Padma Lakshmi, the food world’s leading feminist? It’s not a role normally attributed to the glamorous Top Chef star. But over the past several years, Lakshmi has been using her platform to talk about women-centric issues other high-profile foodies wouldn’t touch.
Body image. Gender equality. The right to choose. Infertility. Single motherhood. Post-partum depression. Breastfeeding. She went on CNN to condemn the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi. She revealed her childhood sexual abuse so other victims would know they’re not alone. She was an ambassador for UN Women. She traveled to Guatemala this past summer in support of indigenous Mayan women on behalf of the advocacy group Mercado Global. And she co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to shed light on a debilitating disease that affects millions of women of childbearing age.
"She may be gorgeous. She may be a brilliant chef. But her life’s mission is as a healer and a sister," said Lena Dunham, who, like Lakshmi, has endometriosis. "Padma is a tireless worker for every woman who has suffered with this disease—and for every woman who suffers in silence."
It took some time for Lakshmi to find her voice. "In Asian cultures, to be discreet and reserved is a virtue," she explained one afternoon, barefoot and bare faced, sitting in her Manhattan office, located next door to her apartment. "That was drilled into me. So to open my mouth in such a big way took a long time. I realized that I wanted to shape an outward identity that matched how I always felt inside."
To speak up for others, Lakshmi needed to speak up for herself first, which meant owning her story. The result is Love, Loss, and What We Ate, her bestselling memoir, published earlier this spring. It’s evocative, emotional, and heartbreaking in ways both beautiful and sad—the word "loss" is in the title for a reason. "I knew the only way to write a good book was to write a true book," she said.
You could say Lakshmi lost control of her narrative years ago when she became part of a celebrity couple. She had started dating Salman Rushdie, the controversial literary lion 23 years her senior, and tabloids around the world pounced. Lakshmi, a model who had broken boundaries for other brown-skinned women, and had a budding career in food, was reduced to arm candy. "The basic tag- line was that I must not have a brain," she said.
Things started to change when she was hired for the second season of Top Chef. The show helped Lakshmi gain an identity independent of her husband, but it made her famous without revealing very much about her. The reality show, after all, is not about Lakshmi, or her co-stars Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons—it’s about the contestants. Anthony Bourdain referenced this in his blurb on the back of her book: "Love, Loss, and What We Ate is the Padma we didn’t know."
Lakshmi’s life story is so dramatic it could be a soap opera.
As she reveals in the memoir, her parents split up when she was a toddler, at a time when divorce was considered shameful in India, so her mother left her only child with relatives and immigrated to New York City for a fresh start. When young Padma joined her a few years later, she adapted to life in Queens as a latchkey kid with a single mom. The book also details the car accident that almost killed teenage Padma and left her with the seven-inch scar she wears today as a badge of honor. And, of course, there’s the rise and fall of her relationship with Rushdie. Amazingly, all of this happens before the memoir is half over. As Christine Hauser wrote in The New York Times, "The book appears to spare little." Or as Beau Ciolino of the blog Probably This put it: "Hold onto your horses… cause it’s all in there, raw truth, some real shit."
Love, Loss, and What We Atealmost didn’t happen. Ecco, the HarperCollins imprint, gave Lakshmi a deal to write a diet book of sorts, not a memoir. Because of her role on Top Chef, she’s constantly asked about gaining and losing weight, so she wanted to produce a thoughtful book on the topic. She started writing, but it didn’t feel genuine. "I kept turning in pages, but I told the publisher, ‘I’m talking in circles. I don’t know what I’m trying to say.’" Lakshmi even offered to return her advance. After a frustrating year and a half, she killed the project.
Still, she was determined to tell her story. A major impetus for writing the book was her endometriosis diagnosis and how it changed her life. A disease of the reproductive system, endometriosis causes uterine tissue to grow in other parts of the body, wreaking havoc on internal organs and causing a great deal of pain, both physical and emotional. For 23 years, Lakshmi suffered through nightmarish menstrual cycles. "I saw other girls who would take two Advil and complain about their periods and be done with it in three or four days. I was in bed at least three or four days! And with Vicodin!" As she told Lenny Letter last year, "I made sure my prescriptions were filled. I would live on hot tea and heating pads and hot-water bottles. I tried acupuncture. I would smoke pot. I would do anything and everything..."
The disease affected her mood, her mental health, and her sex life. "It was really a major factor in the demise of my marriage," she said. "Endometriosis fucks with you in a big way. It’s very destructive." Lakshmi met Dr. Tamer Seckin, a gynecologist who specializes in the treatment of endometriosis, and she underwent multiple surgeries, including the removal of her right fallopian tube and half her left ovary. (There is no cure for endometriosis, but surgery can lessen the severity of the symptoms.) As endometriosis is a leading cause of infertility and she was nearing 40, Lakshmi made a decision. "I froze my eggs," she wrote in her book. "Just as insurance. I wished someone had told me [to do] that a decade earlier."
In April 2009, at Dr. Seckin’s suggestion, they launched the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA), a not-for- profit dedicated to building awareness among doctors and the general public, advocating for those with the disease, and raising funds for research. Lakshmi hosts the annual Blossom Ball, the EFA’s main charity event (Dunham and Susan Sarandon were this year’s honorees), and she speaks about the disease whenever she can. It’s estimated that 176 million women around the world have endometriosis and if you follow Lakshmi on social media, you’ll come across several of her #endosisters expressing gratitude for her activism. Their comments often mention their infertility and their comfort in knowing they are not alone—or crazy. "I had endometriosis for 30 years. Never had children. I had a hysterectomy last year and the doctor said it was the worst he had seen. Thank you for being a voice to this disease," wrote a woman named Amy W on Instagram. "Been a tough year on the fertility front and that dream has faded but relieved there was a reason," added @Allicar1.
A few months after launching EFA, Lakshmi was shocked and thrilled to learn she was pregnant. Later that winter, she gave birth to a baby girl named Krishna and declined to reveal the identity of the father. As she detailed in her memoir, she was dating two men at the time, and wasn’t sure who was the dad. It sounds like the plot of the recent Bridget Jones’s movie, except in Lakshmi’s case, it was neither fictional nor funny. A nasty custody case ensued with venture capitalist Adam Dell. In the midst of the legal battle, the other man, financier and philanthropist Teddy Forstmann, was diagnosed with advanced brain cancer and lived for only seven months. Lakshmi dedicated her memoir to Forstmann and has called him "her rock." When she talks about him today, five years later, it’s evident there’s a big hole in her heart.
But Krishna, her beautiful surprise, has brought much joy to her life. She’s a lively little girl with a gift for music and a fondness for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Like her mother before her, Lakshmi is a single mom doing her best to raise a young child, albeit under very different circumstances. Her mother’s example, she said, "colors a lot of my parental thinking. I am a single mother, but I don’t feel alone in raising my daughter." A full-time nanny (and former paratrooper) lives with her and Krishna, as do some relatives from India. And Lakshmi is now on good terms with Krishna’s father. "For whatever problems he and I have been through, he is a good dad," she said. "I wish I had a father like him when I was younger. He’s attentive. He’s naturally interested. He is the kind of person I really realize was born to be a dad."
And then there’s the other great love of her life, Top Chef. Yes, after 13 seasons of delivering her chilly catch phrase— "Please pack your knives and go”—and tasting countless bites of gourmet grub, Lakshmi still enjoys being part of the show. Working in a new city each season keeps it fresh for her, she noted. Season 14, which begins soon, was filmed in Charleston, South Carolina, so she learned about low country cuisine and the region’s rich culinary history from local experts and chefs. "I would never get to go that deep as a tourist,” she said. "I don’t know how much of that specificity reads to the viewer, but for those of us who do the show, it’s so helpful.”
The revolving batch of contestants also breathes new life into the series. Unlike other food reality shows, Top Chef creates culinary superstars and Lakshmi is part of the team that susses out which newcomers are destined for greatness. Season 10 winner Kristen Kish found Lakshmi to be a reassuring presence behind the scenes. "Padma was the first on-camera person we saw day one and each day after,” explained Kish. "The mornings in the kitchen before we started filming were always a nerve-wracking time, but she would toss in some jokes and tell us about the daily news and happenings from the outside world. She genuinely was aware of how we were feeling and did her part to make us comfortable before the cameras started rolling.”
The two bonded and remain friends to this day. "As I’ve gotten to know more about her in the past few years, Padma is an incredibly wonderful complex soul,” said Kish. "She has offered advice, an ear to listen, she never pries, and she’s always kind. She’s a person who will remain very important in my life.”
When Lakshmi sat down for this interview, she had just returned from Mexico, where the Top Chef finale had been filmed. For obvious reasons, she couldn’t talk about the show, so she was buzzing about her food finds and the similarities between Indian and Mexican cuisines. "The climates are alike, so a lot of ingredients are the same,” she said. "The cumin, the citrus, the chilies. I brought back all of these spice blends.” Anyone who knows Lakshmi knows spices are an obsession. She channeled this passion into her second book of the year, the recently released Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, an alphabetical compendium of everything from achiote (the Mexican name for annatto, a seed used mainly as a coloring agent) to zhug (a Middle Eastern hot sauce). To compile the exhaustive information, she worked with writer and editor Judith Sutton and the team at Kalustyan’s, Manhattan’s beloved spice mecca. She hopes the book has a long life as a reference guide for professionals and home cooks alike.
Somehow, Lakshmi also finds time to tend to her fledgling frozen food business, Padma’s Easy Exotic. Today, you can find her Organic Brown Rice, Madras Lemon Rice, Curried Lentils and other side dishes everywhere from local health food stores to Whole Foods Market. "Rice is something I know very well and I feel like I have something to contribute in this space,” she explained. "I know there’s no better product than mine in the market.” She even spends time at the rice factory in Little Rock, Arkansas, hairnet in place, to see the production process first hand. "I’m very detail focused, even though it sometimes gets the best of me,” she admitted. "If I can make something better, I want to. If I can’t see a way to better it, I leave it alone. I’m hard wired that way.”
What’s next for Lakshmi? She wants to write more and spend fewer hours in hair and makeup. "I look forward to the day I can make a lucrative income without my likeness, in whatever shape that takes form,"she said.
"And you know what else?" she asked, about to do the sisterhood one more solid. "I’ve decided I’m not going to wear a bra as often."
WITH MINT CHUTNEY
Makes 6 servings
Kerala is a state in southwest India known as the “Land of Spices," a nickname taken to heart when it comes to the food of the region. If you’ve only had crab cakes lightly seasoned and held together with breadcrumbs, these flavorful patties will be a revelation. Don’t skip the mint chutney.
1 pound crab meat, shredded
½ cup dry bread crumbs
½ cup flour
8 serrano chilies, deseeded and minced
1 cup chopped chives
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
½ cup shredded carrot
½ cup finely diced celery
1 teaspoon amchoor dried mango powder (optional)
1 cup sweet corn, fresh, canned, or frozen
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups (approximately) canola oil
¼ cup milk
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl except for the oil and milk. add the milk a bit at a time; you may need a bit more or less than the quarter cup to help the ingredients form a thick cohesive mixture.
Form patties that are 3 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick. Fill a deep skillet with about a half inch of oil and turn the heat to medium. once the oil is hot and shimmering (test for readiness by dropping a loose kernel of corn into it—if the oil sizzles and tiny bubbles form around the kernel, the oil is ready), gently fry the patties, turning them over to brown on each side. do not crowd the pan, and use 2 spatulas to turn so the patties don’t fall apart. be mindful of oil splatters, or use a splatter screen.
Lay the fried patties on a few paper towels to absorb the excess oil. serve hot, with the mint chutney on the side.
Makes about 3 cups
2½ cups fresh mint leaves
1 serrano or Thai chile
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in a blender. if needed, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water to help blend together. pack the sauce in a jar, cover with a lid, and store in the refrigerator. the chutney will keep for 2 to 3 days.
From Tangy, Tart, Hot, & Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day by Padma Lakshmi. Published by Weinstein Books.
CHICKPEA AND SPINACH TAPAS
Makes 4 servings
This colorful dish can be served as a salad, as a topping for toasted bread, or as a filling for pita pockets. It also pairs nicely as a side dish with Padma’s crab cakes.
10 ounces fresh spinach leaves, rinsed, or one 10-ounce package frozen leaf spinach
2 cups chickpeas, drained and rinsed, or one 15-ounce can
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
If you are using fresh spinach, cook it over medium-low heat in a saucepan with the water clinging to its leaves, stirring until wilted. drain, squeeze dry, and finely chop. if using frozen spinach, follow the package directions, then drain, squeeze dry, and finely chop.
In a bowl, combine the spinach with the chickpeas, pepper, chives, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper. taste for seasoning, adjust, and serve.
From Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World by Padma Lakshmi. Published by Miramax.