When Padma Lakshmi talks about food, you listen. The former model turned award-winning cookbook author, star of Bravo's Top Chef , and occasional actress has a way of speaking about food (think, finding alluring adjectives to describe a dish, and then slowly enunciating each word) that stirs the appetite, even if you've just had lunch. And we should know. We recently experienced the phenomenon first-hand when we caught up with the stunning chef to talk about searching for the Ultimate Host with Napa's Sterling Vineyards (if you've got party-throwing skills, there are a slew of gourmet prizes, and $25K at stake!), and to drink some of Sterling's awesome line of diverse wines (at 2 p.m., no less). We also chatted about how she manages to eat a dozen meals in an hour on Top Chef, and where she thinks the future of food is heading. Hint: It involves BBQ, and lots of it.
By Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
Complex: So, you're hosting Sterling Vineyards' Ultimate Host competition. Tell us about it.
Padma Lakshmi: This is actually the second year I’ve been doing it. We had such good luck last year; it was a really fun campaign. A lot of people wrote in and sent videos. I went to visit the campus in Napa, and I was just really impressed by their attention to detail, and their genuine and thorough love of what they do. Last year I came on to help them with the competition, and that was such a huge success that this year we're taking that a step further.
Did you get any bizarre entries last year?
We had a couple. I think all of them showed a lot of heart and many showed a lot of creativity.
Too much creativity?
Actually, what I was surprised at was the level of creativity and effort that went into some of these entries. Some of them went all out. A guy did this winter solstice party. It was kind of a very girly thing to do, but he was a totally normal, straightforward guy, and I thought that was interesting. He didn’t win, but he really went all out. That’s really what the Ultimate Host competition is about. It’s about finding those people that are über-meticulous and über-passionate about taking their entertaining to the highest of levels.
If you’re a guy making a dish for a woman, and you’re a novice, what do you recommend cooking to make a good impression, but that’s not so over the top it would be a disaster?
Think about what you make really well. Usually that’s something you like to eat a lot of. It can be as simple as ribs, which is a very sexy of thing to make on a date. Or, fried chicken, or whatever. Don’t be afraid. The governor’s girlfriend does it all the time. You just go out and and get semi-made food. [Laughs.] The one thing that sometimes I’ve done in a pinch...there’s this place that makes Peruvian chicken near my house I have never set foot in that place because I’m terrified if I set foot in there I’ll never order from there again. But they make amazing rotisserie chicken, and often I’ll just order a couple chickens. I mean, I make amazing roast chicken, but my chicken takes a bit of planning. But you can also get beautiful rotisserie roast chicken from someplace, and it comes piping hot. You carve it into eight pieces and put it into a big platter, and you put on aluminum foil and keep it on warm in your oven. And then you make all the sides. Anyone can make amazing mashed potatoes. Do the Joël Robuchon potatoes, which is just equal parts butter and potato.
So you’re endorsing semi-made foods now?
I’m not endorsing semi-made food, I’m endorsing buying something as an anchor piece and then building all the sides. Because, like Thanksgiving dinner, the sides are where it’s at. I think the best meals are simple. I love a steamed artichoke with lots of condiments because it’s very tactile, and its romantic to eat that together. Same thing goes for dessert. All you need is a beautiful bowl of ice cream and a little saucepan warming some caramel sauce. I mean, Delta Airlines does an ice cream sundae for their business class…
Speaking of airlines, I saw you knocked American Airlines food the other day on your Twitter. [Padma tweeted: "Fried onions on fresh pineapple alongside breakfast quesadilla not a good experiment at this (or any) altitude!"]
They put onions and pineapple on my omelet! That’s not what I wanted to eat. But now I’m afraid the air hostesses are going to spit on my food.
They thought they were participating in a challenge…
Well, we had American Airlines on our show in seasons past. That’s why I felt I had license to say something. It was so random. I don’t even like that when my local Thai place puts it in my coconut curry. I’m always like, why is pineapple in this?
On Top Chef, is there a particular food that you don’t like to the point that it puts you off when it shows up in a dish?
I can’t judge on my personal preference; I have to judge on how well they executed the dish. There’s a subjective portion of our jobs, and then there’s an objective portion of our job. Whether I like offal or not—and I don’t—if it’s cooked properly, and it’s seasoned properly, I can’t fault them for the fact that I don’t really like offal. That’s okay. Somebody might. You can’t let personal preference come into it. On the other hand, I don’t think anybody is going to be pleased with undercooked chicken.
But you’re only human. Your personal preferences play at least a small part, even if subconsciously.
It’s not even subconsciously. It is a subjective thing. It’s like a beauty pageant, or how much a work of art is valued. It is really is in the eye of the beholder. That’s why there’s four of us judging, and that’s why that fourth chair rotates—to give us a fresh perspective, to not have any hang-ups or connections to these contestants. I come to the table with my own set of values and life experience. And so does Tom, so does Gail, or Tony Bourdain, or Wolfgang, or whoever’s there. And that’s why we’re there. Part of the reason why we’re there is because of our subjective palettes.
How do you eat all of that food? Is there a strategy?
You pace yourself. You have to count the contestants and remember that you have to get to the last person, too. So, you can’t overeat the first five dishes. I try and stay hungry. We shoot in real-time; we never let food get cold. If the food is ready and that buzzer goes off, it doesn’t matter if I need lipstick, I’m going on.
Is Tom secretly just a big teddy bear?
Not very secretly. Not secretly at all. He’s passionate about what he does. He’s spent his life perfecting his craft, and so he’s very serious about that. When you take him out of the kitchen, he’s a teddy bear. He’s a teddy bear the minute he’s not critiquing you. And he’s gotten very cuddly over the years; he’s just recently had two younger boys, and they’re both under three, so it’s brought that out.
Is there a current food trend that you’re particularly excited about?
I’m not excited about trends in general. That’s my official answer. Trends are not trendy with me.
Is there a direction you see food heading that you're in favor of?
What I think is wonderful is the rebirth and rediscovery of cheaper cuts of meat, because those are the cuts that have the most flavor and the highest fat content. Those things I love. I think the best gravy is made when the gristle, and the suet, and all the gelatin, and the bone, and the sinew melt down slowly over the time and mingle with the slow roasted spices. I want to scrape the bottom of every bowl. That’s where it’s at for me. This rediscovery of homey kind of foods, where you have all of these grilled cheese sandwich shops popping up in the East Village, or mac and cheese places, and the hot dogs, and the fried chicken, and the BBQ. I like that. I’ve been to French Laundry and I go to Daniel all the time, but really, I will pursue the back of some guys’s pick-up truck if the best BBQ is being cooked out of the flatbed.
What are your thoughts on the increasing focus on farm-to-table and sustainability? How do you think that’s changing the culinary scene?
I think it’s really great. I think it’s great for a lot of reasons beyond food. I think it gets the community enthusiastic about the food they’re eating. I think it trickles down to the next generation and those people’s children. It helps the economy. All of the factories that closed down in New Jersey and in Brooklyn have now turned into microbreweries and dairy farms.
I didn’t think the Brooklyn in Smorgasburg would have been possible, or GoogaMooga, or the Hester Street Fair. I grew up in New York. I remember being here in the '70s and I remember those block parties and closing down the streets. I loved them. But then I remember coming back to New York when I got out of college in the ‘90s, and basically block parties just turned into people selling big bags of tube socks and funnel cake. That’s not what it was about. It was about the whole family being able to have something. That kind of just became extinct because it was all about commerce.
I also think it’s easier to eat seasonal and locally if you live in certain parts of the country compared to others. As much as I love the Union Square market, there’s always that week in the dead of winter where’s there’s just sweet potatoes and apples.
Being that you’re single, do you cook for dates, or is that something you build up to, or they have to earn? I know cooking for someone can be very personal.
I don’t cook on the first few dates, because I don’t know if I want them in my home. I cook a lot. It is very personal. I cook on a daily basis. I do cook for people. I cooked on my birthday last week; I cooked for all my friends. It was delicious.
When you’re not in the mood to cook, where is your favorite date spot in the city?
I live in the East Village, so I love wd-50, I love Indochine, I love Marea. I don’t think it’s a good date spot, because it's very loud, but I love ABC Kitchen. I wish that could be my commissary every day.
Considering your cookbook Easy Exotic explores international eats, and you live in New York, what exotic cuisine do you consider to be under-appreciated here?
I think Sri Lankan food. It’s really hard to find, it’s really good, and it’s not similar to Indian food. It’s much spicier and it’s very layered. Malaysian food is also very interesting. Moroccan food, but it’s hard to find really good Moroccan food here. But the best place for exotic ingredients is Kalustyan's.
Do you have any guilty pleasures, in terms of food or just… life?
You know, I never feel guilty about taking pleasure in anything.