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Padma Lakshmi. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Full of surprises

The many acts of multifaceted Padma Lakshmi

By Kara Cutruzzula on April 7, 2016

Reality TV sticks to a well-worn script.

Eat this, judge that, dismiss a teary-eyed contestant.

But Padma Lakshmi, the longtime host and executive producer of Top Chef, has a past and present that defies her onscreen life.

Even her path to food was a long and winding one, as she explained to André Leon Talley, the author and curator of Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective, during the second day of the Women in the World Summit.

“My love of food actually came from the women in my family. My mother, my grandmother, all of the aunts in my family taught me how to cook and what ingredients to use,” she said, which in turn taught her about femininity and what it means to be a feminist. Nurturing and giving something back to your fellow human beings through food is intimately tied to what it means to be a woman.

Padma Lakshmi (Andrew Eccles/Bravo)
Padma Lakshmi (Andrew Eccles/Bravo)

How curious, then, that the professional food world is dominated by men, yet most food prepared in the world is made by women. Lakshmi explained why: Cooking is manual labor, the hours of terrible and not conducive to having a family, and you need a supportive home environment to succeed in a hot kitchen surrounded by sharp elbows.

All of which makes her success, including two bestselling cookbooks and her latest book, the memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate, all the more impressive.

Born in India, Lakshmi came to the U.S. when she four and was raised by an immigrant single mother who wanted a better life for her family. Lakshmi didn’t experience — or recognize — any racial biases until later. When she went back to India for visits, her grandmother would tell her, “Don’t go out between 11 and 4, because you’ll ‘darken up,’” but Lakshmi didn’t understand why. “I was spoon-fed a color prejudice that I carried with me on the plane before I got here,” she told Talley.

“In New York, it’s easy to forget you are something other or something of a minority,” she said. That somewhat nonchalant feeling lasted until a move West for her early acting and modeling career. “Even when you go to Beverly Hills and you drive around to auditions, it’s rare to see brown faces.”

Food, though, was a constant, a prism and a passport to different cultures. “I look at the world through the lens of food,” she said, and modeling afforded her the ability to travel around the world, eating the strange, the esoteric — and the delicacies from, how shall we say, down south.

Like the local delicacy after a bullfight in Spain? Bull testicles. Naturally. “It tastes like brain,” she said with a laugh, suggesting those two pieces of anatomy are linked in tricky and inextricable ways.

Top Chef also plays with the fact that she’s got the palate of a daredevil. There was that one episode with duck testicles, about which Andre asked the million-dollar question: “Were they savory or sweet?” Savory, of course.

Padma Lakshmi. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Padma Lakshmi. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Another somewhat unsurprising admission: Lakshmi told the crowd she ate her own placenta. Although admitting there’s not a lot of scientific research behind the practice, she did it to try and stave off postpartum depression after a difficult pregnancy that left her bedridden during her third trimester, undergoing an emergency C-section, and heading back to the Top Chef set five-and-a-half weeks after giving birth. Lakshmi had it dehydrated and capsulated. Two placenta pills in the morning was the extent of it. “No, I didn’t sauté it with onions and have it with a glass of chianti,” she said with a laugh.

Lakshmi is also known for her long relationship with ex-husband Salman Rushdie, a pairing that might appear unlikely on the surface, given their 23-year age difference. Yet these many years later, she was quick to give credit to the formidable writer met during her formative years. “By the time we had split up I had spent half of my adult life with this person,” she said, “I don’t think I could have written Love, Loss and What We Ate without that relationship. Salman taught me a lot, about media, about writing,” advising her while she wrote her very first story for Anna Wintour’s Vogue.

Aside from her literary interests, there were other lynchpins for their relationship (which she memorably delves into in her memoir): a playfulness, a chemistry, and as she explained, “We come from the same culture, we’re both Indians in the West.”

(Courtesy of Padma Lakshmi)
(Courtesy of Padma Lakshmi)

But that alone wasn’t enough to buoy them through the health crisis that would come to overtake Lakshmi’s life and marriage. She was diagnosed at age 36 with endometriosis, the chronic and debilitating condition in which the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus and cannot be expelled every month, leading to intense pain. It’s also the leading cause of hysterectomy. “Think of endometriosis as weeds that go around all of your organs,” she said. And her late diagnosis meant that she was bedridden for one week every month, for 23 years of her life.

Ultimately, “I couldn’t tend to my marriage and my health at the same time,” she said.

Now, Lakshmi has devoted her time to ensuring young women don’t endure a similar plight, and co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America. “The number one thing I would say to women is pain is your body’s way of saying something is wrong. It is not okay for someone to be bedridden for two, three, four, five days a month just because you’re a woman.”

And with that the crowd walked away experiencing a new side to Padma: one that touched on race, love, loss and, of course, what she ate.

Additional reporting contributed by Lena Shemel.


Padma Lakshmi comes from a “long line of feminists,” will only date feminist men