For Padma Lakshmi, It's Not Just About the Food

The sophomore season of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi promises to go deeper.

<p>Dominic Valente/Hulu</p>

Dominic Valente/Hulu

Padma Lakshmi considers her docuseries Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi to be a "small show" — at least in comparison to her other hit show, Bravo's Top Chef, which has amassed a whopping 42 Emmy nominations. Without the flashy editing that comes with a reality competition show, the faraway exotic locales, and the promise of a grand prize, Hulu's Taste the Nation — which sees host Lakshmi crisscrossing America to showcase regional cuisine and highlight the immigrant experience — goes beyond the food and into the stories behind it. It's not a bait-and-switch scheme, per se, but Laskhmi hopes that viewers realize that the show is more than just sweeping pans of food porn. Instead, she insists it's about so much more.

"The food is just a Trojan horse. It's just a way in. We have a lot of delicious, beautiful food on the show, but that's just an excuse to talk about deeper, not pressing, but just deeper things, just really profound stuff that affects us all," Lakshmi explains about the show, which drops its second season on May 5. "And I'm very lucky that all these participants on our show will open up to me and take me into their lives and tell me some really important stuff that happened to them that's joyous, but also painful."

<p>Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu</p>

Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

That pain — and perseverance, as any immigrant would add — is clear in episodes where Lakshmi cooks alongside Cambodian families in Massachusetts, mixes up halo-halo with Filipino entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, or celebrates with the boisterous and proud Nigerian community in Houston. Sure, it's a way to show the various kinds of food that these groups brought to America (Lakshmi even goes to a drive-thru Jollibee in one episode), but she notes that the experiences that she shows, the hardships that these people have endured, are woven into the recipes and traditions in a way that not may people realize.

"I think that's important for people to see how much work goes into this food, especially when you're in another country that's far, far away from where the cuisine comes from," Lakshmi says, emphasizing that the food on Taste the Nation isn't necessarily authentic, but it's quintessentially American, thanks to the changes that had to be made when immigrants arrived here and found themselves struggling to get their hands on the ingredients they knew. Instead, they adapted. "This isn't like the most authentic Chinese recipe from Shanghai. It is a third thing. It is what immigrants who are mostly working class, mostly have full-time jobs, both parents, who are trying to make with the ingredients that are available."

<p>Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu</p>

Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Related:How Padma Lakshmi's Immigrant Experience Inspired Her New Show, 'Taste the Nation'

And while it may seem fair to assume that Lakshmi has seen — and eaten — it all between hosting the first season of Taste the Nation, being on 20 seasons of Top Chef, and traveling the world as a model before she even tiptoed into the culinary world, there were still new experiences to be had. For the first time, she prepared and ate Nigerian fufu, which has a unique methodology to enjoy. Namely, it's swallowed whole, without chewing.

"There's a lot of food, obviously. I've been a food professional and a food writer for 20 years, so there's a lot that I do know. Also from traveling before as a model. But I have never had fufu before," she explains. "And I see myself as the audience's representative on the show. The food would not be featured in Taste the Nation if I didn't think it was good to feature, but I wanted to have the authentic experience. Our show is so real and so raw. I had never had egusi stew before. I had never had fufu before. I learned how to make it from scratch."

Real and raw? She emphasizes that Taste the Nation is a passion project, where she’s fine to change clothes in her car, have a skeleton crew, and do the grunt work that comes with hosting and handling off-camera duties.

"Taste the Nation is such a small show. It's the little engine that could, because we're traveling around in three SUVs and vans," she says. "That is my dressing room. I'm changing often in my car. Luckily I know how to do that through modeling."

<p>John Angelillo/Hulu</p>

John Angelillo/Hulu

And because it's her pride and joy, she wants to show that same sentiment with the places she highlights. She explains that she and her crew scout locations, but that she also gets suggestions (of course) via DM — and she's not mad about it.

"I love going to ethnic food markets too. Going through that supermarket in Houston was such a revelation for me, and I like highlighting mom-and-pop businesses," she says. "I do get a lot of suggestions on my social media about you should go here, you should go there. And sometimes, they even suggested places like Dearborn to be with the Arabs, where we were actually with them during Ramadan this year."

That connection with her audience, which goes hand-in-hand with the food, means that she's being approached in unexpected places and being embraced by fans and viewers that can't wait to share their own recommendations, stories, and the emotions and memories they have attached to meals.

"Some of the most compelling feedback I have gotten, which is so moving and meaningful, are from average people, like this guy who I see all the time at the gym. He came up to me and he is like, 'I just want to tell you, I watch your show. And immediately I called my grandma and I watched it on the phone with her, because I'm Persian and we never see our community on TV or we always get confused with Arabs,'" Lakshmi explains. "Obviously they're not Arabs. The Persian culture's an ancient, totally different culture. And he was like, 'Thank you for that. Thank you so much.'"

That deep meaning isn't reserved just for viewers. Lakshmi explains that throughout filming, she's also found herself getting emotional. Being with people who have shared a similar experience as her and gone through the unique circumstance that comes with being the child of immigrants and growing up balancing identity and assimilation, brought up feelings she wasn't expecting.

"The Cambodian episode is one that was really tough, because there's this mother and daughter, Sanori and Sany, and I go to their house and the mother barely speaks English and she doesn't even know if she wants to talk to me," Lakshmi says of approaching each interview differently. "And they're teaching me how to make this noodle soup called nom banh chok, which we make and we pack to take to the temple as an offering. And she does talk to me, very monosyllabic, very quietly. I'm getting shivers now when I think about it. It really affected me."

<p>Rebecca Brenneman/Hulu</p>

Rebecca Brenneman/Hulu

She takes a moment, because when it comes to food, it's not always about celebration. Cuisine and tradition are just as equal a part of mourning as festivity for many cultures around the world and, in turn, in America today.

"We went to the temple and my grandmother had passed away literally a week before we started production. And I flew to India for three days, which is crazy, just to be with my grandmother. And I got to see her. She basically raised me, taught me how to cook," Lakshmi shares. "I came back, and within a week I was on a plane. It was good that I had all this stuff to keep me busy, but when we went to that temple with that food and I heard the Buddhist chanting, it was the first time that I had heard chanting in Sanskrit since my own grandmother died. And I just burst out in tears."

It's that second layer that Lakshmi hopes to dive into with the new episodes, which include stops in Appalachia, Puerto Rico, and various boroughs of New York City. Each location offers recipes, but also a chance for reflection.

"I talked to Cambodian refugees who've lost children along the way in the jungle who've died of starvation as they're escaping the Khmer Rouge. I have talked to Nigerian American women who say, 'I don't know why I have to deal with all this baggage because I didn't even know I was Black until I got to this country. I'm Nigerian. I'm Nigerian American. Don't put all that stuff on me,'" Lakshmi says. "So, it's a testament to my producers who helped me find these stories, but also to the actual people on our show that they're willing to open up in such a personal, raw, and vulnerable way."

<p>Dominic Valente/Hulu</p>

Dominic Valente/Hulu

Related:Padma Lakshmi Talks About the Weirdest Things She's Ever Eaten

But Padma's not just making headlines for her shows. Along with the return of Taste the Nation, she's also managing to find her way back into the fashion conversation now that a new generation of fashion devotes are discovering her red carpet style. The slip dresses, sheer gowns, and quintessential '90s styles that she wore are back — and she's just as surprised as anyone else to hear it.

"I remember to the New York Film Festival, I wore this very sheer Ghost dress, and I think New York magazine or maybe New York Times, wrote a thing about it. But oh my God, everybody was looking," she says, laughing at the memory of making headlines with something as commonplace now as a sheer dress. "I didn't feel it was such a big deal. Kate Moss also wore that sheer black dress somewhere with just some little undies. And now, of course, it's back. So, there you go."

They say what comes around goes around, especially in the world of trends and fashion, but Lakshmi brushes that adage off, sticking to what she loves and has always loved.

"I haven't changed my style in the way I dress. Obviously, I like to be current and refresh my wardrobe, but I dress the same way I always have when I was in the '90s in my 20s as a model," she says. "I have so many slip dresses. I love a good slip dress."

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