For Padma Lakshmi, connecting with people is the key ingredient to her series
In its first season, Hulu’s “Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi” set itself apart from other food travel shows by exploring immigrant cuisines throughout the U.S. Before that, Lakshmi could “count on one hand” the times she’d interviewed people in any serious way. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I just took a leap of faith that people would be willing to talk to me.” She counted on her quick wit and natural curiosity, but most essentially that she’d moved here from Madras, India, at the age of 4. The juggling act of public assimilation and a home made of entirely different food and traditions is in her bones. “I tried to approach [people] with my heart in my hands,” she says.
On Emmy nomination day, Lakshmi found herself in three categories: as executive producer and host of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” which she has appeared on for the last 17 years — and recently announced that she’d be leaving— and for the second season of her dream show, “Taste the Nation,” both cooking shows, which, according to SAG-AFTRA, are not part of the AMPTP agreement. “Luckily, I’m allowed to talk to you,” says Lakshmi in regard to the actors’ strike. “But I’m in complete agreement with both unions.”
Would you agree that this season you’re even better at connecting with your subjects?
I hope what you see is a person coming into her own and a bit more confident. Those on-camera interviews separate us from the other food travel shows — and there’s a lot of them. But there’s so many skills I’ve had to learn and continue learning in creating this show.
Color correction. Food can look really weird — even if you’re shooting it in a way that’s completely authentic and in natural light. Even things that are cooked beautifully can look odd [on camera].
The longtime star of Bravo’s cooking competition explains what spurred her sudden exit, who she’d like to host next and the worst dishes of her run.
How about having to disarm that cranky Greek sponge diver who definitely didn’t want you on his boat?
I have men in my family who are like him. It wasn’t an easy day. Certain participants, older ones, can make it difficult. It took a bit of wine, a lot of charm and patience. It was also so hot. That boat wasn’t that big. What you don’t see on camera are my sound guy, camera guy and director, squeezing on the other side of the boat to give as much of a panoramic feel as we can.
Are your hilarious eyebrow-raising looks directly into camera unrehearsed?
It wasn’t premeditated. In truth, [those camera asides] happened more in the first season. We’re a very small crew. My cameraman, who’s also my director of photography, we have a great shorthand. You don’t want to stop to give your camera guy direction. So I’d often look at him be like, “Can you believe this s—?”
‘Top Chef’ host Padma Lakshmi immerses herself in immigrant and ethnic foods — and communities — for ‘Taste the Nation’
Do you think your commentary has gotten spicier?
I try to be as gracious as I can. I never want to offend. I’m a guest in their home.
You made a joke about stuffing a lamb carcass that surprised me.
[laughs] I’m pretty saucy. I have a potty mouth. I’m also trying to be as real as I can. I think the person across from me can feel that. I’ve asked them to give me their time. I want to tell their story. I don’t have a joke waiting. I didn’t know I was going to put my arm all the way up [a lamb] to my elbow.
Bravo Padma is more commanding than huggable Hulu Padma. Is that deliberate?
I’m the host of both shows but my roles are very different. Maybe I’m an imposing figure [on “Top Chef”] or started out that way because that’s how they wanted me to be. But I’ve found a way to break through the confines of my role and make sure I approach it with as much empathy as I can. I know how hard it is to compete on “Top Chef.” I’m there with them every single day.
There’s so many times where all I wanted to do is run out from behind the judge’s table, hug them, and say, “I know. I’m sorry. I know you wanted to do better.” But I can’t. It’s a competition show. On “Top Chef” they’re in our house. On “Taste the Nation” it’s totally different: I’m in their house.
In June you announced on Instagram that you’d left “Top Chef” after 19 seasons. Why that way?
I didn’t want it to leak. I made a few calls. But I didn’t call everybody. It was a gut-wrenching, hard, complex decision. I called Gail [Simmons] and my director. When I talked to my executive producer, she and I both cried. I still feel really raw about it. I haven’t finished processing yet. I just felt it was time to leave — and I wanted to leave on a high note. And I think I did that.
‘Top Chef’ winner Kristen Kish is replacing outgoing host Padma Lakshmi on the Bravo culinary competition series when it launches in Wisconsin for Season 21.
Did you reach out to your replacement, Kristen Kish?
She reached out to me before it was announced. She’s a good friend. We’re very close.
I’m very happy. It’s a great choice. She competed and came back from “Last Chance Kitchen” to win. She brings a perspective to the judge’s table that Tom [Colicchio], Gail and I never could. I think that’s healthy and good for the competitors. It’ll be [different]. I look forward to rooting for her and the show.
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