“The most exciting food in America is actually immigrant food—and every food in America is immigrant food unless you're eating corn or beans,” says Padma Lakshmi. She should know. An industry icon, the former Top Chef host and award-winning cookbook author has long pushed her fans and followers to broaden their palates and knowledge of what appears on their plates.
Now, with Taste of the Nation, her new Hulu series debuting June 18, she takes that quest to an even deeper place, traversing the country to tell the stories of distinctive cuisines and the people behind them. We spoke to Lakshmi about the show, her go-to comfort food, and what it will take to banish systemic racism from restaurant kitchens and beyond.
What’s your family’s story of immigration?
My mom was escaping an abusive marriage in India; she had a nursing degree, which was in high demand, so she came over on a professional visa and later became the head nurse of radiation therapy at Sloan Kettering. She came to the U.S. ahead of me and left me with my grandparents from age two to four. I was separated from her in the most gentle, loving way possible. But it was still incredibly traumatic.
There's nothing different about the value of my and my mother's lives versus the people who are on the border now in this inhumane limbo. It is a huge stain on our national karma. If you put your child on a boat, it's because the land you are standing on is more dangerous. Nobody picks leaving everything behind if they have opportunity and freedom from violence.
The first episode of your show is all about the food of Iran. Why do you think some ethnicities’ foods catch on in America while others don’t go as mainstream?
There are so many layers of misconceptions, wrongly thinking Iran is tied to 9/11, that it's no wonder why the food hasn't really been discovered and celebrated by non-Persians. There's a taboo about it. There's a bigger issue at stake than just, Will I like this kebab?
Do you see systemic racism at work in the food industry?
The professional food world is so white-male-dominated. This is obviously the case because of racism, and it needs to change. Inner-city kids are not encouraged to aspire to be chefs. Culinary programs don’t do outreach in these communities, and culinary school is expensive. They don’t often teach African American food in those schools anyway, so the kids don’t have anything to relate to.
We need those big successful white chefs to take young black men and women under their wings and give them the opportunity to get the high-caliber experience and tutelage they deserve so they can compete on a level playing field. It’s extraordinary what Black chefs have been able to do in spite of this—I think of Gregory [Gourdet] and Eric [Adjepong] from the current season of Top Chef. I find these men heroic because they've had it exponentially harder than their white peers in their careers, and yet they shine. We need their voices. We need their deliciousness.
Speaking of deliciousness, you eat a ton for your job. What’s your go-to when you’re not filming?
I eat really simply. I come home and all I want is lentil kitchari with basmati rice and maybe some sautéed vegetables.
Is that your comfort food?
Everything that can be eaten out of a bowl is really my comfort food. Chile verde, which also happens to be my daughter's favorite dish. Oh, and super-spicy vegetarian ramen— our Christmas supper was ramen this year, with noodles from Sun Noodle in Hawaii and three cauldrons of broth going. Mashed potatoes has to be on there, just a big vat of mashed potatoes with hot sauce. I'm of the Joel Robuchon school of mashed potato making, where it’s just a ton of butter and milk. I also like a nice, juicy, thick slab of lasagna.
What about when you travel? Is there a go-to order that works at a diner or room service or somewhere you don’t think the food will be stellar?
When I was in Dubai filming this horrible movie years ago, I didn't want to eat club sandwiches or hamburgers from the hotel every night. My order is always an egg white omelet with a little bit of cheese and a salad with oil and vinegar on the side.
You’re a gay icon, up there with Cher and Madonna. Why do you think that is?
I think because I've always felt like an outsider as an immigrant. As a very tall, gawky, brown girl, I’m most comfortable with the misfits—of course now the misfits are hopefully going to rule the world! I do think everyone's a little gay. Just let yourself live a little and stop being so judgy. I would say I'm probably a heterosexual woman, with a little bit of a lesbian tendency if Stephanie Seymour walked through my door. This makes me think of how recently I got tickets to see my friend RuPaul perform and I planned to take a gay friend. My boyfriend thought he was coming with me, but I was like, Sorry, you’re not gay enough.
Was he disappointed?
I felt like saying to him, Look, I'm the one who told you to take someone else to the Bruce Springsteen concert.
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