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Where Would Food Be Without Padma Lakshmi?

The food expert and author in conversation with Sohla El-Waylly.

Victoria Beckham dress. Photo: Justin French
Victoria Beckham dress. Photo: Justin French

Over the past year, American food media — with its historically narrow range of voices and experiences — has faced a long-overdue reckoning. But Padma Lakshmi has been having these conversations for years now. A steadfast and guiding force in the food world, she is firm in her support of inclusivity. If you’ve ever Googled one of her recipes or heard her speak, you know she’s determined to make the industry around her both more equitable and more delicious.

Lakshmi’s career has spanned continents and mediums as an Emmy-nominated food expert, author, television host, and producer. She’s been the executive producer and host of the Emmy Award–winning cooking show Top Chef since 2006, and has published four books, with a new children’s book coming out in August. And on any given day, she might be using her platform to discuss immigration, abortion rights, or India’s devastating COVID crisis.

Her influence has impacted countless cooks, including culinary creative and chef Sohla El-Waylly, one of the most vocal critics of the food industry. El-Waylly says she gained the courage to become a chef because of people like Lakshmi. In 2020, El-Waylly spoke up about the racism she and others experienced at Bon Appétit, where she was an assistant food editor. After helping to bring about a racial reckoning at the magazine, she eventually resigned and started her own show. She and Padma sat down to talk about what food tells us about culture, how to bring inclusivity to the table, and their hopes for the future.

Acne skirt and top. Photo: Justin French

Sohla El-Waylly: I’m going to be weird for a minute. I still remember the first time I saw you on TV. You were doing a travel show, and you were in Spain eating ham. And I remember just screaming and calling my mom, who was in the kitchen. I was just like, “I didn’t even know brown people could eat ham!” It was the first time I felt like this career was even possible. I don’t think that I’d even have the courage to try to do this if you didn’t do it first.

Padma Lakshmi: Thank you, I’m so glad to hear that. That’s why I’ve tried to mentor younger women. I just wanted to make sure that you guys had it easier than I did so that we could have more exciting stories. The feeling that you had when you called your mother — that’s the same feeling I have whenever I see you. It’s just like, “Yay!”

Sohla: Yeah, we’re out there, and we’re eating ham! Let’s talk about Taste the Nation and Top Chef. My husband and I started watching Top Chef when we began our careers, so it’s like we’ve been moving through our careers while watching this show, and it’s this milestone for us. And this season seems diverse?

Padma: It is diverse. That’s not an accident and I hope we continue with that.

Sohla: Do you feel like, since last summer, there’s been a general increase in diversity in food media?

Padma: I frigging hope so. I mean, if not now, when? I was so sorry to hear about what happened to you and everyone else at Bon Appétit. I was really upset — I said so many times publicly. But regarding Top Chef, this is something that we’ve been working on steadily for several years now. I think we’ve done well with gender, and I think we have more to go with ethnicities and being inclusive holistically.

But the problem is that you want people who can compete on the show. Otherwise, it does no good for us to create this cast, and then they just get knocked out right away. You can tell when somebody has had the mentorship, the experience, and the skill, the training they need to compete on the show. I would never go on Top Chef; I would rather die than be a contestant. It’s a hard thing, and it is harder than it looks on TV.

Sohla: I always thought maybe there wasn’t as much diversity because chefs of color don’t have as much mentorship and can’t take as much time off. They don’t typically have the support system to allow them to go on Top Chef. Do you feel like the pandemic created more opportunities for more people to try out?

Padma: That’s a great point. I never thought about it that way. I’m not involved in casting; for obvious reasons, it’s a conflict of interest since I judge. But I think that you have to take time off financially, because it’s six weeks and then the finale. You also have to be okay with not having a job when you get back. Michael Voltaggio did not have a job when he finished Top Chef, and he won, so it’s a big risk.

Sohla: But the casting is more diverse than ever, and I enjoyed how the challenges were as well. There was a Pan-African challenge, like right off the bat, and Indigenous foods. It’s nice to see Indigenous food represented outside of Thanksgiving, and that’s also why people love Taste the Nation so much, because you see the breadth of culture represented in food. How do you decide what you’re going to highlight for this next season?

Left: Jil Sander coat, MNZ shoes, Jennifer Fisher and Agmes rings. Right: Prada cape. Photo: Justin French

Padma: Well, because it’s a smaller season, we tried to do something that would make it feel a bit special, so we’re doing four episodes and decided to speak to the immigrant story through the holidays and pick the right communities to do that through. One focuses on each of the traditional big holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving. We’re in the middle of doing it, so I hope it comes out well.

Sohla: That’s exciting. I always felt left out because I didn’t celebrate any of the mainstream holidays.

Padma: That’s what this is about. It’s about understanding how different communities do that when they’re not allowed to celebrate often or haven’t traditionally been allowed. It’s looking at it from that end, of being an outsider.

Sohla: What were the big holidays that your family celebrated?

Padma: After my daughter Krishna was born, I started doing Diwali at home a decade ago. My aunt does the prayers, which last five minutes, and the food lasts six hours. We always have live Indian classical music, and my daughter sings, and we have other people who sing or play instruments who are pretty talented musicians living in the New York area. It’s the one big shindig that I throw in New York every year. This past year’s celebration was smaller, but it permitted people not to sweat too much, and I think there’s merit in that. It’s one of the things that I want to make sure to remember. All those events and millions of things that I did because I had to, it turns out I don’t. You know?

Sohla: Do you feel like many things you thought were important before COVID have changed now?

Padma: Taste the Nation is the perfect job for me, because it’s what I’d be doing on my own time. Even if I weren’t doing a television show, I would want to seek out the greatest little joint to eat, some ethnic food that was way out in the boonies.

It’s funny because I’ve been doing Top Chef for so long, and it’s all very glamorous to eat all this fine-dining food. But Taste the Nation is much more of the food that I like to eat on my own time. I prefer to eat standing up anyway.

Sohla: I feel like being at home last year and having to cook a lot more made me realize that I like the simpler stuff more.

Padma: That is what being home taught me. If you look back at those little Instagram videos that I did, many of them were very simple South Indian food. I went back to my roots. I was very careful about using everything from tip-to-toe, including saving all the stuff that I would make stock out of, just any little scrap.

I know how to do that because my mom taught me how to do that. We always were very mindful of how much we spent or how much we wasted growing up. It just took me back to my roots, and that reminded me of my mother’s cooking. It was also a way of being close to her, because I still haven’t seen her since the lockdown last March.

What did you grow up eating with your family?

Sohla: My mom made a lot of Bangladeshi home-style cooking. But she also was very just into food. Then all of my friends’ parents all happen to cook well, too. I was lucky enough to have delicious Vietnamese home cooking, Filipino home cooking, and Korean home cooking. Those are my favorite flavors.

Padma: That’s why my cookbook Tangy, Tart, Hot, and Sweet is named what it is. Because those are the flavors I like all in one bite: sweet, sour, spicy, tangy. I just want all of my palates to be awake at the same time.

Sohla: I probably need a little overstimulation in that area. You’re working on a new cookbook, right?

Padma: I am working on the book; I need to finish the proposal to update it and then start working on it. But right now, I can’t see past getting this season done safely and focusing on my new children’s book, coming out at the end of August, called Tomatoes for Neela. I wanted to teach my daughter that things grow in certain seasons, and it’s essential to try to eat them when Mother Nature grows them near you. Because not only are they more delicious, they also have more nutrition.

Then there’s back matter that talks about farmworkers and where food comes from. But it’s also an intergenerational story about a mother, daughter, and grandmother who is not living with them. But they have a connection through food. Now it’s being published, so I’m very excited and nervous because I’ve never done anything in this space.

Hanifa dress. Photo: Justin French

Sohla: Who’s Neela?

Padma: She is my Aunt Neela, who is in the book. She’s technically my aunt, but she’s only seven years older than me, so we grew up like siblings. It was just a way to do something nice for my aunt, who’s been such a big part of my life.

And growing up, we were always in the kitchen. That’s always where the gossip was exchanged; that’s always where everyone was hanging around. There was just no other way. When I was in India, there were eight or ten people in a two-bedroom apartment, with a two-burner stove in the kitchen. There was always food being cooked. My grandmother didn’t get a fridge until she was in her 30s, and she didn’t know what to do with it, except chill water in it.

So now, with Krishna, we traditionally cook one meal a day here at home. She loves to cook, but she thinks she doesn’t need my help. She’s grown up on Top Chef and seen me test recipes and do cooking demos. But she has her mind; she likes to make wonderful things. One time she made me dinner in bed. She made couscous with Sriracha butter, it was delicious. So simple, so delicious.

Sohla: I love that your daughter is excited about cooking, while with most adults, it seems we have been cooking so much that we’re sick of it!

Padma: Oh, I am so tired of it! Which is surprising because I’m never somebody who goes out to a ton of restaurants., I’m not one of those restaurant groupies. There are those people in our line of work who just love to go to every new restaurant. But lately, I have the itch to get dressed up, and I want to go out. It’s not even about the food. I just want to have a nice glass of wine and watch everybody, just be part of life.

Sohla: Now that we’re finally comfortably reentering restaurants, a lot has changed. What do you hope to see?

Padma: I hope to see new people get the chance to helm restaurants and decide menus. As a general rule, I don’t like big massive restaurants; I like small mom-and-pop places. But I hope that new people in food get to bubble up, get their chance at that. I hope that more women get to helm restaurants. I think the restaurant model needs to change; I think it’s a complicated business to succeed in.

Sohla: I’ve failed at it; my restaurant only lasted 11 months, so I would agree. Unless you have big investments to give you this safety net, you have no margin for error. All it takes is one flood, and then all of your income for a month has disappeared.

Padma: I think opening a restaurant, in and of itself, is a massive leap of faith, and it’s hard to make any money. When I was young, I don’t remember going to restaurants that much. We went to a restaurant maybe once or twice a month, that’s it. But going out to restaurants should be a special thing.

You should pay more for it so that your server, your cook, and the guy bussing your table can make a living wage. There is something in the average American consumer’s mind: They always want bigger portions. They always want value, yet people don’t understand that there should be a $15 minimum wage for everyone, everywhere. There’s no value in stripping the dignity of somebody else in order so you can save a buck on your pizza, or taco, or 17-course tasting menu. I feel this disconnect between reality and what the American consumer expects out of their food.

Sohla: I do think that everyone should work in hospitality for a little bit. I’ve learned a lot of people skills just by working in a restaurant. It is sad that when you’re working as a woman server, you get a lot of harassment, but you learn how to hold your own.

Padma: Totally. I worked at a pizzeria, and it taught me a lot, including empathy and patience. I think it’s imperative. I think everyone should work in hospitality.

Sohla: Hopefully, we’ll all be better customers after this, because we’ve learned to appreciate the real essential workers. People who have been getting us food and making it possible for us to stay safe. Because I feel like a lot of people didn’t appreciate those jobs before?

Padma: Everybody is valuable, regardless of what they do. There’s no value between one human being and another, and it’s about time we acted like it.

Sohla: Speaking of walking the talk and treating people with value, how have you felt about the last year and so many of the overdue reckonings in society?

Padma: Honestly, I feel like we were our worst enemy, and Mother Nature was like, “Okay, I’m going to blight you motherfuckers and take care of business, and set this plague on us so that we could finally get rid of Trump.” Then also, the social reckoning, I think, was a very painful thing that had to happen, but I’m happy it happened. It was a very necessary thing that needed to happen. None of this shocks those of us who are brown or Black; we’ve known about much of it. I can’t walk in someone’s shoes who’s African American. But I’ve indeed witnessed what they go through, and I certainly know firsthand what I’ve gone through.

I’ve been through car accidents and illness, and death of a loved one, and divorce, and all that loss. Everything bad that’s ever happened to me, I’ve learned something very valuable about myself, and I think that’s life. This past year has been a collective sobering up and not taking things for granted and understanding that our actions often lack empathy.

Sohla: It seems like there’s no empathy on social media anymore, especially which makes it tough.

Padma: I get flak for saying what I think about the right to choose, immigration, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, endometriosis, all of it. I also get flak for people saying, “Oh, you never complain when it’s Black-on-Asian hate, only when it’s white-on-Asian hate.” I’m like, “No. For the record, I’m just complaining about Asian hate. I don’t care who’s doing the hating.” It’s just wrong.

Or I’ll put up a sexy picture of myself, but I’m proud of looking cute because I’ve been working out or something, and I get shit for that. It’s like, listen, I was a lingerie model. When I was 23, or 24, or 25, nobody said anything negative about me wearing lingerie. Why are you saying that now and it’s like the most tame picture?

Sohla: What did they have a problem with?

Padma: Like I’m exploiting myself or fishing or compliments. To which I just say, “Go fuck yourself,” honestly. Everybody has an opinion, and it’s easy on social media, because you can hide behind your handle. It’s hard to remember who you are in those situations and not have the conversation devolve to their level. Stay calm, take a breath, don’t take it personally, and just respond in your voice. But on the whole, I’ve been lucky; I haven’t had too much of a problem. But there’s always the delete button.

Sohla: I feel like I got thrown into this stuff, this public face, pretty fast. For the most part, it’s like 99.9 percent support. Then there’s that point 0.1 percent, that just gets in my head. The biggest thing that’s freaked me out is that so many people are commenting on my body. I’ve gained weight through the pandemic, and my body is busy taking care of me in this challenging time. I just get people screaming at me, “Oh my god! How did you let yourself get this [way]?” I’m shocked that people feel so comfortable talking about another woman’s body. It’s sad hearing that people do that to you too.

Padma: Listen, that phenomenon is as old as time; people are comfortable regulating a woman’s body. People are comfortable making laws about women’s bodies, prohibiting medicines that women’s bodies need. They are expert and enthusiastic participants in subjugating a woman’s body, who they’ve never met or seen on a national level. One diss on Instagram, that’s child’s play.

Sohla: I feel like we’re opening up a dialogue, being honest about ourselves as a country. Many of the things that we’re talking about now, like these racial issues, I’ve never before spoken to with people who weren’t people of color. Now we’re pulling white people into the conversation, which we’ve needed to do for a long time.

Padma: I stopped saying “white people.” Let’s end this interview by starting a trend, maybe you can help me. I started referring to certain people as European Americans, because that’s what they are.

Why do I have to say Asian American, or Indian American, or African American, or Latin American? Why only all of us? Unless you are an Indigenous person, you, too, have migrated here from somewhere at some part in your ancestry. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Sohla: Well, now I know what to say the next time someone tells me to go back where I came from.

Prada cape. Photo: Justin French
Where Would Food Be Without Padma Lakshmi?