Padma Lakshmi says ‘Top Chef’ needs more chefs of color, but ‘we need to start before that’

Padma Lakshmi acknowledges that, like most TV shows, Top Chef needs to a better job when it comes to diversity.

“It’s something that everybody is struggling with and we’ve been struggling with it,” the cooking competition executive producer, host and judge tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I think we’ve done better in the last several years. It’s something that I talk about, as you can imagine, with my producers every year.”

Lakshmi notes that she can’t have direct input on who joins the cast, since she’s going to judge them later.

“But that’s not an excuse,” says Lakshmi, who’s Indian-American. “It doesn’t stop me from saying, ‘Hey, I really want to see more diversity. I really want to see more people of color. I really want to see more women.’”She challenges the people behind all shows to cast more people of color by setting different goals.

“We have been in rooms for so much of our lives where every face but ours is white. So why don't you have an all-black crew? Why don’t you just say, let me see how many people of color I can get here, you know?”

Lakshmi points out that it isn’t enough to simply hire “cheftestants” of various backgrounds, either. The work has to start much earlier.

“We need to encourage those communities to send their sons and daughters to culinary school,” Lakshmi says. “We need to encourage the white male chefs to make sure that they’re not just mentoring white male sous chefs, that they’re, you know, making an effort to seek out those people. And because if you don’t get the instruction, then even if we put you on the cast list at Top Chef, you won’t make it very far.”

Lakshmi also addressed a controversial moment on this season’s Top Chef: All Stars L.A. in which a white contestant from Georgia, Kevin Gillespie, talked about making the theme of his eatery on the annual “Restaurant Wars” episode focused around food “influenced by the plantation South.” It didn’t go over well on social media.

“I don’t want to excuse it, but I know Kevin, and I know that that’s not what his intention was,” Lakshmi says. “He was trying to do a restaurant that was based on going to eat at his grandmother’s house. He was just trying to explain in the moment and say whatever he could to be descriptive. He misspoke.”

Gillespie and his knives were ultimately sent packing, though he returned on a later episode through the losers’ bracket, called “Last Chance Kitchen.” He was eliminated a second time on last week’s penultimate episode. When the finale airs Thursday, June 18, the audience will see Melissa King, Stephanie Cmar and Bryan Voltaggio competing to win the crown.

The Top Chef finale airs the same day Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, debuts on Hulu. That reality series spotlights different cultures and foods around the country. It’s definitely timely, arriving amid nationwide calls for more inclusiveness and an end to racial inequality.

Video Transcript

PADMA LAKSHMI: We have been in rooms for so much of our lives, where every face but ours, is white. So why don't you have an all black crew? Why don't you just say, let me see how many people of color I can get here?

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I think that this is a moment, a convulsion in our society that was very necessary. We've done better in the last several years. It's something that I talk about, as you can imagine, with my producers. Because I'm one of the judges, I cannot have a direct input into the casting. But that's not an excuse. It doesn't stop me from saying, hey, I really want to see more diversity, I really want to see more people of color. I really want to see more women.

As a brown woman in food, this is something I'm really aware of. It is such a white, male-dominated world, the world of professional chefs and restauranthood. But we need to start before that. We need to encourage those communities to send their sons and daughters to culinary school. We need to encourage the white male chefs to make sure that they're not just mentoring white male sous chefs.

Because if you don't get the instruction, then even if we put you on the cast list at "Top Chef," you won't make it very far. So what matters is really having programs and looking at the system and having structural change. I would love to see African-American food taught. And the literature exists. We just have to exert some effort to find it and put it in place. Concrete action, not just a statement of philosophy.

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KEVIN GILLESPIE: Country Captain is a restaurant that represents a style of southern cuisine that's rarely shown outside of people's homes. I'm going to serve a family-style meal influenced by the plantation South.

PADMA LAKSHMI: I don't want to excuse it, but I know Kevin, and I know that that's not what his intention was. He was trying to do a restaurant that was based on going to eat at his grandmother's house. And he was just trying to explain in the moment and saying whatever he could to be descriptive. He misspoke. I don't think it was his actual intention to do plantation food. Because also, what is plantation food?

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One of the ways I would like to see healing, is by breaking bread with people you don't normally share a table with. White chefs would do well to go work in a black community. When you go, when you work in a black community and you learn about their food and you learn about their food ways, the experience of being an outsider is very, very educational. It's very useful. Everyone should try it.

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