Reflections from a Fellow Desi Foodie
I must be absolutely clear: Padma Lakshmi is nothing short of a total badass.
But I didn’t always feel that way.
Let’s rewind: it’s November 2006, and I’m visiting my godparents in Washington D.C.; Padma Lakshmi has just taken over for Katie Lee Joel as host of the second season of Bravo’s cooking competition show Top Chef. At this point, my godmother and I only really know of her as a former model who is most famous for being married to Salman Rushdie. We are excited to see an Indian woman on a popular TV show, and so, when Bravo runs a Thanksgiving Day Top Chef marathon, we tune in.
And man, were we disappointed. Her body language was stiff, her affect was flat, and her laconic speaking style had me seriously convinced that she might be slightly stoned (like all the time). She looked pretty and she wore nice clothes, but as a host, her TV presence was roughly equivalent to a wilted stalk of celery.
This kind of thing tends to frustrate me immensely. I wrote an article for Story Screen a couple of years ago about how important it is for people of color in America to see depictions of people like themselves on screen. Now as an Indian-American college student (who at the time was interested in eventually working for Bravo) watching a famous Indian-American model sleepwalk her way through Top Chef, and I knew she would get dragged by reviewers for it. I was bummed. “Padma. Padma!” I thought, “Step it up, you’re making us all look bad.”
“What is this woman even doing on Top Chef?” my godfather piped up from his corner of the dining room table where he was working on a report for his team at the IMF. “What does she know about food? Since when do models eat?”
Turns out, that was an interesting question for him to have asked. In 2016, Lakshmi wrote a fantastic wickedly witty memoir entitled: Love, Loss, and What We Ate, in which she explains that she grew up in a family that loved cooking and eating, and was cooking her grandmother’s recipes as soon as she was tall enough to reach the stovetop. When she became a model, spending the bulk of her time shuttling around Italy and France, (eating her way through many cities in between modeling jobs and learning about food and culture from her then-boyfriend, an Italian academic) she was approached by a publisher who wanted to ask if she had any low-fat recipes that could be compiled into a cookbook – because of course, who doesn’t want to know a model’s secrets for keeping her svelte figure? She happily accepted the offer and in 1999 she put together a compilation of recipes and short essays entitled: Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World, which was subsequently awarded Best First Book at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook in Versailles. So, yes Anupam Uncle – there is at least one model who eats.
Padma Parvati Lakshmi Vaidynathan was born into a middle-class Tamil family in Madras, India on September 1, 1970. Her parents divorced when she was two years old, and her father disappeared. She spent her childhood traveling between Madras, with her grandparents and aunts, and New York City, where her mother immigrated to pursue training to be an oncology nurse, before permanently settling down with her mother in a small suburb outside of Los Angeles. In 1984, she was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Driving home with her mother and step-father after being discharged, they were all severely injured in a car accident in Malibu, leaving Padma with a fractured hip and badly broken upper right arm, which needed surgery to correct. The surgery left her with a dark, seven-inch scar between her elbow and her shoulder. She grew up bullied and taunted by kids in her high school for her scar, for being too tall, and for being Indian, and she says that it caused her to experience significant self-loathing that has taken years to overcome.
Later, after spending a semester in Madrid during her final year at Clark College majoring in theater arts, she was brought to a modeling agency by a friend. Convinced that her ethnic looks and visible scar would be viewed as a liability, she assumed that she’d have no chance of being booked. Instead, she learned that compared to the modeling world in America, the European modeling world didn’t find her scar off-putting – in fact, the Italian photographer Helmut Newton sought her out specifically because he thought her scar made her more beautiful, and she was featured in many of his photo shoots highlighting the scar. What followed was a fairly lucrative career in Europe, including a stint as a television host on the top-rated Italian show Domenica In. Upon her return to the United States, the parameters of the beauty ideal for modeling had changed with the advent of the grunge era – “heroin chic” was in, models were showing up for castings with visible tattoos, and her scar was no longer a problem.
Lakshmi’s first foray into American television was a show on the Food Network: Padma’s Passport – which she describes as similar in theme to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, but with “a smaller budget and better hair.” She also hosted two one-hour specials for the British culinary tourism show Planet Food, one in South India and the other in Spain, which was broadcast on the Food Network in America. She had a syndicated column in the New York Times for many years on food and fashion. When Top Chef was set to debut on Bravo, Andy Cohen specifically sought her out as host, but she wasn’t able to take the job because she was contractually committed to acting in a film during the show’s shooting season. Katie Lee Joel (who has the personality of a flaccid overcooked oily piece of eggplant) served as host for that first season. Once the season was wrapped, Cohen called Lakshmi again: “Are you available now? Because we really need you.”
And, as they say, the rest is history. I have watched Padma host Top Chef now for 16 seasons. In the beginning, (as I mentioned) her TV presence was stiff and awkward, and it was very clear that she felt extremely intimidated in the presence of Head Judge Chef Tom Colicchio, and the other famous guest judges, who rotated in and out of the show (Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Gail Simmons, Dan Barber, John Besh, Jacqeus Pepin, Rocco DiSpirito, among others) trying to offer up her opinions of the chef-testants’ offerings for each challenge.
But something really great happened around Season 8. That season, Top Chef was doing an All-Stars competition - picking top competitors from the prior 7 seasons of the show who did not win the Top Chef title - giving them a chance at redemption. I don’t know Lakshmi felt more comfortable in an environment with chefs she already knew from previous seasons, or if she finally felt confident after so many years of hosting, but in Season 8 she overcame her shyness of speaking her mind at the Judges’ Table with Colicchio and the others. This was the season where she really came into her own. She relaxed, she was comfortable, she made jokes easily, and she owned the fact that although she has never worked in a restaurant, she does know quite a bit about food - given her upbringing, her experiences eating and cooking food all over the world in her modeling days, and her prior experiences on the Food Network. By the time Season 8 rolled around, I was working as a food & wine buyer for an upscale resort in the Hudson Valley, and the nuances of cooking, working on a line, and good hospitality, were all keen interests of mine. Season 8 All-Stars is my favorite season ever of Top Chef, partly because I adore most (but not all) of the contestants who returned, partly because the right chef (Richard Blais) won, and partly because I finally saw Lakshmi for who she really is aside from being an attractive clothes hanger standing next to Colicchio. I loved that a woman who came from the same country as my parents was being represented on a popular show and utilizing her platform.
You’re making us look good, Padma.
But her growing confidence on Top Chef is only one component of Padma’s badass-ery. I’ve met her ex-husband Salman Rushdie; he came to speak at an event held at my college in the fall of 2006, where I spoke with him during a reception afterward. He is, without a doubt, a pompous blowhard who is in love with the sound of his own voice, and extremely pretentious to boot. He declared that he would only speak at my school if one specific professor from the English department was conspicuously disinvited from the event and reception (due to some unknown and likely overblown beef he had with the said professor about one of his books, #staypetty Salman). Rushdie is most notably famous for Midnight’s Children (which not only won the Booker Prize when it was first published but subsequently won a “Booker of Bookers” competition with all other recipients of the Booker Prize). The Satanic Verses was a book that Islamic fundamentalists found to be so blasphemous, that for many years Rushdie traveled with extensive security protection because in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill him. Numerous killings, attempted assassinations, and bombings resulted in response to the novel. My godmother actually met him in the mid-eighties during a dinner party in Bombay, where she asked him if he was planning to write a new book anytime soon; he was indeed writing The Satanic Verses, but Rushdie coyly refused to reveal the title and said only vaguely that he was working on a book about “migrations” – a ludicrous answer given what transpired after its publication - just hearing the word “migrations” causes my entire family to roll on the floor laughing.
I got the sense when I heard Rushdie speak that even though the fatwa was terrifying and he was hiding for his life, he secretly loved the romance and adventure of dodging supposed assassins. In 1998, the Iranian government said it no longer supported the killing of Rushdie, but the fatwa does remain in place to this day. He travels with much less security now, and I honestly think he misses the attention.
Rushdie, a graduate of Cambridge University who speaks like an upper-class Englishman and doesn't seem to show proficiency in any Indian language, also once famously gave an interview in the New Yorker declaring that the only good writing that comes out of India is writing in English, basically overlooking the vast amount of literature written in India in its numerous regional languages. This gaffe was so offensive that it also bordered on comical. What the hell was he thinking?!
Lakshmi and Rushdie met in 2001. As she explains in her memoir: he was 23 years older than her, she was a huge fan of his writing; he thought she was gorgeous, she was flattered that someone like him would want to be with someone like her. They got married in 2004 and divorced in 2007. During the early years of their courtship and marriage, Lakshmi felt very intimidated by Rushdie’s circle of literary friends, often feeling like she had nothing to contribute to a conversation during a dinner party, and instead would throw herself into working hard in the kitchen of their Manhattan brownstone, cooking more and more delicious food for their guests. Food was the only thing she had to offer.
As the years rolled by, Rushdie went through a bit of a dry spell while Lakshmi’s career was taking off with Top Chef and a column in the New York Times. He was often bitter about that – for instance, when she got a cover feature on Newsweek magazine after Top Chef became a huge hit, he told her, “That must be nice. The only time I’ve been on Newsweek’s cover was when people were trying to murder me.”
In 2005, Lakshmi was rushed to the hospital for severe abdominal cramps. She had been suffering from extreme menstrual cramps since she had gotten her first period as a teenager; they were so painful that she would often just take to bed for a week, immobilized from the pain radiating down her abdomen and lower back, and from crippling nausea. She found out in the hospital that endometrial tissue had wrapped itself around her small intestine. After surgery to remove the tissue, she was told that she’d be fine, only to have all of her painful symptoms return with her next period. The following year, after seeing many specialists all over New York, she was finally diagnosed with endometriosis. Her doctor suspected she had been suffering from it since early adolescence. Lakshmi underwent several surgeries to remove excess endometrial tissue from her uterus, as well as from other organs in her body where the tissue went rogue. During this time, Rushdie would often complain about how they weren’t having sex as often as he wanted to – despite her suffering in so much pain from the endometriosis and recovering from surgeries to treat it. The combination of his jealousy of her career (it appears he felt there could only be one superstar in their household) and his complete lack of empathy for her health problems essentially destroyed their marriage.
Rushdie was knighted for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June of 2007. My roommate at the time and I had heard rumors that Lakshmi’s and Rushdie’s marriage was on the rocks, although we didn’t know why. We often wondered if Lakshmi was the kind of person who would stay married to a knighted jackwipe if only to enjoy the status and privilege of being Lady Padma.
We were wrong. About one month after he was knighted, Lakshmi left him. She moved her belongings out of their house and into the Surrey Hotel on the Upper East Side. In a total, “You can’t quit, you’re fired!” move, Sir Salman’s PR team issued a statement saying that he and Lakshmi were filing for divorce, implying that it had been his decision. By that point, although heartbroken, Lakshmi no longer cared. She just needed to get away from him.
Let’s recap: Padma Lakshmi, a former model, and current basic cable television host left perhaps the most famous writer in the world after he was knighted because he was a shitty husband.
Love it. I told you she was a badass.
Here are some other examples of her badass-ery:
As a result of her childhood spent shuttling back and forth between India and America, as well as her years spent modeling in Europe, Lakshmi speaks English, Italian, Spanish, Tamil, and Hindi fluently.
Lakshmi is a co-founder of The Endometriosis Foundation of America, a nonprofit focused on increasing awareness, education, and research about the disease (the cause of which is still unknown) in the hopes of discovering early intervention techniques to prevent the disease from growing and finding a cure for those who suffer from it. As of 2015, 10.8 million women across the globe have been diagnosed with endometriosis. The foundation helped facilitate the opening of the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research.
Lakshmi is also the American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for immigration and women’s rights. She is an outspoken critic of skin-lightening creams marketed towards people of color in predominantly non-white nations. This is a direct result of the suffering she faced from the Indian community in which she grew up and the American modeling industry where she made a living, where she was constantly being told that her darker skin made her less attractive. It is also in resistance to the dehumanizing effect of colorism as one of many horrible legacies of colonialism.
Lakshmi gave birth to her daughter Krishna in 2010. One year later, her partner of three years, businessman Teddy Forstmann, tragically passed away. Forstmann wasn’t the father of Lakshmi’s child; they began dating after she got pregnant from venture capitalist Adam Dell and that relationship ended. She refused to apologize for keeping a pregnancy from a failed relationship while dating someone new so quickly, despite tabloid criticism, noting that if she was a male celebrity who impregnated a woman and left her for someone else, there would not be similar scrutiny. Dell and Lakshmi share joint custody of their daughter, but for most of Krishna’s life, Lakshmi raised her as a single mother. Given that many women who have endometriosis are unable to conceive, she feels lucky to have a child and is a devoted parent. (She and Dell apparently rekindled their relationship back in 2017).
Lakshmi is an outspoken advocate for the independent restaurant industry – especially meaningful during this pandemic in our country that has forced many restaurants to close due to lack of business.
And most interestingly, she has a new show on Hulu (production wrapped before COVID-19 shutdown of the entertainment industry) called Taste the Nation. The show’s conceit seems simple: Padma travels all over America to get a sense of the regional differences in food, but it reveals the complexities and complications of what we consider “American” food. Initially, Taste the Nation wasn’t even supposed to be about food – Lakshmi wanted to use her platform as an ACLU ambassador to research a project on immigration, as an immigrant who was troubled by the rhetoric coming from the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. Given her long career as a food writer and cooking show host, she realized that food was a way to get closer to the immigrant communities she wanted to investigate. As Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic recently put it:
Lakshmi instead shows how American cuisine can be a bit of a paradox, in which dishes made by immigrants are quickly appropriated as national staples while the people who make them are rejected over generations.
In every episode, Lakshmi considers what a particular dish or place reveals about immigration, assimilation, and homesickness. In the first episode, she visits the border town of El Paso, Texas, and cooks burritos with a chef at the Jalisco Café. Helicopters frequently fly over El Paso to survey the border with Mexico, while delicious foods that have come to America via Mexico are recreated by chefs on the American side of the border. “A burrito is tradition wrapped in colonization,” she notes. She looks at how in Milwaukee hot dogs and lager have become American staples despite an uneasy history of German immigration to the States. She even devotes an entire episode to chop suey, a dish completely set apart from authentic Chinese cooking. Chop suey was embraced by American citizens in the 19th century, while Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for decades.
Taste the Nation is delightful – Lakshmi’s warm personality and raunchy sense of humor shine through, but it is also thoughtful and poignant, and it reminds me of the best of travel and food writing and programming by her dear friend and frequent Top Chef guest judge, the late Anthony Bourdain. I imagine that wherever he is now, he is very proud of her.
See? Bad. Ass.
And let’s not forget what an act of badass-ery it was for Padma to even marry a dude as famous and famously self-absorbed as Salman Rushdie, and to know, despite her intimidation of his intellect, when it was time to leave him. To be perfectly honest, given the life she has lived as a woman who has completed many “migrations,” (HAHAHA sorry Salman, it’s still funny) I’m pretty sure she is much smarter than Rushdie. From India to New York to LA, to Massachusets and Madrid, to Paris, Milan, Rome – Padma embraces the languages, cultures, and foods of every place she visits. Her honesty about the toll Top Chef takes on her whittled model’s body (she openly admits to gaining about 16 pounds during every season of Top Chef) feels like an absolution for the body hatred many women feel and her work against colorism for human rights, I’m pretty sure makes her much smarter than Rushdie. By far.
Padma Lakshmi turned 50 on September 1, 2020. (And she looks amazing!) She’s come a long way from the stilted, uncomfortable TV personality I watched with my godparents back in 2006. I hope that she will be with us for many years to come: teaching us about food, critiquing intricate meals with her Top Chef colleagues, advocating for immigrants and women’s reproductive health, and forcing us to unpack exactly why Americans love tacos even as our President keeps shouting at rallies that he’s going to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of our country while his feeble-minded supporters clap and cheer.
Rock on, Padma, you badass. You’re doing us proud.
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.