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The art of entertaining is about making people feel welcome, and the world could use that during the holidays.
For more than 20 years, Padma Lakshmi has graced television screens around the world, carving out a niche for herself among the top names in food media. As host of Top Chef, she became a much-loved pop culture fixture. Audiences got to know Lakshmi for her amiable demeanor and distinguished palate, but there’s much more to the woman behind the screen.
The world was introduced to Lakshmi’s talents through television clips of her sampling dishes and analyzing flavors, but as her career developed, she pursued her interest in learning more about the people behind the food. She produced and hosted Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi, a show that allowed her to travel around the country to meet people centered in American culinary traditions who are influenced by the cultures that settled here. She wrote cookbooks and a memoir that shared stories both joyful and painful. As she expanded her portfolio of work, we learned more about her as a person, and her desire to use food to connect with other people.
But for someone with a professional portfolio spanning so many mediums, there’s one aspect that stands out that’s harder to put into words — her affinity as an entertainer. Not the 'song and dance' type, rather someone who understands the importance, and nuance, of hosting.
First and foremost, Lakshmi doesn’t consider herself a chef, saying she is “strictly a home cook,” albeit one who “has the ability to decipher the taste of things.” While there’s no argument that she has great taste and knows plenty about food, she uses it to make people feel appreciated.
“I like to entertain because I like to cook, number one,” Lakshmi says. “And to me, the act of cooking is an act of nurturing.”
Her focus on making the people around her feel welcome and comfortable is constant. It’s a feeling she equates to the motivation of a painter or musician; creating and ‘nurturing’ an emotional moment among others.
“Just like artists paint for that moment when others look at their art and are moved; it’s the same reason why musicians make music, so that other people will tap their feet or get up and dance or feel some emotion. I mean, I feel the same way about cooking,” Lakshmi explains. “It is for me a creative labor of love for other people. And I live for that moment when someone sits down to eat my food and that moment when they go, ‘Mmm.’ That first or second bite where they make a noise, they close their mouth, their shoulders relax. That's why I cook, and that's why I love to entertain.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — her public-facing career, Lakshmi prefers to host at home rather than in restaurants. “There's a lot of attention directed at my table when I'm out at a restaurant — some noticeable, some not,” Lakshmi shares. “And it's increasingly difficult to have a private moment or a genuine moment.” At home, she’s able to unwind and focus on the company of her friends and family in a way that can be difficult to do while in the public eye.
"Anytime you observe something, you are altering it, especially someone's behavior or interactions with their circle of friends and family,” Lakshmi says. “And a big, big reason that I like to entertain at home is so that I can take that out of the equation.”
Lakshmi’s apartment in Lower Manhattan is set up perfectly for hosting, with the kitchen situated at the heart of the home. It’s where she cooks with her daughter, Krishna, and where friends gather during dinner parties to sneak tastes of the meal to come while catching up. This is Lakshmi’s center stage, where she’s able to take the temperature of the room and encourage conversations among guests, making sure people feel as at ease in her home as she is. Sometimes that’s when she has a single friend over for what she calls “adult parallel play,” where no one feels the need to entertain or be entertained, but they are there to just enjoy each other’s company. But even when she’s throwing a grandiose party for more than 100 people, her goal is to be a caring host.
How she serves that intention depends on the people and environment. If it’s a big group, she may skip music so people don’t feel the need to shout over one another, while for a smaller gathering, she’ll ask guests for their favorite songs so she can create a curated playlist. She remembers guests’ favorite dishes to bring out on future occasions, she gets people involved in planning and preparation, and she even has a space in her kitchen that’s dedicated to preparation for those with dietary restrictions or specific religious beliefs.
“When I invite somebody to my house, it's because I want them in my life and I want them to feel at ease,” she explains. “It's because I want to get to know them better, and I especially want them to get to know me — the real me, the nonpublic me — a little bit better.”
Ultimately, for Lakshmi, it’s about paying attention and listening to the needs of those closest to her. Paying attention to the details that make people feel at ease and saving those notes for later “hangs,” makes her guests feel considered and important.
It’s a trait and an incredible skill that many other hosts could benefit from learning, the art of making people feel welcome. It also benefits both parties. While Lakshmi’s guests feel valued, she takes the time to soak in the presence of those around her. Life is hectic, and while no one will argue that planning a party or hosting isn’t work, the act of entertaining is meaningful. For Lakshmi, the work that goes into opening your doors to others is well worth it. “It’s about connection for me. I think when you entertain at home, you get to know a person in a different, more informal, intimate way.”
She shares that hosts should protect that connection by not losing focus in the chaos of planning an event. Just as it’s important to make sure your guests are enjoying themselves, it’s equally essential the host feels that way, too. If you're relaxed and having a good time, chances are your guests will as well. “The ambiance in a dinner party is created by the people,” Lakshmi says. “But the one thing that will either make or break the party is whether the host is frazzled or has it under control.”
Lakshmi’s final piece of advice? Just enjoy yourself and the time you have with others. “The basic principle of entertaining is to just make your guests feel really good and happy to be there.”
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