The ‘Top Chef’ TV goddess dishes on single motherhood, the rumor mill and her never-fail diet
By Nandini D’Souza Wolfe
Padma Lakshmi has had quite a year. The model, mother and Top Chef host has been traveling non-stop, and only just returned to her East Village apartment from the Emmys in Los Angeles, where her hit show was nominated for three awards. Lakshmi won raves for her strapless tangerine fit-and-flare Monique Lhuillier gown. She looked like a
goddess, and playful pics emerged of Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson peeking out from underneath her voluminous hem in the
Anyone looking at her understated makeup and hair (to balance the gown’s vibrant hue), would think it was red-carpet business as usual for this model-turned-author/actress/reality star. But in reality, Lakshmi was sweating it a little bit. She had just wrapped filming for Top Chef ’s 10th season in Seattle and was carrying an extra 10 pounds. She hadn’t had time to start her traditional post-season diet yet.
Such weight gain is almost de rigueur now, nine seasons into her Top Chef hosting duties. Not that she’s complaining. The Bravo hit, which started its new season Nov. 7, has been a natural way to bridge her modeling and acting background with her love of food. Born in Madras, India, and then raised between New York and India when her parents divorced, Lakshmi was discovered as a model when she was 18. She soon became one of Helmut Newton’s favorite subjects—he often trained his lens on the long scar on her arm, the result of a car accident when she was younger. She starred in a few movies and television shows before penning two cookbooks, Easy Exotic and Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet. But it was when she brought together her beauty, brains and tastebuds on Top Chef that she really became a favorite outside the fashion set.
She quickly reeled in viewers who loved the idea of watching a bona fide model chowing down on fried bits and pieces—on camera, no less. She nabbed contestants, celebs and normally crotchety chefs because, as Andy Cohen put it, “She’s great to look at, fun to listen to and natural on camera.” Cohen, Bravo’s executive vice president of development and talent, Top Chef producer and host of Watch What Happens: Live, has a playful rapport with Lakshmi. During his post-season wrap-up with the entire season’s cast, he inevitably pulls out chef contestants swooning over Lakshmi. “There was a breakfast-in-bed challenge, and a lot of guys were going nuts,” he recalls. “The male chefs sometimes have dreams about her. Who can blame them?”
And women love her just as much. Regular Top Chef judge and author Gail Simmons remembers noticing Lakshmi before they had even met, when she was working for Jeffrey Steingarten at Vogue and someone had sent them a copy of Lakshmi’s Easy Exotic. “I remember thinking how great it was to see a beautiful woman who loved to cook,” says Simmons. When Simmons began hosting her own show, Just Desserts, she looked to Lakshmi for advice. “She was the first person I went to with questions and insecurities about how I would do.”
Lest anyone question her culinary chops, Eric Ripert, the Michelin star-winning chef behind Le Bernadin, is quick to note that she has a very refined palate and deep knowledge of food.
The show has also been a constant in her life of late. At 42, Lakshmi seems to finally be settling peacefully into her role as mother, entrepreneur, author and TV goddess. But it’s been a bit of rough ride getting here, one that has played out painfully in the gossip columns, starting with her 2004 marriage to, and 2007 divorce from, author Salman Rushdie. Next came news of her pregnancy with daughter Krishna, now 2 and a half, a custody battle with Krishna’s biological father, Adam Dell, and a relationship with Teddy Forstmann, the billionaire philanthropist and CEO of IMG who was 30 years Lakshmi’s senior and who passed away in November 2011.
Lakshmi is open and honest about her four-year on-off relationship with Forstmann and the impact he had on her life. “I don’t really feel like I’m single right now. I feel like the person I’m with is dead. I miss him every day,” she says.
“The most valuable part of Teddy was his enormous heart. The more people gossiped publicly about me, the tighter he held my hand,” Lakshmi explains. “Not only privately, but publicly. He understood me in all my flaws and subtleties. His presence in my life was resolute, consistent, unwavering and loving. And that’s what a real man is. I have no problem saying, with great humility, that Teddy was the man in my life who possessed the greatest emotional wisdom. He had more manhood in his pinky fingernail than most men.”
Forstmann, who already had two grown sons he had adopted, treated and loved Krishna as his own, says Lakshmi, which counts for more than anything else.
It is motherhood that has brought her the greatest joy. Her daughter is remarkably eloquent for a toddler. But then again, she can already understand a second language, Tamil, Lakshmi’s mother tongue. Krishna has a near-perfect golden tan and dark blond hair. It’s a pixie cut that has grown out from when Lakshmi shaved her daughter’s hair as part of a traditional Hindu ceremony where one symbolically cuts off unwanted traits from past lives and starts fresh in this life.
“Krishna was very proud of her shaved head. I prepared her for it,” recalls Lakshmi. “Her grandfather and uncle shaved their heads in solidarity, and at the time, whenever she watched her favorite video of Alicia Keys and Jay-Z [singing “Empire State of Mind”], she’d say, ‘Mom, look! Jay-Z shaved his head in solidarity.’”
Lakshmi admits that the best part about motherhood has been what great company her daughter is. “It’s a pleasure being with her rather than out doing all the things I was doing before, not because I should or because it’s my duty but because Krishna’s the funnest game in town.”
She’d have more children if she could, but given her single status and the problems she has had with endometriosis, it’s unlikely. Medically, she wasn’t supposed to have Krishna. “I found out I couldn’t have kids when I went to freeze my eggs at 30,” she says. “I’d already had five surgeries [for endometriosis] and the doctor said, ‘Miss Lakshmi, I have some bad news—your ovaries are actually older than you are.” But against the odds, Krishna was conceived and born. To wit, Lakshmi says, “I’m not going to tempt fate. I have a healthy, vibrant daughter, and I’m thankful.”
With a toddler around, holidays are big in the Lakshmi household. “We take the staunch position that every holiday is worth celebrating to the fullest of our capabilities, and we are not prejudiced about that at all.” And there’s a lot to cover, starting with daily prayers and celebrating Hindu holidays like Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights in early November. Then there are the Jewish holidays with Krishna’s father’s side of the family. “And finally Christmas. We started getting a tree with Poppy,” Krishna’s name for Forstmann. It’s Krishna’s job to put the bronze angel on the top of the tree.
Today, Lakshmi is waiting for her daughter to return from preschool for lunch. Lakshmi’s own favorites are comfort foods she ate as a child, like a tamarind soup and certain curries that are tied to her roots in Madras. But New York City is home, too, where her mother worked as a nurse at Sloan-Kettering. She spent much of her childhood on the Upper East Side and attended P.S. 158. “I grew up in Carl Schurz Park. I had my first kiss behind Gracie Mansion.” She has distinct culinary touchpoints that only a true New Yorker could have: sugarcane and tamarind from the shops in Spanish Harlem; exotic vegetables from Chinatown; lasagna night on Sundays at Elio’s.
At home, there’s no bacon ice cream or corn foam in sight. Just hot tea with milk. “I’m not doing carb-free,” she says. “And it’s just for one month. It’s a poem so I remember it: No meat, no wheat. No fried food or cheese. No alcohol, no sweets.” She freely admits that the hardest part will be skipping fried food. “I love salty, crispy things.”
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