when Sylk meets a DJ backstage after a performance that she’d just lip synced; Carey had been singing for her. The DJ hears Carey's voice and casts Sylk aside, chasing Carey instead. Sylk huffs and puffs and sighs, dejected, and the camera lingers on Lakshmi's face for a few seconds. There is a palpable trace of hurt in this vain woman, as if she is more wounded than she’d like the world to know. The film’s supposed villain becomes, in that moment, sympathetic.
Though it’s easy to forget these days, the fact that Lakshmi once wanted to be an actress, I think, is a crucial way of understanding what draws her to food media. Being on television and hosting Top Chef is an extension of the instincts that drew her to acting in the first place—a desire to shed her insecurities and realize an avatar of herself she had ached for in childhood. On screen, her very presence carries this charged subtext, as if there is diffidence bubbling underneath her poise. This tension makes her exciting to watch, and, perhaps, harder to pin down than the press would like to admit.
Lakshmi would soon jettison her career on camera into food. Two years after Domenica Inn, she authored her first cookbook, Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World, under the tutelage of ex-New Yorker and Vanity Fair Tina Brown who had then just founded Talk Magazine. The publisher had suspected that Lakshmi’s travels through the world for modeling—particularly across Europe—would make for a compelling read. There has always been a distended fascination with knowing what models eat. (This persists today.)
She would promote this work on the Food Network through her book tour, and the network would, in turn, ask her to join Melting Pot, a show that featured pairs of different chefs promoting world cuisines. Lakshmi found herself covering all of South Asia by herself as she hosted her own segment, Padma’s Passport. She confessed that this was the first time that she felt a pang of imposter syndrome, woefully out of her depth in the food world, the lone home cook in a sea of trained chefs.
The show didn’t get renewed after its first season, but Lakshmi subsisted on various one-off hosting gigs, such as the occasional appearance on Discovery International’s Planet Food. She would also continue to accumulate minor acting credits to her name while writing for such publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She began writing at the urging of Vogue’s Anna Wintour, penning an essay about learning to love her scar. Soon, she met a producer at Bravo. She pitched an idea to them for a food show, similar to Padma’s Passport, that they felt was too niche, but they were interested in collaborating with her around a food reality show they’d been working up for the past few years, capitalizing on the successes of Project Runway or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but seeking to create an American analog to the U.K.’s Master Chef. She ended up taking another acting assignment by the time Top Chef first aired, but after its first season, host Katie Lee Joel was unceremoniously fired from the show. Lakshmi was asked to join.
Top Chef would become the way in which most Americans came to know Lakshmi, now a permanent fixture of food media. Upon entering the show, Lakshmi didn’t quite get wind of how long it’d last. Now, she speaks of it with territorial pride, admiring the show’s run—”thirteen seasons or whatever,” she quips—and the fact that it’s broadcast across the world. To Lakshmi, the show’s appeal mirrors that of filming a big-budget movie, describing it as a portable circus, constructed with care and destroyed with ease until the next season comes around. She insists there is no conceivable scenario in which she would stop hosting it unless it runs its course, as she understands everything does.
“There will be a time—everything ends. But they can’t do the show without me. Because I’m tied to the show for life!” she laughs. “And I don’t take that for granted at all.”
I have always wondered why the meteoric ascendance of Lakshmi—an immigrant, South Asian woman raised by a single mother, all aspects of her personhood that could so easily invite cheap symbolism rather than evade it—had somehow escaped this economy of blustering "longform" that digital media is now geared towards. This holds especially true for Lakshmi's contemporaries, food personalities who are beloved or were once upon a time. Is her ascent unremarkable? Did some coven of magazine editors just deem Lakshmi’s story not worth interrogating? And if so, why? Was it because they were men? Because they were white? Was it because they thought she was beautiful and not much else—the dreaded “just a pretty face”?
For a time, this seemed to be the reigning consensus about Lakshmi. She began hosting Top Chef a few years into her relationship with literary heavyweight Salman Rushdie. Their marriage lasted from 2004 to 2007—Lakshmi was drawn to Rushdie for the very reason that he seemed attuned to the particulars of her experience as a South Asian in the West, even if he was over two decades her senior.
During this marriage, she would turn to the kitchen as a refuge from her crippling insecurity in the face of the literary figures of towering import in Rushdie's orbit—Susan Sontag, Don DeLillo. She feared their intellect dwarfed her own, navigating these parties “in constant fear that my English-lit-class knowledge would extinguish itself mid-sentence.” As a way to assert her worth, she’d cook up bountiful feasts, full of curries from her native South India and Rushdie's Kashmir in the North.
At the time of her divorce in 2007, though, whatever writing existed about Lakshmi tended to skew negative. Rushdie would decimate her in 2012’s Joseph Anton, his memoir, describing her alternately as vain, frosty, vapid, pompous—all wonderful traits. At one point, at their marriage’s nadir, he would couch her in the vocabulary of currency, calling her “a bad investment.” (I’m sure that no man has ever described a model this way.)
At one point, at their marriage’s nadir, he would couch her in the vocabulary of currency, calling her 'a bad investment.
This permeated the way the press has treated her more widely, too. Frank Bruni would sneer at her way of speaking in his columns in The New York Times. In a passage that makes me want to scream, he would refer to her as “Mrs. Salman Rushdie, a model-turned-actress whose epicurean musings are less riveting than her sluggish, mouth-full-of-molasses style of speech and strenuously come-hither poses.”
Or, to rip another page from the publication of record, consider Guy Trebay's suggestion that Lakshmi was merely a "an avatar of the Hindu goddess whose name she bears.” Ah, yes, there it is—goddess. That stifling word that’s been attached to Lakshmi numerous times before, never not reductively, deployed either backhandedly by Trebay or with a breathless, pervy drool, slack-jawed in the face of her porcelain beauty.
“It’s easier to paint someone with a very broad, general, cynical brush, you know what I mean?” Lakshmi tells me of the way she now looks back on the way the press etched her in that period. “I have to say, in fairness, that this doesn’t happen to me anymore. I’ve been around enough and done enough work that people understand that I’m a serious person.”
Quickly, though, she course-corrects. Lakshmi remembers that just days before we were set to meet, she posted a photo to Instagram, clad in lingerie and nothing else. The caption cautioned her followers, “Don't hate because I'm in lingerie. Moms do that sometimes.” The photo ignited a typical gentle storm of prurient outrage, a reaction that Lakshmi pish-poshed. She gets this every few months.
“Sometimes on Instagram if I post a sexy pic, people will be like, How could you do that? You’re a role model! and I’m just like, get a grip!” she says. “I think that you can be a devoted mother, and an intellectual, and someone who cares about philanthropic causes and still want to look pretty, and sexy. There are a lot of nuances to who each person is. Sometimes media doesn’t allow for that subtlety, because it’s such a quick hit.”
At the tailend of our time at Kalustyan’s, while we’re taking photos of Lakshmi, Krishna shows up, energetically beaming and miming her way into the frame to distract her mother. She is wearing a woolen chartreuse sweater, her dirty blonde hair in braided pigtails, her complexion fair—the kind so many Indians are raised to covet.
Watching Krishna interacting with her mother, I am reminded of Lakshmi’s attachment to Helen. “Still, the tension remains,” she writes. “It always will.” The nerve Helen had struck still throbs from time to time. Lakshmi confesses that there are times when she looks at Krishna and sees the very qualities she once wanted to embody refracted—light skin, eyes and hair.
And yet when Krishna looks back at her mother, she vocalizes the fact that she’s envious of Lakshmi’s traits—straight hair, auburn skin—and fights with her classmates who insist she isn’t brown. She yearns to claim her mother’s brown skin as her own.
Lakshmi has remained a particularly vexing cipher for the press because she had no real predecessor. Hers was the first face of its kind we saw permeate the food world. What do you make of this? Return to Lakshmi’s memoir; it offers a portrait more cogent than any the press has offered. (No shit, you might say. It's a memoir.) Imposing a linear path to self-acceptance upon Lakshmi—and her beauty, which so many flatten her to—is a touch simplistic; the truth, I suspect, is much trickier to grasp. She is a woman who has tried to wrangle and will her lifelong insecurities into submission, only to realize that these anxieties never die. They simply quiet and become part of her, scars that fade, liabilities she turns into virtues.
WRITTEN BY: Mayukh Sen