Plus, why she thinks more Americans should know who’s cooking their food
Padma Lakshmi is no stranger to waking up early. As a person who’s often on a TV set, she regularly has call times that require her to be up before the sun. That does not, however, mean she skips breakfast. I caught up with Lakshmi at the Kellogg's cafe in Manhattan, where she was hosting their Holiday Baking Challenge.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast today?
Padma Lakshmi: You’re gonna laugh, I’ve been on a kick lately. We started very early, so all I had was a toasted piece of sourdough with creamy peanut butter and pomegranate seeds.
That sounds great, the nutty and the tart pop.
Sometimes instead of doing a normal peanut butter and jam, you can do and open-faced peanut butter and chile jam. Honestly, I’ve had family over for brunch and I do open-faced versions and cut into little squares, and they disappear.
Is that a typical breakfast for you?
I don’t discriminate between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m fully capable of having the exact same thing at midnight. It’s more common at midnight, actually. I also eat a lot of cereal at midnight rather than in the morning. I do like a hot breakfast in the morning. But often we’ll have a little mug of Raisin Bran with milk in bed as we’re watching a movie.
Cereal is the best midnight snack.
I don’t know why! There’s something very comforting about it. I think it’s the crunch of cereal, and that texture evolves quickly, like the first bite is so different from the last bite.
Do you like to make your own breakfast or do you prefer to grab something on the go?
I prefer to make my own breakfast. The one tip I give everybody above all else is that if you want to eat healthy, the single best thing you can do for your family is make more food at home. Because you don’t know what people are putting in stuff, and obviously people want food to taste good, but I like to make things at home. For people who have busy lives, who work and have kids, one of the things I say is when you’re catching up on TV shows, do it in the kitchen or living room if you can and chop vegetables and then just put them in the fridge. Also, that’s a good time to peel pomegranate, which is time consuming. I love pomegranate, I actually have a t-shirt for eating pomegranate because I’m very messy. And then you just put it in the fridge. Like I could never have had what I had for breakfast if I had to peel the pomegranate this morning.
Switching gears a bit, Top Chef is now in Season 16, right?
Yes! I’ve been with the show from the second season. I was involved in talks from the first season, but I was busy filming a movie. When we found out the dates I’d already signed onto the movie, but they came back to me for the second season and I’ve been with the show ever since.
What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen in the classes of chefs over the years?
I think as the show has become more popular, it’s self-selecting. The competition is really tough, even just to be on the show. Most of our contestants now are James Beard nominees and winners, best new chefs, already executive chefs, or own their own restaurants. The show is also very popular and is loved by the food industry. We’ve had great guests, and people in the professional food world watch the show, so word gets around pretty quickly. Some restaurateurs will even give their chefs paid leave if they get on the show.
I think that’s why the caliber of chefs is so high. In the early seasons, we had a few caterers, or someone who was in transition, but now you have to be a professional chef just to be on this show. Even me, I write cookbooks, but I would never want to be on this show! It’s a different skill set. It’s one thing to cook a dish really well; it’s another thing to make 80 plates of a certain dish that all look and taste exactly the same and are hot.
I really appreciate how vocal you’ve been about the #MeToo movement and immigration rights. Those are obviously so connected to food, and of course seep into every aspect of our culture, from school to work to politics. Can you talk a bit about why you find it so important to speak publicly on these topics?
Well, because I’m an immigrant, and I’m a woman who’s certainly suffered through several incidents with various people who had power over me. I think it’s important. I think there’s a disconnect for the general public between what they eat and what they know about where their food comes from. Americans really want their food prices kept low, because they feel like that’s their right, and that’s fine. But who do you think is picking those blueberries, who’s packaging that cereal, who’s working in the back of restaurants? Food costs rise with labor. The point of entry is quite low for someone starting out in the back of a restaurant kitchen. I think if more Americans were aware of what went into their food and who had a hand in making it, I think they would be a lot more compassionate about the policies that they want to support. Go into the back of any New York or Los Angeles restaurant, it’s all brown faces.
Also, I think American food is really delicious and evolving because of the different immigrant influences in that food. All the things that we think of as typically American, like apple pie, not one ingredient comes from North America. Same thing with the hot dog—it was brought to the world’s fair. All these things that we think of as American, they’re really not. They’ve been assimilated into the American food lexicon, and that’s fine. That to me is what is special about this country.
I guess most people don’t realize that, like now you can buy za’atar at most grocery stores, or I’ll get a press release saying Ras El Hanout is a new trend, and I imagine we’ll start to see that used in more mainstream places, like what happened with turmeric the past few years.
I’m happy because now I can get turmeric at my local store and not have to schlep to the Indian store!
What else are you working on now that’s exciting you?
I’m honestly working on taking a break! I know that’s not a very fascinating answer. But I’ve had a big year, working with the ACLU, filming Top Chef. And this bake-off is my last big event of the year. I’m looking forward to spending some time with my family and starting to buckle down on my next book, which I have no idea, so don’t ask me what it is.
I imagine people don’t realize that being on TV is a really demanding and exhausting job.
My biggest occupational hazard is a food coma—you feel sluggish after all that food!