Padma Lakshmi, Now in Her 20th Season of Top Chef , Hates Your Butter Board
From the ingredients they share to the rich cultures they reflect, the worlds of beauty and food — and the people who merge them — are in constant conversation. Welcome to Well Fed, a column that celebrates how we nourish our bodies, from face to plate.
Padma Lakshmi and I are neighbors. We hit the same Manhattan spice shop to stock our pantries. (Those chic tasting spoons in all her cooking TikToks? That's where she gets ‘em.) We're both known to take laps around Tompkins Square Park (she with her daughter, and I with a pork roll, egg, and cheese on rye). We've been haunted by the squalid bathtubs of East Village apartments past and we share these grim memories at the neighborhood's most treasured Italian spot, Il Posto Accanto, where we're meeting for lunch. The restaurant, where Lakshmi, 52, has been a regular for decades, reminds me of the woman herself: a food industry institution, more casual than you’d expect, and New York to the bone.
"I'm a spiritual New Yorker," the author and longtime host of Bravo's Top Chef explains, as we dip into our basket of focaccia. "This is the first place I came to from India when I was four. I've certainly lived in other places: London, Los Angeles, and I spent my 20s in Italy. But New York feels like home." The city declares its mutual adoration for her again and again: She made the New York Times’s best-seller list for both her 2016 memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate and her 2021 children’s book Tomatoes for Neela. And you may have recently spotted her, Where's Waldoo-style, on the cover of New York magazine's 18th annual "Reasons to Love New York" issue, rocking sunglasses and looking low-key-cool as ever amongst fellow unofficial Big Apple ambassadors like Julia Fox, Chuck Schumer, and Spike Lee.
Lakshmi is finally back in town after spending most of 2022 on the road. Two of those months were spent filming the 20th season of Top Chef, for which she is also an executive producer. The show, which has been nominated for 42 Emmys during its two decades on-air, brought this season's contestants — composed of winners and finalists from seasons past —to London to battle for the top prize.
"It was fantastic. I used to live in London and I loved being back. In fact, I moved back into my old neighborhood after a couple of weeks," she says. "This season did feel a lot different. Not only because we were overseas, but we had All-Star contestants from all over the world that really internationalized the collective cooking across the season."
Diversifying what viewers and readers consume — both physically and culturally — is something Lakshmi is known for. On a smaller scale, that means teaching accessible and satisfying recipes from her multiple cookbooks and travels through Instagram Reels, often filmed by her daughter in her kitchen. Her humanitarian impact, though, is a grander example: Lakshmi is an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Artist Ambassador for immigrants' rights and women's rights and was appointed a Goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And as creator, executive producer, and host of Hulu's Taste the Nation, she brings the food cultures and rich histories of immigrant groups across America into our homes.
"It's my baby," she says of the docuseries, which returns on May 5 with the rest of season two's new episodes. "It's why you create a show yourself. I think I, and a lot of people, have been thinking about these issues for a long time," she says of the relationship between food, American identity, and the diasporas that make this nation what it is. “But now it's just in the zeitgeist because of Trump's anti-immigrant pestiferousness. And [the show] is a way for me to get on my soapbox less overtly, trying to show rather than tell. And I don't think I would've gotten the opportunity to make it 10 years ago."
If Taste the Nation is Lakshmi's televised passion project, her TikTok feels like a casual group chat where she shares behind-the-scenes footage during filming, recipe tests for her forthcoming cookbook, and hot takes about food trends like butter boards. ("Who the fuck wants to eat pure butter? Why do you want to drag a cracker through butter?… It's meant for bread. That is a trend that I'm not sorry to see go," she tells me over our twin rigatoni Amatricianas.) But she's also found another benefit to reaching younger generations through social media: spreading endometriosis awareness. Lakshmi herself suffers from the reproductive disease and is now a cofounder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA), a nonprofit dedicated to education, advocacy, and funding for the often-misdiagnosed condition.
"It's been hugely important, most of all for young [people] who are starting out in their careers, or college, or [relationships.]," she says of the awareness social apps can facilitate. "I cofounded the EFA because this is a serious medical condition that is [a] leading cause of infertility in women. It's much beyond wellness. It can really stymie your ability to live a normal life in a million ways that don't even have to do with your biology," she explains. She adds that though she eventually got the help she needed, the struggle for a diagnosis and medical support is something she wants to help ease for generations to come.
"Many people don't even know they have it. When I got the treatment that I needed, it's not that I was pain-free, but at least I knew what it was," she says. "It was a game-changer, so I just didn't want the next generation to go through what I did. It's hard enough paying your rent, pursuing a career you actually want, keeping it all together, finding somebody you're compatible with, and being an adult if you're bedridden with pain."
With a work and travel schedule as jam-packed as Lakshmi's, a wellness routine is a necessity, and in her case, sometimes that involves hitting things. "I've boxed for 20 years. The poet Mary Karr introduced me to it," she says, and the 22-year-old English major inside me gasps at the literary name drop. "She gave me a lesson for my 30th birthday and it was the best gift I've ever received because it's still serving me today. For me, working out serves manifold benefits. It keeps my body active, it staves off feeling stagnant or rickety. I lift weights three times a week, I skip rope, I do stairs. Boxing has given me physical confidence. And when I did Pilates, it gave me a lot of balance." These perks go well beyond fitness. "It's also the only time no one can call me or email me," she says. "I don't need makeup; it's just me and the gym and I love it. I lift weights, I listen to music, I row, I jump rope. That's my meditation. It's hugely restorative, both mentally and physically." At home, her self-care routine is a little more placid: watching TV in the bathtub with a snack.
"I have a bathtub in my bedroom — I want to stay in the bath, but I get bored in the bathroom. To me, that's the ultimate luxury." Lakshmi often adds lassi (a yogurt-based drink) or milk to her bathwater and makes her own bath oils and salts, swapping out different materials and scents, depending on the season, like geranium, neroli, and black pepper. Much of her skin care is homegrown, too.
"Whether it's mixing spices or mixing essential oils to get what I need, to me, it's a very sensual experience."
"I make my own honey. Well, I don't make it. My bees make it." A bee farm! As much as I've wanted to believe Padma Lakshmi and I are living parallel lives downtown, this is where the illusion crumbles. She clarifies: She has a beehive on her terrace. I picture a miniature Eden protruding from a high-rise, massive hunks of honeycomb oozing its golden bounty onto the sidewalk below. "It's totally contained," she assures me. "It looks like two very boring filing cabinets that we've painted bright yellow just in case anyone's in doubt: Don't go near that. So we've got tons of honey."
All that good stuff obviously ends up in her meals, but it's also a staple in her medicine cabinet, especially after constant travel. "I use it on my face to kind of suck out all the impurities from my pores. You wash and dry your face and then you just slather the honey on and rub it into your face, avoiding your eye area," she explains. "And then once you get it on, you just play piano." She flutters all 10 fingers on her cheeks like a pianist on a keyboard. "Just tap it. It's an antiseptic." If I’m taking beauty advice from anyone so firmly planted in the culinary scene, it's Lakshmi. She partially credits her radiant complexion to the tea tree oil she keeps in her purse, Fresh face masks, and regular facials with esthetician Christine Chin. As for her objectively enviable signature waves, that's more of a team effort.
"I can't do hair worth shit," she says. "My only styling technique is to put my hair in a bun in a tight elastic so it gets kind of wavy, and that's it." While filming, she gets a blowout as often as every other day and likes to air-dry her strands and use hair masks to strengthen them when her schedule loosens. "When I was a little girl, we used to take raw egg and beat it and put that in our hair for protein. Now I'm using K18 or Olaplex, but it's the same principle.” Her history with makeup, though, runs deeper.
“I'm super beauty-focused. I think if I didn't do what I do, I'd probably be a makeup artist,” she says. "I was doing makeup at seven years old; I used to do my aunt's." Beauty was a family affair: She remembers her grandmother hand-making their kajal, a traditional kohl liner. "I always wore eyeliner, for as long as I can remember. I remember wearing it when I was four. All [South] Indian girls do, and boys wear it too."
Lakshmi also recalls doing her own glam backstage out of necessity while modeling in the '90s. "A lot of people still could not do makeup on my skin [tone], so I learned how to do my own and how to mix my own [shades], and I'm really good with my makeup for that reason." In 2018, Lakshmi released a capsule collection with MAC Cosmetics — "I still use it! I love it!" — inspired by her Indian heritage, including dual-ended eyeliner pencils, eyeshadow quads, and six lipsticks, packaged in golden cases that mimic the Turkish plates in her kitchen. Finding common inspiration through food and makeup is something Lakshmi finds entirely natural.
"I am that sensorial person. Mixing colors is like cooking. It's like making my perfume. It's like making my bath oil. Whether it's mixing spices or mixing essential oils to get what I need, to me, it's a very sensual experience."
Looking at Lakshmi's diverse career, it's not surprising that following her senses has led to so many passion projects. "I've never been on a very specific track," she says when I ask what might be next after her yet-to-be-named cookbook, which will be a collection of recipes and travelogues from her recent trips. "I've just always tried to push against the open door."
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Originally Appeared on Allure