As Padma Lakshmi enters Craft, the Century City outpost of Tom Colicchio's Manhattan-based restaurant, the waitstaff momentarily stop prepping for dinner service to stare. Her long black hair is in a ponytail and she's wearing an oversized navy blue fleece sweater, jeans and gray sneakers.
The 37-year-old host of Bravo's celebrated cooking competition "Top Chef” doesn't notice the gawking as she settles into a booth and orders a pot of hot green tea. She's grateful to be between her big projects; she shot the "Top Chef" Season 4 finale a few weeks ago and just finished a tour promoting her second book, "Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet," which doesn't coyly refer to herself, but to the flavors of Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cuisines.
The newly single Lakshmi -- she divorced novelist Salman Rushdie last summer after three years of marriage -- is using her break to tend to more business: She's still settling into the New York apartment she bought in January and on the horizon are more cookbooks, another cooking show, her own brand of bottled chutneys, perhaps a jewelry line and a memoir.
"If I don't conquer the world, that's fine," said the Indian-born former model with a few acting credits to her name, including Mariah Carey's "Glitter" and a memorable turn on "Star Trek: Enterprise." "I want to teach people about things and places and foods they don't necessarily know. I think in America it's very important to sample and taste what the rest of the world is about. Maybe it comes from being an immigrant child and wanting others to understand me."
Lakshmi spent her early childhood years in India but came to the United States as an adolescent. Once here, she found herself in the culinary melting pot of New York where she developed a passion for global cuisines. Her travels as a young model took her around the world, but no matter where she landed she always tried replicating the flavors of home: her mother's Indian food, the Filipino noodles of her neighbors, the dishes of Spanish Harlem and Chinatown.
The constant experimentation in the kitchen resulted in her first cookbook, "Easy Exotic," in 1999, which, in turn, led to a hosting job for "Planet Food," a documentary series exploring the culture and cuisine of different countries. Her own show, "Padma's Passport," followed.
Type her name into the Food Network's website search engine today and dozens of her recipes pop up. There's one for mi goreng, an Indonesian fried noodle dish; another for her version of keema, an Indian spiced ground veal and beef dish; and all of it more far-reaching and, well, challenging, than anything attempted by the current stable of Food Network stars.
Despite her bountiful and broad-based food experience, she still struggles with being taken at face value.
"It's the curse of being beautiful," said Colicchio, "Top Chef's" head judge, "but she really does know a lot."
Colicchio said her expertise became instantly apparent when they met. "We had dinner before shooting began on 'Top Chef,' and it was clear she knew what she was eating and how to talk about it. When we're judging, I want someone to challenge me, and she's very articulate, so we can spar."
"Top Chef" has never been hotter. The series is up 28% in adults 18 to 49 versus last season and averaging almost 3 million total viewers (more than most episodes of "Gossip Girl"), making it cable's No. 1 food show.
"Never did I think it would become this big, huge thing, but I'm very proud to be a part of it," said Lakshmi. "It's like this big little show -- people have either never heard of it, or they're obsessed."
Lakshmi speaks in the same languid way she does on "Top Chef." Yes, the acting bug is still there and she's got a couple of scripts she'll get to but probably won't have time for, and the jewelry she's designing with a friend is coming. (She's wearing a potential piece now, a copy of a gold Indian necklace she owned and updated.)
"The jewelry will get done, you know, sometime," she said. "This isn't exactly your Heidi Klum kind of interview is it?"
But she gets visibly excited when talking about making laksa, a hot and sour soup popular in Southeast Asia; her upcoming line of chutneys; or anything concerning food.
"My greatest pleasure is to put a plate before you and watch you," said Lakshmi. "But you know it's true! I long to hear you say, 'Mmmmm.' "
It's Lakshmi who gets to do the eating on "Top Chef," which kicked off its fourth season in Chicago with a deep dish pizza-making challenge. "That was a low point," she admitted. She and guest judge Rocco DiSpirito "couldn't move after that one."
She stays a healthy weight during the show but says sampling dozens of dishes every other day puts on an average of 12 to 15 pounds a season. Her wardrobe, therefore, comes in two sizes.
A chaotic kitchen
Lakshmi originally took the hosting job to promote her then in-progress book "Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet" -- she replaced the first season's Katie Lee Joel, wife of Billy -- and is pleasantly surprised how the series has caught on with viewers and within the culinary world. Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Boulud are just a few among an impressive lineup of the show's guest judges.
In the meantime, she's developing a cooking and entertaining show with Chris Albrecht, IMG's president of global media (and former chairman and chief executive of HBO), to help get her back in the kitchen. Here's how it's loosely described: A group of fun, eclectic people come over to her house for a dinner party; we watch her prep, get ready and cook; guests arrive and eat; maybe someone plays music.
In other words, it should feel like her own kitchen.
"I am really the anti-Martha Stewart," she said. "In my kitchen, things are chaotic, people talk over each other, neighbors drop in when they're not invited and friends stay way later than they should. I would call myself the imperfect hostess."
"I don't think people have tasted the full flavor of Padma's personality on 'Top Chef,' " Albrecht says. "There's definitely a much more fun-loving person than the bits you see."
Lakshmi knows her approach is a little more bohemian than her contemporaries, but she doesn't care.
"It can be on at 1 a.m., but I would like to do the show I want to do." And she's determined to try, if only to serve audiences who aren't simply interested in slamming out quick and easy meals.
"People want individuality and something that's authentic and soulful," she said. "I'd like to do a show where I'm cooking a stew for friends and while it's bubbling I go, 'Hey, let's listen to this amazing boot- leg concert of Led Zeppelin from 1968.' Or I would read you poetry while the souffle is cooking."