Given the subject of your new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, are you a fan of using herbs and spices in your drinks? “I’m not a big mixed drinks person, but I do love using herbs especially and some spices in drinks. I think it’s a nice way to bring flavor without obscuring the rest of the liquid ingredients.”
Are there particular recipes that work best with them? “Sure. I would use lemon verbena in a Gin & Tonic or a Gin & Club Soda. Fresh lemon verbena is beautiful and it adds some depth to your drinks. It pairs well with the juniper in the gin.”
Are garnishes meant to be eaten? “I think if you can’t eat it, it shouldn’t be there. In my food or drink, I don’t like superfluous garnishes.”
Since you aren’t big on cocktails, what do you prefer to drink? “I prefer wine and Champagne. I just don’t like sweet drinks. I’m fine to put some club soda with something. I just had a really beautiful drink at a new restaurant called Untitled. It’s attached to the Whitney Museum here in New York City. The chef there is Michael Anthony. I had a nice drink [there] last night with grapefruit juice, club soda, tequila and Aperol that was delicious.”
What spirits do you keep in your home liquor cabinet? “I have a little bar cart from the ’70s in brass and glass that I just keep in the corner of my living room with some glasses. We have lots of tequilas. We have vodka, but we keep it in the freezer. My girlfriend is Alice Temperley, the designer. She grew up on a cider farm in Somerset, England. It’s an old-fashioned, beautiful hard-cider farm. They make something called Pomona and they make a lot of apple brandy. So I love to make drinks with a splash of Pomona. And I also keep everything from Chartreuse to tequila. I keep gin. I keep a couple of single malts and just regular Scotch. I have a little bit of everything for my guests. But you won’t see me saying, ‘Oh, it’s five o’clock let’s make a drink.’ That’s not me.”
Do you stock quite a bit of Champagne, since you like bubbly? “Yes, I think every house should have a couple of good bottles of Champagne stashed away in the back of the fridge for special occasions or an impromptu celebration of some kind.”
Is there a type of spirit that you don’t enjoy drinking? “I don’t like the Amaro Averna or that class of spirit. I’m happy to have a Campari & Soda once in a while in summer. But I don’t like all of those kinds of bitters. They’re too strong for me. They’re too intensely flavored. But I just genuinely like Champagne. And I love wine, too. I’ve been lucky enough to have some beautiful wines in my time.”
Is there anything on your home-bar wish list? “Georg Jensen has a really beautiful cocktail shaker that I love. I think I’m going to get it soon. I’ve been lusting after it and I think I’m going to just bite the bullet and get it.”
Some episodes of Top Chef are pretty intense. Do you ever have a drink before filming? “Usually I don’t drink before I go to film. I drink a lot less on Top Chef than it looks like I’m drinking because I don’t have a head for alcohol. So I try to be really careful about that.”
Do the judges ever go out after a long day of shooting? “Yeah, we do sometimes. Especially if there is a guest judge that we’re all friendly with. We’ve done that a few times. We’re usually celebrating together on the show in a way. We do have drinks. For the first five seasons of my Top Chef [career], I was making the drinks on the show. In fact, my little dressing room even had a bar at one point. I make a really good Gin & Tonic. So I used to make Tom [Colicchio] Gin & Tonics. I don’t make them anymore.”
Do you use a jigger to measure out ingredients when you make a drink? “I don’t measure anything. I just eyeball it!”
Padma Lakshmi’s new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, was just published. She returns to host another season of Top Chef this December.
Interview has been condensed and edited.