Since we first had Padma Lakshmi on The Sporkful in 2016, a lot has changed — in the world, and for her. She’s become a vocal activist, speaking out on immigration and women’s rights, and sharing more of her own personal experience in the process. She created and hosts a food travel show, Taste the Nation, that looks at the immigrant experience through the lens of food. She’s also just published her first children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela, all while continuing to host Top Chef. This week Padma reflects on the rejections she faced when pitching her show, the aspect of her work that she resents the most, and how she’s finally taken more control over her own career.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Ya Gotta" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Brute Force" by Lance Conrad
- "Iced Coffee" by Josh Leininger
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Hang Tight" by Hayley Briasco
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Inez and Vinoodh.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains references to sexual assault.
Dan Pashman: I try to make an effort to pronounce people’s names correctly, seems like a small thing to ask. And so it’s my understanding, and I’m sure I’m still not going to say it correctly, so I apologize. But the more correct way to pronounce your name would be more like Padma Lakshmi.
Padma Lakshmi: That’s correct! You did a great job.
Dan Pashman: And so but before the last time I was gonna interview you, five years ago, I was like doing a focus group with my non-South Asian friends, and being like, "Hey, I’m really excited I’m going to interview Padma Lakshmi.", and they said, "Who?".
Padma Lakshmi: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: And I said Padma Lakshmi and they said, "Oh we love her!"
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, that, you know, everything gets flattened.
Dan Pashman: Hmm.
Padma Lakshmi: But you know I’ve noticed that even Indian people will pronounce my name POD-ma or PAD-ma, versus Padma, just so they can be understood by whomever is listening to them say my name. So it doesn’t surprise me that it happened to you.
Dan Pashman: But is this something that you’ve given thought to?
Padma Lakshmi: I’ve gone through all kinds of feelings about my own name, including changing it when I was in high school because I just wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t want anyone to pause or stutter when they read my name. But today, I’m really happy with the name I have.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. The first time I interviewed Padma Lakshmi, she was already a big name — host of Top Chef, author of bestselling cookbooks. She had also just come out with a memoir, which was the first time she started to share more of herself publicly, delving deeper into her own personal story: being born in India, moving to the U.S. as a child, and working as a model and TV personality.
Dan Pashman: Well, in the last five years a lot has changed. I was eager to talk with Padma about how she has changed. Our last conversation took place right after the 2016 presidential election, but before Trump took office, and before the Me Too movement. For Padma, those events were turning points.
Padma Lakshmi: After the election, I started working with the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, around immigration and immigrant rights, as well as women's rights, because I felt that there was a real attack on immigrant communities in this country coming out of Washington.
Dan Pashman: Then in 2018, around the time of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Padma wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. She revealed publicly that she’d been sexually assaulted, as a child and later as a teenager. She wanted to lend support to other people with similar stories, and to argue against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. For her, the personal had become political.
Dan Pashman: Now, at this point, Padma still saw her activism as separate from her work in food. But those barriers were starting to come down.
Padma Lakshmi: I wanted to do something in my professional life that reflected what I did on my own time volunteering. And that's how Taste the Nation was born.
Dan Pashman: Taste the Nation is a docuseries where Padma travels the country highlighting immigrants’ contributions to American food culture over the generations. And telling the stories of the struggles and prejudice many of those immigrants faced and continue to face. The show got a glowing review in The New York Times and has been renewed for a second season. But when Padma first had the idea...
Dan Pashman: It was amazing to me to hear that you struggled to get that show made.
Padma Lakshmi: Oh, yes.
Dan Pashman: That it was rejected. You know, like I mean, which really boggles my mind because first off, you're a big star walking in the door of any of these companies that make shows. And on top of that, there are more shows, TV shows being made in America today than at any time in the past. I would think that Padma Lakshmi walks in the door and gets her show made. But that was not the case.
Padma Lakshmi: That was not at all the case, Dan. I pitched — gosh, seven different networks or streamers or cable channels. All of them said no. A couple of them even wrote me long emails. One wrote me like a 700-word email about why he was passing. He is no longer at that streamer. But um...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] What was the gist of what he said?
Padma Lakshmi: He just thought it was derivative and that we had seen it before. And, you know, I think he was — in his defense, I think he was trying to make sure I understood that he really had given it a lot of thought. But at the moment, I wasn't interested in a dissertation about all the ways that my show wasn't a good show when I know now — I have proof — that it is. You know? But I'm actually glad that those people turned me down, because I think in the end, Hulu really believed in the show and wanted to make the show in its purest form as I had pitched it to them. We've seen a lot of men traveling all over the world, we haven't seen a woman doing that. And the professional food world is dominated by men. White men, specifically, but men in general. And that was the case also on TV. Of course, you had a lot of women cooking on the Food Network and things like that, but they weren't being given these sort of big-budget travel shows. And if they were, then the tone and tenor of those shows was sort of very light and breezy and travel and lifestyle. And I just wasn't interested in doing a show like that.
Dan Pashman: As they started filming the first season in 2019, Padma was still trying to figure out the tone of the show. How political it should be, what it would really be about. Then, during early filming, President Trump tweeted that certain Democratic congresswomen should, “Go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” In other words: he was repeating the racist trope that Americans of color aren’t American.
Padma Lakshmi: And that kind of sent chills up my spine because I had heard that so often when I was being bullied or taunted at school, as well. And so I wrote an op-ed about it, like literally running into my car and trying to jot down all my ideas on my phone between shots because I was so incensed. That moment, that just made me really, really convinced that more and more this was not going to be a fuzzy at the edges show about the best banh mi. That it was going to be about more, that it had to be about more, that it had to show the emotional, private, intimate lives of the people that live among us.
Dan Pashman: In the first episode of Taste the Nation, Padma goes to El Paso right on the Mexico border. She stops in at H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop. The restaurant has the vibe of an old soda fountain and serves mostly Mexican food. Many of the people who work there live in Mexico, and cross the border into Texas to go to work each day. Padma sits down with the owner, Maynard Haddad. His parents were immigrants from Syria. One of the first things we hear out of his mouth…
CLIP (MAYNARD HADDAD): You know I’m gonna tell you about my politics. I’m conservative, and if I’m not, I’m stupid.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): You support Trump?
CLIP (MAYNARD HADDAD): He’s full of shit but I like him. Am I gonna vote for him right now? Yes. What choice do we have?
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): So you support Trump because there’s nobody better?
CLIP (MAYNARD HADDAD): That’s my opinion.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): What would you say to people who say, "I don’t like Mexicans?". You work with a ton of Mexicans.
CLIP (MAYNARD HADDAD): I mean, I grew up with ‘em. I love ‘em, and they know it.
Dan Pashman: Padma doesn’t debate Maynard Haddad, that’s not the goal of the show. She tries to paint a portrait of a community, with all its complexities. In the rest of that first season, she visits Las Vegas to learn about Thai food. New Jersey for Peruvian ceviche. She spends time with an indigenous community in Arizona. And she cooks with her own mother and talks with other Indian Americans about how they’ve passed down their traditions.
Padma Lakshmi: You know for so long I saw immigrant life portrayed by interpreters of it. And that's what I mean about those kind of travel shows where you have a swashbuckling male chef, who's sort of tooling around the world and biting heads off chickens and stuff. That's not my M.O. I could never be that. So I'm not going to try. I want to talk about what the average person eats on a weeknight. I want to talk about family. I want to talk about heritage.
Dan Pashman: As you’ve said the show has a political point of view. Are you hoping to change people’s minds?
Padma Lakshmi: I'm hoping to open people's minds. I think changing people's minds is a tall order for a half an hour show about food. It's easy to generalize a group that you don't know. But when you see them leading in their own lives, when you see that their hopes and dreams for their children are very similar to yours, then it becomes harder to dehumanize them.
Dan Pashman: As Padma said, it’s important to her that the people featured on Taste the Nation have the opportunity to tell their own stories, as opposed to having her as the host interpret their stories. I was curious to ask how exactly she tries to do that. Because as I said to her, anytime you make a show, as we do here on The Sporkful, you have to make editorial choices that shape the story, so you have to do some interpreting.
Padma Lakshmi: Of course. And, you know, there are decisions being made about what gets omitted and what gets included that do give me an interpreter quality, if you will. You know, I can concede that. I think for me, whenever I'm going into any culture, I want to know the full story. And sometimes that community only wants to show you the nice parts. So, for instance, we have a holiday seasonette of four specials that will air of Taste the Nation on November 4th. One of the episodes is about Hanukkah and looking into the history of the Ashkenazi Jewish community here in America that originated in the Lower East Side of New York. And I kept saying, this is great, but it's all too kumbaya. You know? It's just a little too sweet for me. And so I didn't ask anybody to say it. They did say in one of the interviews, a woman does say that, yes, she's Ashkenazi Jewish, Eastern European on her dad's side. But on her mother's side, she's Colombian. And so she talked about how her mother worked at her dad's shop and that she would answer the phone and because she had a Colombian accent, that old Jewish people would call and they’d be like, “Can I speak to somebody?” And she would say, “Well, I'm somebody.” You know?And so it shows you that even people who have been discriminated against or suffered some bigotry in their lives are still capable of doing it themselves. And...
Dan Pashman: It gets into more of the nuance and the complexity of human beings.
Padma Lakshmi: Exactly. Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Padma Lakshmi: And no community is without any stain, you know? And no community is all bad. So you do make creative decisions, but what I want to do always is give a full and complex portrait of any community, and a nuanced portrait, because people are complicated.
Dan Pashman: One of the central questions in Taste the Nation is: What is American food? As I watched, I was especially struck by two moments from different episodes.
Dan Pashman: The first one: Padma travels to Milwaukee for beers and bratwurst, and to explore the influence of German immigrants on American food.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): German immigrants have assimilated so deeply that their cuisine has essentially been absorbed into American culture. Is that how it works? If you’re here long enough, assimilation essentially overrides your roots? Or can communities find a way to be both quintessentially American and still keep their culture alive?
Dan Pashman: Like look at hot dogs. They have German origins but now people think of them as being so American that they’re the classic July 4th food. Padma features German-Americans in Milwaukee who have to work to preserve their food heritage.
Dan Pashman: Then there’s an episode about Indian food. In it, Padma meets up with DJ Rekha, who’s also Indian-American. They go to Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in New York City with a big South Asian population.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): Being able to find our favorite street foods and treats is a recent change, and a welcome one. Just like Rekha, I feel at home here.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): What has it meant to you to come back here?
CLIP (DJ REKHA): Jackson Heights... it’s special. I actually really found a home. It feels very comfortable. There’s obviously great food, there’s great community.
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): I actually never thought I would eat actually decent chaat here in New York. It was the first thing I would eat when I went back to Delhi.
CLIP (DJ REKHA): It’s come a long way. And I never thought I would get good barfi here. And now we can get the things here, and I think that’s what it means to make your home.
Dan Pashman: Indian food hasn’t assimilated to the same degree as German food but it is more available in the U.S. now than ever before. As Padma says at the end of the episode about German food...
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): What I've learned here is that assimilation is complicated. While many people fight to be accepted, others work to hold on to what might get lost. And that push and pull my friends, is America.
Dan Pashman: As for Indian food’s assimilation, Padma tells me:
Padma Lakshmi: I think it will inevitably happen. I don't think there's any doubt about it, because as more people commingle and intermarry, those those ingredients and those flavors also intermarry. I think that you need to find a way to feel at home in your own world, wherever you are. And if you're making your life in America, I think it's OK to enjoy the things that the greater culture has to offer, but also within that maintain customs from your own culture that matter to you in the home and with your loved ones, whether it's going out with friends to an Indian restaurant or inviting friends to join in your family’s Diwali celebration or Holi celebration for spring. You know, those are the kinds of things to me that make a living in America exciting and wonderful, because I don't need everybody in the country to be eating a samosa to make me feel at home. What I need is for people just to accept me when I'm eating my own samosa, I guess.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. Can I just eat my samosa in peace??
Padma Lakshmi: Yes. You know, and not look at me as other. I'm not personally worried about Indian food being — becoming accepted mainstream. I already — you know, 1.36 billion people already like Indian food just fine.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. You know, it's got a pretty good base of customers.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah. We don't have a marketing problem.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Padma reveals what she resents about her career, and why she decided to write a children’s book. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Make sure you check our last's week's show. We look into the origin story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the spicy snack that’s become a national sensation, and according to Gustavo Arellano, especially beloved among Latinos.
CLIP (GUSTAVO ARELLANO): You see something spicy. You've been conditioned to a lifetime of just cheese flavor, of cool ranch flavor, whatever the hell cool ranch is. So now all of a sudden you realize, oh, there's something spicy. And so subliminally it's like, oh, I'm seeing myself. My culture is represented in this Flamin' Hot Cheetos. And then once you start getting older, you start hearing this rumor, oh, did you know that a Mexican janitor invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?
Dan Pashman: That janitor is Richard Montanez and the story goes that after he invented the hit snack, he worked his way up to become an executive at Frito-Lay. But when a journalist at the L.A. Times started looking into the story, he found a very different tale. That one’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: And if you want to see my review of Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew, which I paid $16.00 for on Ebay and sampled with my daughter Becky? The video's up on Instagram. Follow me there @TheSporkful. Okay, back to my conversation with Padma Lakshmi.
Dan Pashman: Padma’s long resume already includes model, TV host, executive producer, writer, and activist. Now, she’s added another title: children’s book author. Last month she published Tomatoes for Neela, which was illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. It’s a picture book, but it also includes a couple of recipes and a note about labor conditions for farm workers.
Padma Lakshmi: I want my legacy to be that I've helped educate a generation or two or three of people about food. I really believe that you set a child's eating patterns in the first four or five years of life. The sooner you can get kids involved in eating like the rest of the family, the better. The sooner you can get kids involved in cooking their own food, the better, because a child who has a hand in making her own food is more likely to eat it because they feel a sense of pride. They feel a sense of proprietorship. And I think you need to teach children some life skills about how to sew a button, how to keep yourself clean, and how to feed yourself, how to shop economically, and healthily and how to cook.
Dan Pashman: This something that Padma has put into practice in her own house. If you follow her on Instagram you know that she and her 11-year-old daughter, Krishna, often cook together.
Padma Lakshmi: And so Tomatoes for Neela is born out of a story that I used to tell Krishna at bedtime about when things grew and in what season because she didn't know. You know, we live in New York City. She's lucky enough to shop at Whole Foods and where everything is available all the time. But I also wanted to do a picture book that had characters, who were not Western European or Caucasian. I wanted to have characters in a children's book that had skin tones that were darker because that's not something that I had when I was growing up. And it's not even something that I had a lot of when I was shopping for books for Krishna. I wanted a story with brown people centered in it. You know, not just for kids of color, but for all children. I think it’s really important to see different families, different skin colors, different experiences, different foods being portrayed with equal interest.
Dan Pashman: Even in her children’s book, Padma is trying to further the causes she cares about. And with all of her writing, activism, and TV work in the last five years, she’s really found her voice. But if you look back over her whole career, she’s always used food as a way to talk about bigger issues. Even in her very first book, which came out more than 20 years ago. It was called Easy Exotic: A Model's Low Fat Recipes from Around the World. Now, two decades later, we’re more sensitive to the term “exotic” and we know that low fat doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. So I asked her what she thinks of that title now.
Padma Lakshmi: I know, I'm mortified. But it is true. That's what the book was called. I mean, I would never obviously call something — a book that today. But in my defense, you know, the title kind of tells you everything you need to know about what I was trying to do even back then. I don’t think my M.O. in my writing or on my television shows is that different from what I was doing in Easy Exotic. I'm trying to show American readers and American eaters that, you know, I can show you an easy way to make these recipes. I was trying to make the foreign more approachable. I was trying to make the other more familiar because they were familiar to me.
Dan Pashman: Right. And I bring up the title of Easy Exotic, and also the subtitle: A Model's Low Fat Recipes from Around the World, not to point a finger at you, but to me it’s an indication — like it’s such a neat and tidy button of all the things you’re fighting against because I’m sure that that title was chosen because of the biases and prejudices of the publishing industry.
Padma Lakshmi: Yes, definitely. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Who were like, here’s an Indian model. Those are the only two things we’re able to see about her.
Padma Lakshmi: Right.
Dan Pashman: And so if she’s gonna have a cookbook, the title has say — has to point to those two things and those two things only.
Padma Lakshmi: Right.
Dan Pashman: Kind of bringing it back to the last time we spoke, five years ago. I want to play a clip of our interview because this part of the conversation really stuck with me all these years. We talked about people always asking you, how do you eat so much and stay slim? And you talked about — you tell them it's a lot of willpower and discipline. And this tape will start with your answer to my question, which was, "Where do you think that willpower and discipline come from?".
CLIP (PADMA LAKSMI): My vanity. [LAUGHS] You know, I think it’s as simple as that. I think I have enjoyed a successful career in front of the camera as a model. I think it was easy to eat whatever the heck I wanted when I was 20 or even almost 30. Mother Nature is a very good equalizer. So it is very hard to keep my figure. I am — I am still a woman on. It is still a visual medium. It is still entertainment. I'm not under a chef's coat in the back of a kitchen.
Dan Pashman: So that was your first response, and then I asked: is there any part of you that resents having to look a certain way as part of your job on TV? And you responded:
CLIP (PADMA LAKSHMI): I don’t resent it because I would be disingenuous if I didn't acknowledge the fact that I also am on TV, probably because of my physical likeness, as well. You know, I'm self-aware enough to know that I've probably had advantages because of that.
Dan Pashman: So that was your answer five years ago, but would you answer that question differently today?
Padma Lakshmi: I mean, I do resent it. Honestly, I think about all the time that I can't get back, all the hours that I've sat in the makeup chair. But I would love to just roll out of bed and pull on my jeans and stuff. And I do do that mostly on Taste the Nation. I mean, I — you know, I get my hair blow dried because I can't do my hair. But I winded up doing my own makeup on Taste the Nation just because I don't want another person on set. That show really requires my full focus. I'm doing the floors and windows that show happily.
Dan Pashman: But I wonder also I guess part of my question is sort of, you know, since the last time we spoke, a lot's happened. And I think that all of us, or at least many of us, have looked back at the ways we used to look at things, things we've said or done or put up with and look at those things through a different lens today.
Padma Lakshmi: Right.
Dan Pashman: And so I guess I'm curious if your thoughts about the pressure that may be placed on you to look a certain way, if those thoughts have changed in the last few years.
Padma Lakshmi: I feel less pressure, I guess, would be the honest answer. I feel less pressure to wear stilettos or a tight dress on Taste the Nation, because I think that's not the point of Taste the Nation. And I actually think I look better in simple clothes. So that's why it was a very conscious decision on that show, to have me usually in jeans and a button down or a t-shirt or tank top. That was a conscious decision to get away from the focus on what I looked like. So I have managed to manipulate my career in a way that turns away from that. Because there are more important things that I think I could do with my time and that are also just more important facets of me that I'd like to show.
Dan Pashman: And I guess one of the things that struck me about that answer from you few years ago was that it seemed sort of very internal. It was sort of like, well, I maintain this figure because of my vanity. And no, I don't resent it because in a way I've benefited from it. It seemed less focused on what I think we all are looking at a little more now, which is the external factors that may put a person like you in a position to have to look a certain way.
Padma Lakshmi: I guess, for me, there was so little, Dan, that I could control externally for a lot of my life, both personally and professionally, that this — that the thing that I found most effective was to focus on myself. To change internally things that I felt would not serve me or alter the things that in a way that would benefit me. So that's why that discussion or that thinking is very internal, because I am not going to change the minds of everybody out there. I am — you know, I can't single handedly take down the patriarchy. I wish I could and I'm trying. But I can't. I still have to work within the system if I want a job in television. I did not have the power to say what I wore or how I looked 20 years ago because the television landscape was different and the networks ran differently. Today, I have more power not only with Hulu, but even on Top Chef because I'm an executive producer. I have proved my worth, and times have changed. And so hopefully everybody's changing with them or they will be left behind. I'm a shrewd and practical enough person to know what should be, but also to know what actually is and try to push for what should be while working within what is.
Dan Pashman: In the last couple of years, has there been a moment from earlier in your career or your life that you looked back on and sort of revisited and saw in a new way?
Padma Lakshmi: Sure, of course. I mean, that's what my op-ed in 2018 around the Kavanaugh hearings in The New York Times was all about. You know, something happened to me when I was 16 and we didn't even have the language to call it what it was because it was somebody who knew me, who I was dating. But now we have the language of what happened to me and we know how to label it and understand that there's trauma that's attached to it and that, you know, that term is date rape. So, of course, I have revisited earlier episodes in my life, but I've also — I also want to give my younger self a break here because I have revisited those issues from a different vantage point, from a position of more power than I had in my 20s and 30s. It's easier for me today to make some effective changes in the way that I do business or people deal with me because I have the power to do so. Not everybody has that privilege.
Dan Pashman: That’s Padma Lakshmi, her new children’s book is called Tomatoes for Neela, and it’s on sale now. The mini-season of Taste the Nation will be up on Hulu November 4th.
Dan Pashman: Make sure you check out last week’s show about the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. If you want to see my daughter Becky and me sample some Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew, you gotta get to the gram. Follow me there @TheSporkful.