Padma Lakshmi has been talking about Top Chef for 15 years. And while that popular cooking competition show is still very close to her heart, she is ready to focus on something new.
Specifically, Lakshmi wants to talk about her most personal project yet, Taste the Nation, which premiered on Hulu in the spring of 2020 and is returning today with a four-episode “holiday edition” that explores how three different immigrant cultures, and one Indigenous tribe, celebrate Hanukkah in the Lower East Side, Thanksgiving on Martha’s Vineyard, Christmas in Miami, and the Lunar New Year in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
Just as the first season served as a much-needed vicarious travel escape at the height of the pandemic, this new batch of episodes is an exuberant exploration of what the upcoming holiday season will hopefully hold for all kinds of American families.
Joining me by Zoom in front of the massive wall of books in the office of her New York City apartment, Lakshmi explains that she is merely on a short hiatus from filming season 19 of Top Chef in Houston and will be returning there to complete the shoot soon. When I ask her what the best thing she’s eaten so far in Texas is, she says, “Well, I can’t tell you about anything that I ate on the show yet, especially because we’re still in production and it won’t air until next spring, but I can tell you that I had some really amazing barbecue at Truth BBQ that was delicious.”
Lakshmi and the Top Chef crew went there after she delivered a blistering speech in defense of abortion rights at the Women’s March in Houston early last month. “Because I’m eating so much food on set, I often don’t have much of an appetite after filming,” she says. “But that day I wasn’t filming.”
The announcement that the next season of Top Chef would take place in Houston—following a revelatory season 18 in Portland, Oregon, that tackled the impact of COVID-19, wildfires, and systemic racism on the food industry—coincided with the passage of Texas’ near-total abortion ban. And fans were not happy, practically begging the progressive show to pull out of the regressive state.
“I can tell you that we had made preparations to go to Houston long before there was any inkling of this law coming to be in Texas,” Lakshmi tells me. “And there are all kinds of different moving parts that go into where we’re going to shoot a season. It’s not up to me, to be frank. It’s up to my network and a bunch of logistics and budgetary concerns that I, frankly, am not even completely privy to.”
By the time the reality of the law became public, she says that pulling out of the state was no longer a viable solution. “We were hit with this surprise law, just like everybody else in Texas, so there was little to do,” she adds. “But there are so many complicated issues both in Texas and all over the country, about women’s autonomy over their bodies, voting rights and all sorts of things that, to politicize where we go for Top Chef, I think would be impossible because then where do you stop?”
But while Lakshmi’s personal politics can only influence a behemoth like Top Chef so much, they are front and center in Taste the Nation. And as she breaks down in our conversation below, letting America’s immigrants speak for themselves might be the most radical thing she’s done yet.
So you shot the first season of Taste the Nation before COVID-19 and the second season got upended a little bit and plans changed. Does it ultimately feel like a blessing in disguise or how do you think about how you decided to rework the show based on the limitations?
I mean, I don’t know that it was a blessing in disguise. I would much rather be talking to you right now about 10 episodes than four. Frankly, I was greenlit for the show three months after we premiered and I was really anxious to get back to work. I had so many other ideas about where I wanted to go and things we didn’t have time to explore in season one. So when COVID hit, my first concern was making sure that all our participants and my crew and I were safe. And because of all those COVID restrictions and quarantine and parameters, we were only able to do four. So then to offer just four episodes of what we did in season one, to me, seemed like we would be shortchanging our audience and would not be very satisfying.
And I was just desperate not to have the trail go cold, to be honest. I was so lucky that I got the response from our audience and from critics that we did, that I didn’t want to squander that away and wait too long. People have very short-term memories. I felt a real anxiety about people forgetting about us. And so it was suggested to me that because it was coming out during holiday times that maybe we could focus on holidays. And I thought that was a really great idea. And that was a great way to give to our audience who have been so loyal and so vociferously loving the show something that would also feel timely to what they were experiencing in their daily lives. And I think holidays do offer us a window about what’s important to any particular community or culture. They can tell us what we’re trying to pass down to our youngsters. They can tell us what we want to make sure that we remember. I mean, that’s what holidays are about. They’re about marking and remembering and ritualizing ideas that we want to crystallize in members of our community.
I noticed that, like in the first season, you once again end up seated next to a Trump supporter at a meal.
I know! [laughs]
I’m not sure how that keeps happening, but what goes through your mind in those situations? Are you holding back some of what you want to say in order to sort of maintain the hospitality? How do you handle those situations?
Well, to be honest, it was a gift from God. Listen, this is not a journalistic show. It’s a very editorial show. It’s a very subjective look at the world and it’s through my eyes. And I fully concede that. However, as a producer and a creator of the show, I do want to be balanced. And the truth is that the Cuban community is very conservative. A lot of them, not all of them. I hope we showed both sides. So I was happy that he was there. I really was. And he was a very charming guy, so I didn’t mind him at all. I think that makes the show better. The show was originally created not for people who think like me or vote like me. My intention in creating Taste the Nation was really to show a human side of different communities that get vilified or misunderstood. And it was created for people who think very conservatively and who don’t think like me and think all these brown and Black people are coming to take over. Well, you know, they’re coming over to have the same life that you do, that your grandpa or grandma came over to have. So in 50 years, if that changes what America looks like, then so be it. That’s fair because that’s what America has always been. And I feel very positive about that.
I wanted to explain, through people telling their own stories, why I believe what I believe. To do it not on my soapbox, like I had at the ACLU, but in a way that was entertaining. And I knew that I couldn’t be preachy. We all know those liberal documentarians that are around and after a while, you’re like, “Oh god, OK, we get it!” I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to present the truest version of whatever community I was looking at. I grew up in an immigrant community myself. And so I come to the project with a whole host of very fully-formed experiences, memories and opinions, but I don’t live in that community anymore. So I still have a lot to learn. And I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have done this show because it’s taught me a lot. I’m what you would call a coastal liberal elite, right? I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in L.A., but traveling the country has put me in contact with a lot of average folks that I would not have had the occasion to meet otherwise. And so I have benefited from that and I truly hope our audience has become informed because of those things that we show on the show.
I did wonder, because the show really celebrates immigrant culture through food, if you view it at all as a counter to so much of the anti-immigrant media that’s out there, whether it’s on Fox News, Tucker Carlson, all those places where people are getting such a different message about what immigrants are in this country.
It is exactly that. It is a reaction to all of that. And I feel like I have some authority to speak on it, because I am from one of those communities; I am an immigrant. But I would prefer those people that we’re talking about speak for themselves. Because for a long time, that hasn’t happened. Tucker Carlson is not speaking from firsthand knowledge. So if he wants to go and live in La Puente, California, or Lowell, Massachusetts, or any of these towns across the nation and live there for six months and send his child to public school for a couple of years, then sure, I’d love to know what his opinions are after living on that salary and in that life.
I did notice that in the past couple of years, Top Chef has also really focused on bringing immigrant stories to life through food. And I’m wondering if that was influenced by this show that you’ve been working on or vice versa, if your experience on Top Chef actually influenced the kind of stories that you want to tell on this show?
Well, I think both can be true. You know, I rub shoulders with a lot of very established chefs who work in very rarefied restaurants, who are mostly male and white. And we try to do as good a job as we can on Top Chef—and I think we’ve gotten a lot better in the last few years—with trying to bring on a variety of voices. But the truth is that the fine-dining landscape is very male-dominated and very white, for lack of a better word. European American is a term that I’ve been using a lot more. We say African American or Asian American or Indian American, we should also say European American for people who have been our presidents for the last 45, 46 terms.
So I was really interested in looking at different kinds of foods. You know, Top Chef is a very specific program. It’s a highly formatted show. It’s a competition show about professional chefs. And a lot of it is very high art and very fine dining. And the truth is, most people in the world don’t eat like that and don’t get the opportunity to eat like that. I, myself, when I’m not on Top Chef do not eat like that. And I love to go to restaurants, but I am happiest eating street food in different corners of the world. If I was coming to your town, wherever it is in the world, and you said, “OK, there’s this Michelin-starred chef with white tablecloths and a 16-course tasting menu that we can go to, I got us reservations. And then there’s also this crawl of this neighborhood of hawker stands and little stalls, I would opt for that crawl, just because that’s where my natural instincts lie. It’s not to say one is better than the other—they’re just different experiences. And we certainly try to bring you a balance of people from the communities that we’re going to in Taste the Nation. So there’s also a couple of high-end James Beard, Michelin-starred chefs thrown in when we can find them, if they’re a vital part of that community. But, you know, so much of my upbringing in America has been consuming media about one particular experience. And it is my experience now to see that there are lots of other experiences that are very American, that haven’t gotten mainstream play. And so, since I’m lucky enough to be able to get a show greenlit of my own, I’m not going to squander that opportunity, because it’s been hard-won.
You tweeted this week that this show changed your life. And I wanted to know how it’s changed your life.
I’ll tell you how it’s changed my life. Well, in many ways, but for one, it is so invigorating to be able to do what you’re naturally interested in for a living. That’s a real privilege. I didn’t get my own show greenlit until I was 50 years old and I’ve been on television for 20 years. And so to finally be able to take an idea that was in my head and create a show and execute it as I had envisioned, it is very rare. In television and film, as a filmmaker, you’re always making compromises. You want Nicole Kidman, but you can’t get Nicole Kidman. You can only get this person, but your producer will not fund your movie unless you get this other person who’s more famous but so wrong for the role. There are a million of those compromises that you make.
And so to be able to have a show in my head, pitch the show that I wanted to do and actually wind up with the show that I had envisioned is a miracle! It was a personal and professional coup for me. I’m a late bloomer, so I feel like I have so much more to do, but I’m so thankful that I finally got to do that. That’s one way it’s really changed my life in that I could actually say, “No, we’re going to do it like this, because this is how I want to do it.” I mean, I’m a producer on Top Chef, but that is a huge operation that was already fully-formed. And I contribute to it with challenges or whatever, but that’s different. Taste the Nation is a much fuller experience behind the camera, as well as in front of the camera.