Packaged narratives and lazy clichés are heroin to the celebrity media machine, hard to resist and even harder to shake once you’ve had a taste. The junk fiends have been dogging Padma Lakshmi for more than 16 years, painting the Indian-born model/actress-turned-cookbook author/TV star with a brush that is at turns Orientalizing and misogynistic. Though her persona on Top Chef—which she joined in its second season in 2006—is measured, collegial, and only moderately sensual (inevitable for someone who eats food for a living), she has been repeatedly described as either an exotic sexpot or a frosty goddess.
Her professional skill has been in nodding at these perceptions while letting them slide off her back—she has participated in the "how does she stay so thin?" profile, the winking bed-based Sunday routine profile, the Fashion Week profile in which Guy Trebay described her as a "semicelebrated hustler"—maneuvering that name recognition into a line of frozen meals, jewelry, tableware, and cookbooks.
This is the year Lakshmi rewrote the narrative. Her two newest books, published within six months of each other—The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs and Love, Loss and What We Ate—are a new departure in transparency, one offering a clear portal into Lakshmi's head, the other to her heart. Together, they form a complete portrait of a woman, neither ice princess nor nymphomaniac, who refuses to be defined by others any more.
Her very first book, published in 1999, was her spice-tinged response to the question "What do models eat?" At the time, she’d made waves in the couture world after posing nude for Helmut Newton and was a sometime actor and co-host of an Italian variety show. The cookbook’s title, Easy Exotic, was described by Vanity Fair as "a phrase to make a politically correct Yale professor split his jeans," and its photos of the author in the kitchen in less-than-regulation kitchen gear sealed her fate.
“Her two newest books form a complete portrait of a woman, neither ice princess nor nymphomaniac, who refuses to be defined by others any more.”
The next book came out eight years later, long enough to encompass a much-gossiped-about relationship with Salman Rushdie. Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, a reference to the balance of flavors inherent to Asian cuisines, was inevitably read as more salacious press-bait, even as, Lakshmi has since revealed, she was going through a painful divorce and more literally painful struggle with endometriosis, an illness she'd lived with undiagnosed for decades.
This year, she says she intended to write another healthy-eating cookbook only to have the words spin themselves into a memoir. No longer content to let media misconceptions linger, she writes at length in Love, Loss, and What We Ate about suffering from low self-esteem in a lily-white Southern California high school, the warts-and-all reasons that led to the end of her marriage to Rushdie, and her health. Her other book out this year is less obviously personal: a reference tome produced in collaboration with legendary NYC spice shop Kalustyan's. But for Lakshmi, who describes her palate as "needing stimulation—as a child, I was with spicy condiments like most children are with chocolate or candy," it's an encyclopedia of her passions.
Adamant that she's just a home cook (as compared to her Top Chef contestants, who are trying to "wow the shit out of me—and so they should!"), Lakshmi’s culinary gift lies in demystifying the spices she loves and using them in concert with one another, skillfully layering intense flavors. As she describes it, “When I taste something, in my mind I’m processing it almost like a piece of music—‘This instrument or this ingredient is too loud and it needs to hold back a little bit, that needs to be more forward for balance.’” With her public life, like her palate, finally finding its own natural balance, Lakshmi’s poised at the edge of even greater success.
From her grandmother’s lemon rice to a Top Chef favorite, here are the 10 dishes that made Padma Lakshmi’s career.