A Conversation With Padma Lakshmi

Padma Lakshmi

The “Top Chef” executive producer and host, actress and best-selling author is the 2018 Guest of Honor at the James Beard Foundation Chefs & Champagne benefit on July 28 at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack. Ms. Lakshmi touches on the importance of JBF, the impact the “#MeToo” movement has had in the food industry, dishes on the new season of the Emmy-award winning Bravo television show and her favorite places to enjoy food on the East End.

The Express: The James Beard Foundation’s annual Chefs and Champagne event in July will honor you as its guest of honor. The event supports the Foundation’s leadership and sustainability programs. What are some of the programs JBF includes that you believe are meaningful and how important is this work to you in this industry?

Padma Lakshmi: I think it’s important that we use what we need from the planet, but don’t deplete our resources for future generations. I think the Foundation shares this same sentiment and is creating opportunities for us to have conservations with industry leaders and discussing real ways to make a positive change. The Smart Catch program for example provides training and support to chefs so they can serve seafood fished or farmed in environmentally-responsible ways. There are several species of fish put in very precarious situations with current fishing practices. With Smart Catch, chefs have a chance to use their influence to lead industry efforts to maintain healthy and sustainable food sources both now and for future generations. Sourcing local and ethical meat is another important issue. Meat production in this country leaves huge carbon footprint. I personally believe it’s one of the greatest dangers to the environment along with other industrial sources. While we can’t convince everyone to stop eating meat, we can find new ways to source meat ethically — in ways that are also better for the animals — and I think the Foundation has done a great job of tackling this topic at some of their past Issue Summits. Apart from the scientific reasons of this dilemma, it’s my personal belief that when you treat an animal badly throughout its life, and then eat its meat, that negative energy and suffering are absorbed into your body. I believe that karma plays a huge role in human existence. It’s easy to see how in 2018 we are reaping much of what we have previously sowed. I think we’re seeing this now from a lot of the actions taken during the 1970’s — ways of eating we thought were making meal practices more convenient like packaged, processed foods, are actually causing inter-generational harm to our society culture wide. Obesity is another issue in this country — multiplying faster in recent years than the previous 150. A third of our country’s children are obese. What we may think of as technological advancements are not actually advancing our culture at all. We must be more mindful of our food practices, and I think the Foundation is making great strides to have those conversations and find better ways for us and this industry to move forward. 

The “#MeToo” movement has grown significantly in the last year, with the beginnings of actual change occurring as a result. As a feminist involved in an industry that has its fair share of challenging stories from women working in kitchens and on the floors of restaurants, how is the movement manifesting itself in food businesses and culture, in your view?

For years on Top Chef, we’ve gone out of our way to ensure we have a diverse and equal representation of chefs from both genders in every season. That is one of the few ways our show is unlike the actual food industry. As a show run mostly by women, we think it’s good business, it’s fair, and frankly makes for better television, to have equal representation between the sexes. But that doesn’t reflect the reality of most restaurant kitchens. The ugly truth is that in the professional food world, women aren’t hired as often when they apply for the same jobs. They aren’t promoted as fast as men. And investors tend to favor male chefs when developing new projects. So women aren’t always in a position to even be able to help the next generation of women because of the lack of equal opportunities available to them. The culture has to change from the ground up. There are some great chefs and restauranteurs who are taking considerable steps to remedy the inequity in the professional food world. One example is Danny Meyer, who provides maternity leave. Another is Enrique Olivera, whose kitchen at Cosme is run almost completely by women. The life of a chef is not conducive to family obligations or maintaining regular business hours. It has traditionally been a very tightknit boys club. But with gender attitudes changing, and men helping out considerably more with domestic responsibilities at home, there are more women entering the field. That is not to say there aren’t some talented and super successful female chefs and restauranteurs — some examples are Barbara Lynch, Suzanne Goin, April Bloomfield, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn, to name a few. But as an industry, we must support and encourage a new generation of female professionals. The #MeToo movement is a painful but necessary reckoning, and I hope it’s just the beginning.

As chefs from the south continue to produce food for some of the most exciting restaurants in the U.S., it comes as little surprise to see Top Chef move to a location like Kentucky. Obviously the new season is under wraps, but can you at least confirm a bourbon quick fire or Kentucky Derby elimination challenge? 

I can assure you, the bourbon will be flowing!

Top Chef has been in New York, during season 5, but has never made it to the East End of Long Island, an area filled with farm fresh produce and local seafood, and a place that serves as a second home for many great chefs including Eric Ripert and Tom Colicchio. Could you ever see a Top Chef: Hamptons or Top Chef: Long Island?

We did do a fishing challenge in Long Island. I believe it was Tom who took the chefs fishing, and I met them at the Lighthouse afterward. I think Long Island and the Hamptons have so much to offer — not only with great produce but also all of the amazing seafood available. I think it’s just a logistical issue because we have a crew of about 100 people. So getting back and forth from the city is a challenge. But depending on when we film, if and when we do ever come back to New York, I would push for doing more out east.

Speaking of the East End, how much time have you been able to enjoy on the North and South forks? Any favorite food haunts?

I’ve spent some time out east every summer for the last several years, but to me, the pleasure of being out east is to enjoy a different pace of life. I’m somebody who actually prefers to cook at home. So for me, the pleasure of the Hamptons is to shop the farm stands and local fish markets, and figure out what I can do with those ingredients in a home kitchen. It may not sound very exciting, but as somebody who lives in the city and dines out frequently for work, it’s actually sublime.

The James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne benefit, honoring Padma Lakshmi, will be held on Saturday, July 28, beginning at 6 p.m. at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, with early VIP access available at 5 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit jamesbeard.org.