From a model to the host of Top Chef, to founding the Endometriosis Society and campaigning for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Padma Lakshmi — who participated in the recent Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan — talks about food as entertainment, body-image issues, motherhood and her thoughts on Donald Trump. Excerpts from an interview:
You’ve been hosting Top Chef for over a decade now. Why do you think cooking shows have become so successful?
The reason Top Chef has been so successful is because people are naturally drawn to watch others be passionate about what they want to do. The reason food television in general is very popular is because every creature on the planet eats. You don’t have to be a cookbook author or a chef to be obsessed with food. We have fully-formed opinions about what tastes good. Cooking is an art and a science that can be replicated in one’s home. We want to know what makes something taste good. One of the by-products of an affluent society is that we start to fetishise what was once just a survival necessity. Food and how we consume it and where we go out to eat it has become entertainment. It’s been fun to see how Top Chef has changed the dialogue about food in our culture.
How much has Tamil culture influenced your cooking?
Tamil culture has not just influenced my cooking but a whole lot of other aspects. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to list the ingredients for a specific dish if it wasn’t for my culture.
You’ve spoken about how your job involves you looking good despite having to eat and taste a lot of food. Why do you think women are expected to look a certain way?
The professional culinary world is male-dominated and I’m a brown woman working in a white man’s world. The problem with being attractive is that it is an asset, a currency. You become afraid of losing it. I’m a woman on television who is about to turn 47. I’m basically a depreciating asset. That is the reality of my job, I measure my paycheck that way. As per my contract, I cannot cut my hair, I have to maintain an appearance based on what the network wants as the main face of the show. I would be disingenuous to tell you that the way I look is not how I got my foot in the door. But I hope that I’ve earned my place in the room by more than what I look like.
You also spoke about how body image has affected your daughter. How do you negotiate your job and being a mother?
Every year after filming, I go on a diet and exercise every day. My daughter has absorbed this. She sees how I get dressed. Added to this, I’m a physically affectionate parent, I like to hug my daughter and lift her. But she’s seven-and-a-half now. Inadvertently, I’d said she’s getting too heavy to lift. Then she heard me say that I have to lose weight. One day, she tells me that she’s watching her figure, parroting what I’d said. So I’d made a conscious decision that no red-carpet event or dress is more important than sending my daughter the right message. Also, I think that curvy women too are incredibly beautiful, like my aunt Neela.
Tell us about your work with ACLU and your thoughts on Donald Trump.
I’ve known Trump, he lives in New York and we’ve been at the same parties. I thought he was tacky and showy, like any man with a lot of money. Now I think he’s a menace to our society. I tried to do everything I could to prevent him from soiling the White House. I find him a plague on the very human decency that America was based on. I don’t think he has any ideology except from the ideology of Donald Trump. So, I joined the ACLU and campaigned for them. I also work for Planned Parenthood. I want to ensure that I’ve done everything to have a safe future for my daughter and her children.