Padma Lakshmi Is Transforming How Americans Think About Food

One of the best meals Top Chef alum Padma Lakshmi has ever eaten is Kabuli pulao-an aromatic rice dish, cooked with lamb, carrots and raisins-alongside members of the Afghan American community in Washington, D.C. She spoke with them about helping evacuees arriving after the Taliban’s 2021 takeover of Kabul, as well as how to get the recipe right, for her award-winning Hulu series Taste the Nation. Lakshmi has become known for showcasing this seamless blend of food and politics for American viewers.

Taste the Nation was born out of Lakshmi’s longtime advocacy around immigrants’ rights and her experience growing up as an Indian-American. It’s not just about food. “It’s really an excuse to dig deeper into these people’s lives,” she says. It’s also a way to platform a wider variety of cuisines, while amplifying the stories of immigrant communities. “I believe very strongly that the most interesting food in American gastronomy is coming out of those ethnic neighborhoods,” she says. The show has taken her to New York’s Brighton Beach, to explore the debate over who created borscht and its ties to Ukrainian identity.In El Paso, she learned about cooking in a border town, with helicopters flying overhead.

Lakshmi has made it her mission to diversify Americans’ understanding of the country’s culinary traditions. She is also an Emmy-nominated producer, a former Top Chef host, a New York Times best-selling author, and a model-not to mention a co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, an ACLU artist ambassador for women’s and immigrants’ rights and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. But for all her accomplishments, she sees herself, first, as a writer. “I don’t think I would have had a career in food if I didn’t write about food first,” she says. She has written bestselling cookbooks, as well as a memoir. Her most recent endeavor-a Taste the Nation cookbook, which hits shelves in fall 2025-reflects the way that immigrant communities in the United States have adapted recipes from their homeland. “A lot of those recipes have gone through some sort of metamorphosis,” she says.

Lakshmi spent almost two decades hosting Top Chef. She loved being in the kitchen with contestants who were striving to be the best at their craft. But she knew it was time to leave earlier this year. “I felt I had accomplished all that I could in that role…And I wanted to grow not only as on-camera talent, but as a producer and I wanted to create my own material,” she says.

Some moments on Top Chef made her think about how food experts sometimes devalue cuisines outside Western culinary traditions. In evaluating a coconut chutney, judges complained that it tasted grainy and not smooth. “That’s how that dish is supposed to be… It’s not supposed to be emulsified. It’s not supposed to be smooth. Any native person who is familiar with that dish would find that off-putting,” she says.

“Most fine dining restaurants are firmly based on French technique, which I find incredibly valuable. I’m not saying we should throw any of that out,” she says. Her concern is with a lack of understanding that some rules apply to certain cuisines but not others: “It goes back to context: understanding where that particular dish comes from-not by comparing it to French cuisine.”

Lakshmi’s advocacy on social and political issues extend far beyond her work on-screen. Earlier this year, she joined more than 200 artists signing a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel. “War-in any situation, today in 2023, is unjustified,” she says. She also called out misogyny in health care in a speech at an September event held by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, pointing out how a 2019 clinical trial for an HIV medicine did not include cisgender women, even though they make up roughly half of the patient population.

Lakshmi’s fierce work ethic has sometimes run up against health challenges; she has suffered from endometriosis since she was a teenager but was only diagnosed at 36. The lack of awareness around the condition led her to co-found the Endometriosis Foundation of America with Dr. Tamer Seckin. “For so many decades of my life, I felt like I was weaker than other women and that I couldn’t handle basic aspects of being female,” she says. “I was also angry that I had wasted a week of every month of my life from the age of 13 to 36 due to the pain.” She canceled jobs and lost income. In 2013, her foundation started a program that has since educated more than 30,000 students in the tri-state area about endometriosis.

In the coming months, in addition to working on the Taste the Nation cookbook and her various philanthropic endeavors, Lakshmi will be focused on editing an anthology on the best American food and travel writing and producing scripted projects. When it comes to creating new recipes, Lakshmi finds inspiration in walking through the aisles of different markets and daydreaming. “I have a very sensitive sense of smell and palate…I can taste a dish and usually figure out how to replicate that flavor, even if I don’t use the exact ingredients.” Despite the exhausting schedule, Lakshmi loves what she does-and all that she does. Her brain is always buzzing. While producing for Taste the Nation, she often ends up waking up even earlier than her 5 a.m. alarm. “I’ve just got so many ideas brewing in my head,” she says.

This profile is published as a part of TIME’s TIME100 Impact Awards initiative, which recognizes leaders from across the world who are driving change in their communities.

Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.

2023 TIME USA, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

This story was originally published December 12, 2023, 5:24 PM.

source: star-telegram

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