Padma Lakshmi Was Tired of Staying Silent. So She’s Speaking Out.
The ‘Top Chef’ judge and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador on her fight for gender equality, sharing her #MeToo story, and finding her voice: ‘I know what it’s like to not be seen.’
AUSTIN, Texas—Padma Lakshmi doesn’t have a poker face.
If it’s the Quickfire round of Top Chef and the contestant was overly zealous with the salt, your palate puckers at home on the couch, practically tasting the briny travesty through Lakshmi’s recoil and wide eyes. Crestfallen doesn’t even begin to describe the expression of a young cook who, moments after presenting the host, judge, and executive producer with a tasting dish, is met with a raised eyebrow.
It’s fitting, then, that when I bring this up to her, she can’t even pretend. “I don’t,” she says, uncoiling with laughter. “I really can’t hide it.”
But there’s something different about her brand of honest judging. Her reaction might as well be a sledgehammer on the hopes and dreams of Top Chef’s reality-TV hopefuls, who see her face and suspect they might as well “pack up their knives and go” right then and there. But unlike so many other reality-TV personalities, who dial up their candor in a way that demeans and belittles their show’s contestants, Lakshmi’s criticism, while sometimes harsh, is delivered with respect.
“The reason we all cook is for that ‘mmm…’ moment from the other person’s face,” she says, with enough earnestness that I nearly “mmm…” in response. “I also know that they want me to tell it to them straight.” It’s easy for her. She treats the contestants as if they were a friend of hers whose house she’s visiting for dinner. “I’d say, listen, don’t serve this again, and if you do make sure you cook that chicken all the way through. You can have empathy and be honest.”
It’s not hard to draw a parallel between that Top Chef signature of Lakshmi’s and the ways in which she’s broken out of the mold of calm-and-collected TV host to publicly lay herself bare, the kind of honesty with empathy—though perhaps with more anger than you’ll see on Bravo—that has the power to, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic or naive, change the world.
We’re speaking at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where she was interviewed on a “Food For Thought” panel sponsored by Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s “The Copernicus Project,” aimed at exploring the current state of our food system and what its future may look like.
Lakshmi, who started as a food writer and cookbook author before becoming one of the most recognizable culinary personalities in the world thanks to her time on Top Chef, is a natural fit for the conversation, which was well-timed to the Bravo competition’s season finale, airing this Thursday. But it quickly becomes clear that, for her, food is a gateway for speaking about her own life and the ways in which we interact as a culture.
When we huddle in a green room after the panel, our conversation spans gender equity on Top Chef, her work with the endometriosis foundation she launched in 2008, the reaction women get when they speak out about gender issues, her reasoning for coming forward with the story of her rape at age 16 earlier this year, and Mario Batali and how redemption might look in this phase of the Time’s Up movement.
She doesn’t have a poker face about any of it. “It’s a way to give reason to random or senseless pain, so you’re turning pain into power to help others hopefully have an easier time of it than you had of it,” she says.
Metaphorically speaking, if it’s salty, you’re going to know.
“I know what it’s like not to be seen…”
Two days before we meet, Lakshmi was named Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program, a position that will have her traveling the world and exploring ways to disrupt systemized injustices ingrained into cultures that exacerbate inequality and discrimination, particularly when it comes to women, minorities, and those living in poverty.
“I felt most of my life, I was on the outside looking in,” she says. “I felt shut out of things because of things that identified me as different that were beyond my control, whether it was because my skin was brown or my name was funny. I just want to level the playing field.”
Lakshmi was born in Madras (now Chennai) India, but moved to the United States with her mother, who separated from her father and needed to start a new life away from the country’s stigma against divorce. She didn’t see her father again for another 20 years.
“I know through some twist of fate my mother and I were able to get out of India and then make a life here in America because she had a family that supported her and she had an education,” she says.
Her mother was a nurse and was able to obtain a lucrative professional visa.
“But what would have happened if my mom had been in the same type of abusive marriage and had not had an education or was not supported by her family because she was from some rural village and they were backward in their thinking? And said she had no business leaving her husband and should put up with it?” she says. “I think about that a lot. I think about who I am and how I became this way because of a lot of blessings in my life.”
She began modeling when she was in her twenties, before hosting a handful of TV shows in Italy and on the Food Network in the U.S.
When she was hired to host Top Chef in its second season on Bravo, she felt insecure in her position knowing that most of the audience knew her only as a model. Especially because Top Chef was promoted as a sister show to Project Runway, people may have assumed the network was just inserting another model into another TV series. At that point, she had only authored one cookbook, “and the truth is that it was a very small book,” she laughs. It was chef Eric Ripert who encouraged her to own her international palate and unique perspective she brought to judging as a food writer, not professional chef.
Lakshmi is now an executive producer on the show, which in recent seasons has been praised for being a driving force in championing gender equity and inclusivity in the food industry. Thursday’s finale, for example, will see two women and no white men competing in the final three.
Lakshmi is adamant that the judging always comes down to food, and never statements on diversity. But the show has always practiced a certain kind of affirmative action, insisting that there be an equal number of men and women cast each season. Beyond the messaging, she says, it makes for good TV.
Still, she recognizes the impact the show’s gender diversity, especially, has had. As the series has gone on and her profile has gotten bigger, it’s something she’s decided to speak out about. “For so long when you’re a young person trying to become who you’re going to be, you’re just thankful for a job and for having a foot in the door. You’re not thinking of making waves. You’re just thinking of getting along, especially if you’re a woman. That was definitely true for me.”
In 2008, she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, focused on raising funds, research, and advocacy for the painful uterine tissue disorder. Lakshmi suffered from endo for most of her life but wasn’t diagnosed with it until she was 36 because so many doctors dismissed her pain.
Her work with the foundation has dovetailed into staunch support of Planned Parenthood. At a Power of Women event last year where she received an award for her work, Lakshmi blasted Vice President Mike Pence for attempts to defund the organization, which is crucial for treating women suffering from endo because access to birth control and the pill can sometimes be the only defense.
“Now they’re trying to take that away from us too. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mike Pence,” she said in her speech. “I began to realize that I was being penalized because I have a uterus. I have a vagina. That’s right a vagina, a love box, a pleasure cave, my privates, my punani, my down there, the Bermuda triangle, a coochie, a yoni and the c-word. Oh, and to put it in the words of our articulate commander in chief, a pussy.”
Lakshmi knows that, especially when she began speaking out about endo a decade ago, people were put off by a celebrity talking publicly about personal issues that are, in her word, “icky.” Now, she can’t imagine staying quiet about it.
“I have been mislabeled for so long in my life that I didn’t care,” she says. “I think at some point you don’t have anything to lose. I was called all sorts of things and people thought they knew me and they didn’t, because a lot of my personal life was blown up in the tabloids and stuff.”
Lakshmi married writer Salman Rushdie in 2004 before going through an ugly divorce three years later, which she writes about in her memoir, Love, Loss, and What I Ate. She currently is a single mother, sharing custody of her nine-year-old daughter Krishna with her father, venture capitalist Adam Dell.
“It’s taken me a long time to be seen,” she says. “And I know what it’s like not to be seen.”
“I was so fucking pissed…”
In September, Lakshmi made headlines after penning an op-ed for The New York Times in which she detailed her rape at age 16. Her then-boyfriend was 23. Lakshmi was asleep when she says she was woken by the sharp pain between her legs of him penetrating her. She never reported it.
Two days after Lakshmi published the op-ed, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of Congress about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh while in high school, an alleged attack she never reported.
“That was a rash decision that I made because I was so fucking pissed,” Lakshmi says about the op-ed. She was incensed when Donald Trump tweeted that he didn’t believe Dr. Ford because she waited so long to report it.
“None of us report,” Lakshmi says. “I wish I could tell you that rape was the only time it had happened to me. It’s just the worst one. I had already been a victim of sexual molestation as a 7 year old. When that happened, I decided to do it, and then chickened out, and then was like, ‘How am I going to feel if I don’t say something?’”
The outcome of the Kavanaugh hearing was, of course, not what she had hoped. It was especially angering for her and all the women who had made their personal stake in the outcome public by coming forward with their own stories.
“I think it tells you how much change we need,” she says. “Lindsey Graham can be there frothing at the mouth being like, ‘Goddammit, you’re going to ruin this guy’s career.’ It’s a job interview. He’s not going to jail. And yet she has death threats.”
But things are changing. A few days before we meet The New York Times reported that celebrity chef Mario Batali had sold his stakes in his restaurants, more than a year after he had been accused of a years-long pattern of sexual misconduct. Now, he will no longer profit from any of the restaurants he opened, which include Babbo, Del Posto, and Eataly.
Lakshmi doesn’t know Batali personally and, as such, can’t speak to his behavior. But as a prominent figure in the Time’s Up movement, she was heartened by that development, especially as the #MeToo movement enters a phase in which redemption and retribution become increasingly vital but tricky questions.
“I think he did the right thing as a preemptive measure to protect all his employees,” she says. “Because who wants to go to a Mario Batali restaurant and contribute, right? But behind Mario Batali there’s dozens of kitchen staff and wait staff, food purveyors and alcohol and so much more.”
There has to be redemption, she says, otherwise there’s no hope. But she wishes more men would make a more formidable attempt to understand the irreparable impact their actions had, the ways in which they hurt careers and caused lasting trauma that “trickled into the bones of someone’s life” before demanding their second chances.
“You have to understand that you abused your power,” she says. “From copping a feel to coercing someone because you’re their boss to have sex with you is not really a win for you either. It’s cowardly. It’s like stealing. You haven’t earned it. It’s taking something because you can, not because it’s given to you.”
It’s a lot of heavy stuff, and maybe unfairly masks the fact that Lakshmi is actually a lot of fun and quite light-hearted. Her laugh is infectious, and she’s not shy about spreading it.
We talk a little more about Top Chef and how it has managed to outlast so many other reality competitions, maintaining both its integrity and popularity across an impressive 16 seasons. Her dream is that in the future the show heads to India, which hasn’t happened yet because the production logistics are untenable. Even still, she finds herself constantly invigorated by the show. “I’m genuinely curious about food, so I love it.”
We finish up, and she gathers herself and reunites with her team accompanying her during her time in Austin. “Alright!’ she says with the energy of a kid whose parents are finally making good on a promise to take them to the playground. “Tacos?”