The host of “Taste the Nation” and “Top Chef” isn’t a professional chef herself. That’s why her bird is stress-free and foolproof.
By Genevieve Ko
Published Nov. 9, 2021Updated Nov. 10, 2021
There are two doors, nearly identical, that open into the downtown Manhattan penthouse of Padma Lakshmi. One leads to her office and staff work spaces and the other to her yipping Chihuahua and the living areas. Ms. Lakshmi, the television host and producer, author and activist, moves between the two wings (and upstairs to the bedrooms) in fuzzy slippers.
She often ends up in the kitchen, where those spaces — and her professional and private lives — converge. “I’m a homebody,” she said, “which is ironic, given what I do for a living.”
She was preparing a turkey ahead of Thanksgiving to perfect her recipe for publication. To start, she swirled a wide ladle full of Kampot black peppercorns over one of the seven burners on her custom Lacanche range, watching and sniffing and waiting for them to crackle and release their perfume.
Ms. Lakshmi is often seen in proximity to food, but usually eating it as a judge. As the host of Bravo’s reality cooking competition “Top Chef,” currently in production for its 19th season, she became a national name by tasting dishes from professional chefs and discussing them with high-profile ones.
On Hulu’s “Taste the Nation,” her culinary travel show that just began its second season, Ms. Lakshmi stands on the other side of the stove. While listening to stories from a wide range of communities in America, she chops and stirs alongside cooks in their kitchens. It is a side of Ms. Lakshmi that viewers haven’t seen as much of, but it builds on her culinary foundation of learning from home cooks.
With “Taste the Nation,” Ms. Lakshmi said she wanted to “put people of color in the center of their own narratives.” She described it as “a powerful experience to go from the ground up, to build this show from my point of view.”
Ms. Lakshmi, 51, was born in India, and returned regularly after moving to the United States as a toddler. There, she ground spices and simmered dal with her grandmother and aunts, an experience that inspired her children’s book, “Tomatoes for Neela.”
During her first post-college career, as a model in Europe, she continued to prepare her family’s dishes while adopting new ones from her travels, and published a cookbook. That led to hosting Food Network shows and writing another cookbook.
Even with those bona fides, Ms. Lakshmi knew she fell into a different category than the chefs who compete on and judge “Top Chef.”
“I wish I had gone to culinary school, because I often feel like I’m filling in the gaps,” she said.
But the time she spends with the world’s best professional chefs and gifted home cooks in this country, coupled with her firsthand understanding of the complexities of food culture as an immigrant and woman of color, leads to dishes with meaning.
Manu Nathan, 39, has tasted Ms. Lakshmi’s cooking for years as her second cousin. She hired Mr. Nathan upon his college graduation to help with her second cookbook.
“In the kitchen,” he said, “she talks about where she was when she had the dish, when she was there and who she was with, and she describes it all to you. When you’re eating the food, you feel like you’re engaging in the experience as well. They’re able to take you to a different place.”
About a decade ago, Ms. Lakshmi began hosting Thanksgiving to give her daughter the experience of American holiday traditions. “I didn’t know what I was doing the first time I made a turkey,” she said, “but I knew I wanted to do anything to not have a dry one.”
She lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan then, and asked the butcher at the nearby Essex Market how to keep the meat moist when she was picking up her bird. The butcher suggested soaking the turkey in buttermilk before roasting, which helped Ms. Lakshmi realize that cooking a turkey is essentially like preparing a really big chicken.
So she applied her tried-and-true techniques, and went on to refine her turkey formula over the years. She starts by aggressively seasoning the buttermilk, the way she does her soaking liquid for fried chicken. For a pleasant savory-sweet balance of sugar and salt, Ms. Lakshmi throws in both black pepper and ground cayenne for their distinct types of fruity heat, and fresh bay leaves for their woodsy aroma. After soaking the turkey for a few days, she sets the drained bird on a pile of seasonal fruits and vegetables, which she turns into a complexly flavored yet easy gravy.
To acknowledge the Thanksgiving harvest, Ms. Lakshmi combines the last of the Northeast’s fall apples with the first of California’s winter citrus, both from places where she spent her childhood. Seasonal fennel joins the fruit, along with onion, garlic, ginger, and herbs and spices to perfume the meat and pan sauce. The fruits and vegetables collapse over the long roast, while soaking up the savory turkey juices. Smashing that pulp gives the resulting gravy body, tanginess and aromas that make guests wonder — and savor — what is in it.
This is the sort of subtlety that comes from professional chefs, which Ms. Lakshmi still insists she is not. Because she works so closely with restaurant legends — and judges aspiring ones — Ms. Lakshmi is simultaneously confident in her tastes and anxious about cooking.
“I’m not a chef,” she said. “I have no professional training, no complicated instruments. And I don’t like cooking when I’m stressed, so my cooking is very forgiving.” It’s that home-cook sensibility and her natural love of bold flavors that make her turkey recipe foolproof and far from bland.
And staying grounded in family kitchens while understanding professional ones allows Ms. Lakshmi to engage with all cooks in “Taste the Nation.”
The new season, which centers on holidays, was filmed during the pandemic. The inevitable emotions that come with Thanksgiving and the winter holidays feel heightened, both for the subjects and for Ms. Lakshmi, who doesn’t claim to be an objective host.
“I’m not pretending to be a journalist — it’s my firsthand experience and opinion,” she said.
With memories of being bullied for the color of her skin and for her name, Ms. Lakshmi connects personally with highly charged subjects, like race and immigration, that are inherent in America’s foodways and culture.
“Her background and depth of her emotions have improved her as she gets more famous,” said Dan Halpern, Ms. Lakshmi’s longtime book editor. “Usually it goes the other way.”
On the first show of this season’s “Taste the Nation,” Ms. Lakshmi listens to members of the Mashpee and Aquinnah tribes of the Wampanoag nation on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod share their struggles, past and present, and comes close to openly crying on camera.
“I want to bust the Thanksgiving myth I was taught in school,” Ms. Lakshmi said. “It’s about decolonizing Thanksgiving, but it’s also uplifting. It’s time to understand those nuances.”
She noted that the Mashpee and Aquinnah commemorate harvests with feasts throughout the year — not just on the fourth Thursday of November — and that turkey probably was not part of those meals historically. But come Thanksgiving, Ms. Lakshmi still makes a delicious one.
The method remains the same, but the execution has evolved along with her life. One year, when she still had a single oven and little counter space, Ms. Lakshmi lay awake after midnight worrying about the feast the following day. She wanted to spend time with her family without constantly checking the bird and navigating when to get everything else in the oven.
To alleviate that pressure, she got out of bed, browned the turkey with the oven heat turned high, then covered it, dropped the temperature and went back to sleep. On Thanksgiving morning, she discovered that the turkey had developed a juicy tenderness with that slow low roast.
Today, Ms. Lakshmi can stretch an arm over one side counter to show the size of her former kitchen, and can prepare her turkey during daylight hours in one of her three ovens. What hasn’t changed is how she brings inspiration from the cooks she meets to the table. The side dishes revolve around different cuisines. One year, it was Moroccan, with harissa and ras el hanout seasoning the vegetables; another year, it was Mexican and included chipotles in adobo and escabeche.
Ms. Lakshmi doesn’t know yet what she will serve this year, but she is confident she’s ready for time in her kitchen. With her dog at her feet, she handed her 11-year-old daughter a taste of turkey and said, “Thanksgiving marks the beginning of hunkering down at home with my family. I love it.”