Thanksgiving—that special mix of gratitude, oh-so-much food, and oh-so-many relatives—can (understandably) put even the most seasoned hostess a little bit on edge. But if you’re stressing over the perfect turkey preparation for your November 23 gathering, fear not, because Padma Lakshmi is here to share her secrets.
“When we do Thanksgiving at our home, [my daughter and I] cook our turkey the night before. We cook it very, very late into the night, right before we go to sleep, and we make sure all the vegetables are chopped and all the prep work that can be done the night before is done. The last thing I do is turn on the oven, blast the turkey for 45 minutes on high heat, and then take the heat way down, to 280 or 250,” she explains. “I let it cook overnight, all night, then we get up really early and we go and check, like ‘is the turkey okay?’ But I prefer to have that central moment happen before my guests arrive.”
When it comes to the importance of having all your big culinary tasks done well in advance, Lakshmi, who got her start in the entertainment industry as an actress and model before eventually gravitating to the medium of food TV, is something of an expert. As a judge, host, and executive producer on Bravo’s long-running cooking competition show “Top Chef” (she’s been with the franchise since its second season, which premiered in 2006) Lakshmi, 47, has seen her fair share of savvy chefs fall victim to time mismanagement. That said, she has also witnessed (and tasted) an abundance of foodie talent and innovation in her time on the show, which will premiere its 15th season on Thursday, December 7, 2017.
While cooked-to-perfection turkey is always a gift to be thankful for, Lakshmi—who was born in India but grew up in NYC and LA—is quick to give credence to all the other meaningful ingredients that make her life fulfilling. She loves quality time with her 7.5-year-old daughter, Krishna; she relishes personal projects like writing (her titles include Easy Exotic, Love, Loss and What We Ate, Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, and The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs), giving back (she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America and is an ambassador for the ACLU), and an acting job on occasion (catch her in a guest role on CBS’s “Life in Pieces” soon); and she, rightfully so, continues to take great pride in her work on “Top Chef.”
“There are a lot of food shows on TV, but as anyone who’s been on our show as a guest and [has been on other food shows] will tell you, ours is still the most serious and the most respected by the professional food community, which I’m very, very proud of,” she says of the Emmy-winning program’s staying power. “And it’s a fun show to work on. I love that I get to go to work and rub shoulders with people I really admire and sit around and eat and talk about food all day long!”
Right on the precipice of the bustling holiday season, we caught up with Lakshmi about “Top Chef,” motherhood, the causes she’s passionate about, and how she enjoys the holidays here in New York City.
For season 15, “Top Chef” is heading to Colorado. What can fans expect?
In short: A lot of meat! They’re very carnivorous in Denver, CO. It’s a real meat-and-potatoes kind of environment. But the landscape is also stunning. It was really beautiful to be there for six weeks and film in these lush mountains—it’s a very beautiful part of the country that I had never been to for that extended period of time. I had been to the Aspen Food & Wine Festival years and years ago and really hadn’t been there since, and it’s really just a beautiful festival. I think it’s a special treat for the chefs to wind up there for the finale. Also, they had some great challenges—I don’t want to ruin anything but we did what everyone does in Colorado, which is, obviously, go fishing and all this other [outdoorsy] stuff. I can’t express how the physical landscape affected the season and the challenges.
What drew you to working with the show originally, and what has made a great fit for you for so many years?
I had started my career in this country in food by doing a [demo-cooking] show called “Padma’s Passport” on the Food Network, but I wanted to do something a little bit different. I had pitched a show to Bravo while they were developing “Top Chef,” and they said: “Well, we’ve already got a food show that we’re doing”—it was different than what I was proposing—“would you like to be part of it?”…I didn’t really know if it was going to work, nor did I know that it was going to become the big pop culture phenomenon that it is, of course. I think that the show has lasted because we are still the gold standard of food competition programming.
You’re the host of the show, but you’re also a judge and an executive producer.
My role has grown, of course, off camera a little bit, but we all pitch in and it’s a group effort—we’re a very tight-knit group. It’s a collaborative effort. It’s like a big circus comes to town and we pitch our tent and we all come together. Those people are like family to me and that has been one of the joys of doing “Top Chef” for these many seasons. We’ve been through everything together—like motherhood! I remember there were times when I was just getting used to being a mother and filming and nursing, and all of the challenges that brought to the set, and how supportive everyone was about that. It really set a precedent that was positive for everybody. One of the trials and challenges has been, I would say, certainly eating that amount of food so quickly, year after year. Even if it’s only for a period of six or eight weeks, it is very taxing on your digestive system and your physical health. I do a lot of things before production, and certainly after production, to counterbalance those challenges.
With there being a lot of travel and an unconventional schedule, how to you balance work with motherhood?
It’s hard, and every year brings a different challenge because my daughter is growing and her needs are different from year to year. When she first came on set she was six weeks old and she had to be nursed literally every two hours because I wasn’t making a lot of milk and I wasn’t able to get enough milk when I was expressing, which was really, really heartbreaking—and just from a health standpoint, there were challenges where I ate something and it not only upset my tummy but it would upset her tummy, too, because it would go through my breastmilk. I remember very clearly we were with Marcus Samuelsson in the DC season and we did a Quickfire Challenge with Ethiopian food and Injera bread. Marcus brought this beautiful bread and talked about how spicy Ethiopian food is and how it’s known for its stews—which I love, because Indian food is similar—and he really encouraged the chefs to go all out and make it spicy. They heeded his words, and both Krishna and I paid the price. But, she has grown up on set too. She’s 7.5 and she knows all of these people who have become part of her family—you know, Uncle Tom [Colicchio], Auntie Gail [Simmons]… But there will come a time when she won’t be able to be pulled out of school. Right now she’s just barely in second grade, but I can see a time just a couple years from now when [taking her out of school to travel with me] won’t be okay. We’ve been lucky, we’ve actually shot the last few seasons mostly in the late spring and early summer so she winds up just missing summer school… We’ve managed to make it work, and make it work beautifully, I would say.
When you’re not traveling, what do you and Krishna like to do together here in NYC?
We love to go roller-skating at Prospect Park. I grew up in the city roller-skating all over Manhattan and it was my mode of transportation, actually, and I have passed that down to Krishna because I love it so much… We usually see the Alvin Ailey show every Christmas, because she also takes classes at Alvin Ailey. We go to the theater—we’ve seen everything from “Matilda” to “Cinderella” to the Carole King musical. I started out as an actress and a theater person so we go to the theater a lot. We go to hear concerts a lot—we just went to see Katy Perry. We love Madison Square Garden—we go there to watch basketball games, though being a Knicks fan is a thankless task, but we’re all true to the orange and blue! We are real New Yorkers. When Krishna gets asked where she’s from she says: “My dad is from Texas, my mom is Indian, but my mom and I are New Yorkers!”
Do you have any special traditions for the holidays?
I’m Hindu and I run a Hindu household but I am what you’d call a “Christmas fundamentalist” because I grew up in the city. So we’ll go to Rockefeller Center to ice skate, we enjoy roasted chestnuts while we’re there—which is something my mother did with me around the holidays, so that’s something I’ve passed down as a New York ritual… We spend the few days before Christmas when Krishna is off from school building a gingerbread house and we get very, very involved. If you scroll way down on my Instagram feed, you’ll see a time-lapse video of us making what, I think, is one of the best gingerbread houses made without professional help.
Speaking of adventures in the kitchen: Your latest book, Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the Word, came out last year and it’s all about spice and flavor. What do you hope readers get out of it?
As an Indian, [spice] is very much part of our culture, and [south India] is where much of the world’s best spices come from. I think spices are the thing that defines your cooking and gives it character—otherwise it’s just a bunch of pantry ingredients. It’s just produce, and protein, and starch, right? We think of chicken and vegetables—well that chicken and vegetables can be chicken cacciatore or chicken adobo or chicken fajitas or stir-fry or chicken curry. What makes those dishes different is the spices you add. Spices are a basic element of cooking and there wasn’t a really substantial encyclopedia or dictionary of spices out there, where you could learn how to use them, learn how they’ve traditionally been used around the world, how to store them and where they come from, and what the benefits and flavor profiles are… I want it to be a reference guide that everybody keeps, not in their bookshelf, but on the shelf in their kitchen so that when they go to the store they can buy some funky new herb or twig and learn how to use it, and then maybe take a recipe that they’re already familiar with and tweak it by just using 2-3 different spices.
In addition to your writing and work on TV, you also stay busy as the co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and you’ve been open about having Endometriosis, a health issue that affects the female reproductive organs often starting in adolescence, yourself. What should people know about the EFA?
Our biggest mission is to raise awareness about Endo so that no other woman goes through what most women in my generation with Endo have gone through, which is not getting a proper diagnosis for at least a decade, severe debilitation, chronic pain every month, headaches, back aches, digestive problems, missing work, missing school events, missing family occasions, and just feeling very isolated because of your pain and not understanding its origins… We have funded research grants, we have held nurses conferences and doctors conferences—we just had one about breast and ovarian cancer and how that is related to Endometriosis—we’ve helped launch a center for reproductive research, for gynepathology, the CGI at MIT in conjunction with Harvard Medical School, and we have lots of things we want to do. We are up in arms about how President Trump feels he is able to restrict access to birth control when many women—millions, actually—use birth control pills for things other than, or in addition to, contraception. A lot of women can’t afford it, and if you can’t go to work because you have terrible cramps…you may [lose your job] because you can’t show up to work; and even if you have insurance at work, your boss doesn’t have to give you those pills and they get to decide your treatment and what your healthcare looks like—to me, that’s discrimination.
You’re also an ACLU Ambassador, and have long been vocal about your support for women’s health and civil rights causes. How do you talk to your daughter about the importance of standing up for causes you believe in?
I think the aim of every human being, to live a productive and worthy life, is to try to better the world in which he or she lives in. You just do it every day in ways that are age-appropriate to your children… [Krishna] knows that mommy doesn’t agree with a lot of things that this administration is doing. She was at the Javits Center with me on the night of the election when Hillary didn’t win. That was really emotional for us because Krishna helped me campaign [for Hillary] and she was very excited to see the first woman president in her young life. She understands that her grandmother came here as an immigrant and her mother came here as an immigrant and that we made a life for ourselves and her life is so much better because of that.