The Top Chef host dishes on food, fame, and her struggles with endometriosis -- plus she shares two delectable recipes.
Padma Lakshmi isn't afraid of carbs. Moments after the Top Chef host arrives at a downtown New York City Italian restaurant -- her pick -- she enthusiastically orders the orecchiette con i pomodorini pachino at the waiter's recommendation. It's not just her predilection for pasta that breaches the celebrity stereotype. The New Delhi, India-born former model orders her pasta in perfect Italian -- one of the five languages she speaks -- and showed up without the requisite dark glasses, despite the sunny day. Wearing a simple beige tank top and long, boho-style chartreuse skirt, Lakshmi's only hints of bling are pieces from her own line of jewelry on her neck and left arm. And when some locals walk into the restaurant, she doesn't shrink in her chair hoping not to be recognized. Instead, the reality TV star waves and gives them a familiar hello.
"I've been to the gym eight times in the last 10 days," says Lakshmi, 39, biting into a crisp bruschetta. The foodie and cookbook author candidly confesses that it's hard work to stay slim. "I would rather spend half my life at the gym and eat whatever I want than sit on my ass and starve," she admits.
And eat she does! Lakshmi's appreciation of good food and her perceptive palate have helped catapult Bravo's Top Chef to the No. 1 food show on cable and recently earned her and chef/co-host Tom Colicchio a 2009 Emmy Award nomination for best reality TV hosts. The popular program kicked off its sixth season Aug. 19, this time set in Las Vegas. And good news for fans: The caliber of contestants just keeps getting better. "Tom and I looked at each other midseason and said, 'Wow, today's food is better than we've had in any of the past finales.'"
Not that the previous seasons' fare has been shabby. She can't reveal any details of the current season, but confides her favorite meal to date was made by Season 2 Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. Hall served a classic Spanish dish of fideos (very thin capellini-like noodles) with clams and saffron that she's enjoyed several times since at the Manhattan eatery Casa Mono, where Hall was a chef.
Padma's Food Memories
Today's main course is quite the opposite. After the waiter brings Lakshmi her orecchiette, she adds a dash of red pepper and dives into the food. And her memories of food. "I've always had a well-developed palate. Even as a toddler I was rooting around the kitchen, tasting different things." She learned to cook at a young age. Growing up in India, New York, and Los Angeles, "I was always hanging at the hem of whatever maternal relative was in the kitchen, helping shell peas and peel potatoes."
Her love of food is what set her television career in motion in 1998. Lakshmi had been modeling around the world since 1992 for designers such as Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren when she met movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who had recently set up a literary arm of Miramax. Together, they came up with the idea for a cookbook, Easy Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World, because "everyone wants to know what a model eats," she says.
Ironically, her least favorite meal was also cooked up by Hall. Brace yourself: chicken liver chocolate ganache with fried ginger and sherry sauce. What was he thinking? "I don't know, not clearly," she says with a smile. "It was horrible."