It’s easy to look at Padma Lakshmi and think, here is a person made for the spotlight. But for the executive producer and host of the Emmy-Award winning TV show Top Chef, now in its 14th year, success has been a much longer, more interesting road than one might think at first glance—a lifelong journey to embrace her Indian heritage and her unique, cross-cultural experience.
Lakshmi’s entrepreneurial successes stretch across a broad spectrum: modeling; cookbooks (The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs!, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, and the award-winning Easy Exotic); a rice and lentil line also called Easy Exotic; a pottery and glassware company called the Padma Collection; a jewelry line; acting; television hosting; and a best-selling memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. When you read this book, you might be surprised to find out how long it has taken Lakshmi to feel comfortable in her own skin, and how her career began to succeed once she came to terms with, and became proud of, the twists and turns in her fascinating life.
“I’ve never felt completely American or completely Indian. I’ve felt like a bit of an outsider in both cultures,” says Lakshmi, who came to the U.S. as a 4-year-old to join her mother, who had arrived two years earlier to set up their life in New York. At the time—the early 1970s—it wasn’t easy to be a divorcée in conservative southern India so, with the support of her family, her mom moved abroad, where she’d have a better chance at succeeding as an independent, working single mother. And she did it, working as a full-time nurse at Sloane-Kettering Hospital in Manhattan while taking night classes to earn a graduate degree at Hunter College—where little Padma would color in the back of the classroom.
The young vegetarian’s first culture clash with the U.S. was with food, naturally. “My grandfather (who incidentally loved America) warned me: ‘Be careful,’” Lakshmi says. “’It’ll be snowing outside and you will order something as innocent and pure as a vegetable soup, but in that broth is lurking the melted flesh of an animal!’” Throughout her childhood, Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants were family favorites because they served rice—the only item on the menu she would eat.
Decades later, Lakshmi launched Padma’s Easy Exotic, a line of six frozen rice and lentil dishes designed for working parents who want a quick, healthy weeknight meal on the family table. (Each rice variety is vegan and gluten-free, and three of the six flavors are 100% organic and non-GMO certified.) “I’m not inclined to reach for packaged foods when I’m cooking at home, so it was important for me to create something I was comfortable putting in my own daughter’s mouth,” says Lakshmi. Fittingly, the entrees are based on family recipes passed down through generations. The Madras lemon rice—a combination of rice, red jalapeño, black mustard seeds, lemon, and gram lentils—is what her grandmother made every weekend in Chennai.
Food, and the ritual of preparing it, has shaped Lakshmi’s life and career. She spent a decade modeling in Europe, working with the likes of Helmut Newton–the first photographer to book her because of an eye-catching scar on her arm (the result of a car accident). Lakshmi later embarked on a professional acting career. For her first TV role in the U.S., she gained 20 pounds, and though it was a cinch (and a pleasure) to gain the weight, it wasn’t so easy to lose it after filming.
Searching for a healthy way forward, she began to experiment with her favorite recipes, tweaking them for what would become the basis of her first cookbook, Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low Fat Recipes from Around the World.
When asked, “What does a model know about food?” her answer was: a lot. The book won the International Versailles Event for Best Cookbook by a First Time Author at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lakshmi identifies this as a professional turning point. “It opened my eyes to the possibility that I could actually have a career in food—that it wasn’t just a lark.”
After her first television cooking show was canceled, Lakshmi feared the worst–but then the Food Network asked her to draw upon her global travels and family Indian recipes for Padma’s Passport and Planet Food, which gave her a renewed sense of confidence. “Now I see that the exposure to both [Indian and American] cultures gives me a broader perspective—both in my tastes, and in my knowledge,” says Lakshmi, who says it’s her mission to make the world’s most exotic flavors more user-friendly and accessible to everyone.
True to that vision, Lakshmi is in the process of relaunching her line of spices, but she is taking her time to find the right distribution partner, careful to apply the lessons she learned the first time she introduced the seasoning line on the Home Shopping Network (HSN). “When we first launched, we were so excited to have HSN on board because they are such a great distributor, but we didn’t realize the HSN customer was not really our target market. It was like selling a baseball bat to a basketball player.”
This time, she’s recalling advice from her late partner and mentor Teddy Forstmann. “The reason he excelled at business was because he was good at people. He was good at sussing out what was really important to the person sitting across any table from him. If he could give that to them in exchange for whatever he needed from them, he did it. He taught me in real, concrete ways how not to be penny wise and pound foolish.”
Her basic rule in negotiating is built around the fact that a good deal happens when both parties are happy. “You will never get 100% of what you want, but you have to remember that the contract is only the first step of dealing with this other person or entity. You have to work with each other, and no one wants to work with someone being difficult from the get-go.”
Lakshmi finds herself constantly dealing with the challenges that come from being a business owner–and it certainly hasn’t all been smooth sailing. “One of the most difficult business decisions I’ve had to make was choosing to shut down my jewelry line,” she says. “I had orders for six new stores when we closed. But I became pregnant, and because of the legal issues that ensued, I felt it was too much to maintain a fine jewelry company at that time. I had to let go of four employees. It was very painful.”
Her road to good health has also been a bumpy road–but again, she found a way to overcome adversity. In 2009, Lakshmi cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, an organization that advocates for early diagnosis, additional research, and awareness of the chronic disease that affects over 190 million women worldwide. Lakshmi is one of those women. “To me, success is when you’re at a point in your life when you can help other people. Not only monetarily, but when you can use your power and influence to really make a difference when and where people need it.”
For now, most of Lakshmi’s power and influence comes from the hit show Top Chef. “The pleasure one gets from watching Top Chef is largely voyeuristic, and has an element of fantasy to it,” Lakshmi says. “It’s wonderful to have these complicated dishes broken down for you by four knowledgeable palates, but I don’t think most people watch Top Chef thinking, ‘I’m going to make this at home!’”
The best part of the show for Lakshmi is launching the careers of so many talented chefs. “For so much of my life, until about a decade ago, I was so busy trying to make it, I couldn’t think past that. Now I feel that the most rewarding part of doing well is to be able to create opportunity for others.”