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Padma.

TV Host, Author & Activist

meet.

The Culinary Queen

Padma Lakshmi’s earliest food memory is of eating panipuri, an Indian street food consisting of crispy deep-fried puffs filled with a spicy mixture of diced potato, onion, peas, and chickpeas. Lakshmi is sitting on the floor on set at the Semaine photoshoot in New York. She is wearing jeans and a bright blue shirt with embroidered beads depicting a world map. “It’s sort of a cool, crisp version of the same feeling you get when you eat a soup dumpling,” she says, her eyes lighting up as, in a Proustian moment, she is transported back to her childhood in Madras. “It’s just explosive in your mouth with flavour and crunch.”

Searching for the personal stories that shape our relationship with food has been at the heart of Lakshmi’s work for decades, but it is particularly central to Taste the Nation, a TV show in which Padma Lakshmi explores the food culture of immigrant and minority communities across the US (the title is a pun on the long-running CBS news pro- gram Face the Nation). It is also marked by Lakshmi’s determination to give a voice to people whose stories are so rarely told on mainstream television. In one episode, she delves into the “ketchup or no ketchup” debate around the Puerto Rican dish of pasteles, and what it says about the territory’s fight for independence. In another, she travels to the city of Lowell in Massachusetts, where the Cambodian community helped rebuild the post-industrial town after it went bust. And in another episode she takes us to Arizona in search of the “original American cuisine” – that is, the food made by Native Americans with indigenous crops. The idea is to showcase the breadth of American food culture, which is so often reduced to a stereotype of hamburgers, barbecues, and fried food. “The people who are dominant are Caucasian and so one type of cuisine which is sterilised of all those other contributions is the one that gets touted as normal because it’s normal to the people in power”, Lakshmi says, speaking over the phone from the photoshoot in New York. “When I created Taste the Nation it was really out of a frustration about immigrants not being able to tell their own stories, but rather having other people translate it for them.”

Lakshmi is a household name in the US primarily thanks to another cooking show: Top Chef – the incredibly successful cooking competition that started in 2006 and has expanded with franchises all over the world – and for which she was a judge for 17 years. But after almost two decades and several Emmy nominations, Lakshmi decided to leave the strict and demanding world of high-end cuisine to concentrate on exploring the food of ordinary Americans. Taste the Nation (which also got an Emmy nomination last year) was launched when Trump was still in office, and with the next presidential election on the horizon, Lakshmi is open about the fact that food is often an entry point to talk about more pressing issues. “Food affects and touches every other aspect of our lives. It has to do with the environment, it has to do with politics, health, the economy, and agriculture. It has to do with trends and what’s in the zeitgeist,” she says. “So in talking about food, you can talk about every other aspect of life and it’s often a great gateway to have those other conversations.” The reality TV pro- gram has a documentary feel, with bits of history and archives interspersed with Lakshmi’s interviews and cooking scenes with chefs and community leaders. The stories are told from Lakshmi’s unique perspective, both as a woman and as an immigrant. While in Top Chef she was used to wearing heels and lots of makeup, and telling contestants to “please pack your knives and go” (her iconic line), now she joins families for dinner at tables topped with checkered tablecloths. It’s a departure from the often white male-dominated world of cuisine and cooking shows. “I would say I want to evolve the genre. I’m interested in how people eat all over the world, not just how a very slim margin of the population can afford to eat in a certain kind of restaurant,” says Lakshmi. “We talk about culture, we talk about family life, we talk about children and we highlight women in the industry. Because while the professional food world is dominated by white men, we know that most of the food in the world is actually cooked by women.”

Lakshmi learned to cook with her mother and grandmother and was a vegetarian until well into her teens. Food played an important part in her upbringing, first in Madras, India (now Chennai) and then in New York City. She has often described food as “my way of processing the world”, but didn’t make a career out of it until her mid-30s. She and her mother, a nurse, moved to the US when she was four years old after her parents divorced. She studied theatre arts and American literature at Clark University in Massachusetts and started modelling soon after graduating. A serious car accident when she was a teenager had left a scar on her arm, but photographer Helmut Newton chose to highlight it, catapulting Lakshmi into the limelight and helping her become the first Indian supermodel.

Her success in modelling not only gave her the ability to pay off her student loans – it also allowed her to move to Italy, where she lived for several years and hosted a long-running variety show there called Domenica In. But she kept coming back to food, writing cookbooks Easy Exotic and Tangy,Tart, Hot & Sweet. She also hosted cooking shows like Padma’s Passport, in which she cooked recipes from around the world, and the series Planet Food, a food and travel documentary series, both of which aired before the launch in 2002 of Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed A Cook’s Tour. In 2016 she published the New York Times best-selling memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate, in which she talked about her life through food and also opened up about her love life and her divorce from Salman Rushdie, whom she married in 2004.

In that book, Lakshmi said that the relationship ended in part because she had been suffering from endometriosis — a disease in which tissue grows outside the uterus — and that it was a condition that Rushdie didn’t understand. Lakshmi had suffered from the painful condition from the age of 13 but wasn’t diagnosed or able to receive proper care for it until she was 36. After undergoing surgery, the experience led her to create the Endo- metriosis Foundation in 2009, an institution dedicated to research and education about the condition with a research centre at MIT and the Harvard Medical School. “There were people who couldn’t even pronounce endometriosis when we started, so I’m very proud of the gains the foundation has made,” she says. “We’ve been plugging away for a really long time and perhaps #MeToo exposed a lot of these inequalities in our system that affect women, and gender bias and misogyny in health- care is certainly a big one.” In 2019, the foundation helped pass legislation in New York State requiring that sex education also include education about endometriosis for both girls and boys. “A boy that learns about this disease will be a more sensitive and supporting husband, father, colleague, lover,” says Lakshmi. “We’d like to make that a federal law and we’re working towards that.”

Fighting for women’s rights is something that has taken up even more of Lakshmi’s time since rai- sing her 13-year-old daughter, Krishna, whom she had the venture capitalist Adam Dell. She is an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Ambassador for immigrants’ rights and women’s rights, as well as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward to testify that the then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, Lakshmi wrote an essay for the New York Times in which she said she had been raped when she was 16 years old. “I understand why a woman would wait years to disclose a sexual as- sault,” she wrote. “For years, I did the same thing”.

Aside from all her TV and activism work, which led to her being named in TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2023, Lakshmi’s long list of achievements goes on. She has designed a jewellery line, a collection of culinary products, a capsule collection with MAC Cosmetics and is currently working on another cookbook based on the recipes in Taste the Nation. For Semaine, she has created an ice cream based on a dessert from the Philippines, Halo Halo (which is Tagalog for “mixed”) with New York based independent ice cream maker Bad Habit. “It’s a dessert that takes many forms, I love it because it’s a build-your-own adventure experience and it has a bunch of things,” she says. “Traditionally it has flan, because of the Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, and it also has a lot of tropical fruits because it’s a Philippino dish. Halo Halo is a meditation on temperature and texture, as much as it’s about sweetened flavour.”

Meanwhile, instead of slowing down, her modelling career seems to be speeding up again in her 50s as demand for more mature faces and bodies is putting the spotlight on older wo- men. She was approached by lingerie brand Bare Necessities to create a capsule collection which is launching in May: “I obviously have very fully formed opinions about what looks good and what works,” she says, and last year she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. “I really thought that ship had sailed frankly and I would have killed to do it when I was actually modelling but it never happened,” she says. “So to do it in my 50s felt a little…well, not a little, it felt very daunting. But I wanted to do it because women are not looked at in a particular way in their 50s like they are in their 20s. I actually feel much more comfortable in my skin today,” she says. “Of course, my body was more youthful then but what I’ve gained in wisdom and experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

After having fought to be taken seriously early in her professional life, when she regularly encountered sexism and racism, the confidence she has earned in recent years is something she hopes to pass on to younger women and girls like her daughter. “I hope I can be an example of how to fight for what you believe in, and make your own path in the world even if there isn’t a clear one,” she says. “I didn’t have a big grand plan when I was young. I was figuring it out along the way.” “There is no clock that’s ticking. You shouldn’t measure yourself to other women anyway, but always endeavour to learn, grow, and become a better ver- sion of yourself.”

Her diverse interests and talents have taken her from fashion to food, from TV to activism. In many ways, Taste the Nation seemed to be the culmination of a career in which Lakshmi was finally bringing all these strands together in a show of her own making. She’s also, much like the show itself, living proof of the vital role immigrants have always played in buil- ding a diverse and dynamic United States. “At my essence, I’m still the same person I was when I was 15 years old: someone who wanted to do well, someone who wanted to make a mark,” she says. But she is also not the kind of person to shy away from a new challenge. She recently branched out to stand-up comedy with a show in Brooklyn, and revealed plans to produce and star in a comedy series that is yet to be named. “I’ve always wanted to live an interesting life full of challenges,” she says. “And hopefully accomplishments.”

By Julia Webster Ayuso for Semaine.
Photography by Tina Tyrell.

Padma is wearing ARIANA BOUSSARD-REIFEL earrings, CHRISTOPHER ESPER dress, STAUD flats (Look 1), ISSEY MIYAKE jacket & trousers (Look 2) BODE dress (Look 3), SKY HIGH FARMS shirt & jeans, STAUD flats (Look 4).

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The culinary enchantress

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Padma's Essentials: Must-Have Recommendations

Elevate your daily routine with Padma Lakshmi's essential recommendations.

Semaine Issue 9,

Semaine

£9.99

Bombay Mix,

Deep

£2.50

Mushroom Coffee,

Ryze

£22.00

FIXED IN TIME Jacket,

Issey Miyake

£1,695.00

Halo Halo Ice Cream,

Semaine x Padma Lakshmi x Bad Habit Ice Creams

£11.00

Essential Oils,

Neals Yard Remedies

£14.00

Sriracha Sauce,

Flying Goose

£4.00

Bloom Teapot,

Sophie Lou Jacobsen

£87.00

travel.

Wanderlust: Padma's top spots.

Let Padma be your guide to unforgettable journeys filled with culture, cuisine, and enchanting experiences.

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"Don’t be fooled by the fluorescent lighting- this place has freshly made phulka rotis wrapping grilled meats and veggies for a street food experience that is a must when in Mumbai."

Bademiya,

Apollo Bundar, Horniman Circle, Mohammad Ali Road,

India

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"Insider tip: Italy is more than the renaissance and pasta, it’s the laughter of children, the cold feel on your tongue of the perfect gelato, and the little shops on side streets that aren't global corporations. Go in spring or fall, September is actually the perfect month. If you're in Milan, check out 10 Corso Como for a day of shopping."

10 Corso Como,

Corso Como, 10, Milan,

Italy

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"My favorite food today is the Hot & Sour seafood soup...it's pretty virtuous."

Hao Noodle Chelsea,

343 West 14th Street, New York,

United States

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"Semma restaurant in Greenwich Village in NYC is the best South Indian restaurant in America. The feeling of the dining room is casual but the food is totally fine dining but without losing the sharp and fiery flavors of the Indian Subcontinent. Ask for a table as soon as they’re open, it’s a tough table to get!"

Semma,

60 Greenwich Avenue, New York,

United States

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"The wonderful thing about Morocco is that there’s so much to discover. Don’t get out of Marrakesh without seeing the Yves Saint Laurent gardens and museum as well as riding dune buggies in the dessert!"

Jardin Majorelle,

Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech,

Morocco

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Home to the Halo Halo custom ice made in collaboration with Semaine and Padma. Available in store until 30 June, 2024.

Bad Habit Ice Creams,

131 Avenue A, New York,

United States

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"Bhutan requires you to slow down and mindfully appreciate the utter pleasure of nature’s lush bounty. Don’t forget to visit the open air farmers market like the Centenary Farmers Market to see a variety of mushrooms that are as interesting as they are delicious."

Centenary Farmers Market,

Thimphu,

Bhutan

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"I made friends with the honey guy, and I let Andrew put a beehive just outside my bedroom."

Union Square Greenmarket,

East 17th Street, New York,

United States

read.

Taste the World: Padma's Literary Recommendations

Delve into these captivating reads and embark on a flavourful literary adventure.

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The Art of Eating,

M.F.K Y Fisher

£6.85

"No other writer has inspired me more. MFK Fisher has an uncanny knack for taking something mundane and rendering it sublime. She salts her writing with good common sense and peppers it with wicked wit."

Book image

The Liar’s Club,

Mary Karr

£9.99

"If any memoirist in this country tells you they haven't been influenced by The Liars' Club, they are either lying or uninformed. The genius of Karr's memoir is that it's really not about her, but about her parents, told with love and innocence while fearlessly illustrating their faults."

Book image

The Tummy Trilogy,

Calvin Trillin

£12

"'Bud' Trillin of The New Yorker basically invented the genre of food-focused American travel writing. Part journalism, part travelog, all funny and flavorful, The Tummy Trilogy can make you salivate over a humble bagel from New York's Russ & Daughters or a slice of pizza from, of all places, Kansas City. What Paul Bowles did for Africa, Trillin did for America's greasy spoons."

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,

Isabel Wilkerson

£12.99

"I credit this brilliant book with giving me an education on the history of Jim Crow and race relations in the US, as well as Nazi Germany and the caste system in India (though I wish it delved deeper into the last), which I should have had in high school but never did in the US public school system. I also owe it a debt of gratitude for getting me out of my reading miasma during COVID. The book is very systematic in laying out its thesis with strong evidence from multiple sources. The sum total of understanding that you come away with is chilling."

Book image

The Vixen,

Francine Prose

£9.99

"This literary page-turner from the intensely masterful storyteller Francine Prose takes so many surprising twists and turns, it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. Prose is adept at making the Rosenberg trial, and the climate it took place in, come to life in such a palpable way that you feel you’re living back in that time, alongside those reading and reacting in real time to the news that will one day be our collective history. Her characters—every single one of them—are complicated, layered, subtle, flawed and hilarious. Her writing sparkles with wit and wisdom, and wears its intellectualism lightly."

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If I Survive You,

Jonathan Escoffery

£8.49

"Escoffery’s interconnected short story about a Haitian father and his two grown sons in Florida, deftly illustrate that toxic masculinity and the patriarchy affect men as adversely as women. Subtle, but taut, his writing brings a visibility to the pressures facing men straddling two cultures and two versions of masculinity. His characters are full of life and complexity."

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Tomatoes for Neela,

Padma Lakshmi

£13.99

“Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of cooking with the women in my family."

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Bonus Suggestion, Coming Soon,

Watch this space!

"I have two new book projects coming out soon! The first is The Best American Food & Travel Writing, which will publish this fall. I’m also working on the Taste the Nation cookbook, which will be published in Fall of 2025."

stream.

Global Perspectives: Padma's Must-Watch Picks

From her own show to engaging dramas, experience a rich tapestry of narratives that celebrate the beauty and complexity of our world.

Stream image

"Shameless plug for my own show- which has allowed me to travel the country, talking to everyone from immigrants to the Indigenous about what American food and culture truly is today."

Taste the Nation,

Hulu (or Disney+)
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"I find it fascinating to listen to Shankar Vedantam use science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships. What’s also great is that he does it not only with peer-reviewed research, but brings in the personal stories of leaders in these fields to get the story behind why these topics of human behavior were compelling enough for experts to dedicate their life to it. It humanizes everything."

Hidden Brain,

Wherever you subscribe to podcasts
Stream image

"I binged the entire first season in one night during the height of the Covid lockdown. Never did I think I’d ever see South Indians leading normal lives in America, as they do- Mindy Kaling and the cast created such a beautiful, nuanced and thoughtful world for these characters to inhabit."

Never Have I Ever,

Netflix
Stream image

"I loved Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in Atlanta and Pen15 respectively, so when I saw they were leading this new series together I couldn’t wait. And it’s a fun, sexy and darker twist on the source material that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m in love with both these gifted actors and I love the palpably authentic couple dynamic between them."

Mr. and Mrs. Smith,

Amazon Prime

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ask.

"Always remember to laugh, especially at yourself."

What does the word “taste” mean to you?
Padma:
It means being sensitive, discerning, able to detect nuance and identify the elusive qualities that make something good. It’s the greatest pleasure a human sense can give.

Do you have a life motto that you live by?
Padma:
Always remember to laugh, especially at yourself, even in the worst of moments.

What was the last thing that made you laugh?
Padma:
My daughter, her musings on the adult world.

What are your favourite qualities in a human being?
Padma:
Intellect, wit, and sense of humor, that’s the key to hooking me. I’m definitely a sapio-sexual.

Who is your hero?
Padma:
Muhammed Ali.

What is your biggest flaw?
Padma:
The fact that I’m never full.

What is your best quality?
Padma:
I’m a hard worker.

What would your last meal on earth be?
Padma:
A bowl of my grandmother’s sambar and rice, mixed by hand and fed to me in an ever-silver bowl under a tree in South India.

What does success mean to you?
Padma:
Success is having the freedom to decide what you’re duty bound to. Success is being free to spend your time working hard on the things you love and that compel you.

If you had the power to change anything you wanted in the world, what would you change?
Padma:
Where to start?? I’d put the emphasis on educating and caring for children in a way that centers bringing up empathetic adults rather than powerful ones.

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