At The Top of Her Game

Mickey Boardman

Padma Lakshmi may emit somewhat of an ice princess vibe as the stern, often-unamused host of Top Chef. Though she takes food, and the show (now in its ninth season) very seriously, viewers might not realize what a joker she is. Take, for example, the prank she played on the crew while filming Top Chef's season seven finale. "I had my hairstylist spray and tease my bangs straight up like a unicorn," Lakshmi tells me. "Very Something About Mary, but longer and higher if you know what I mean." Her stylist Michelle Brown told the crew that Lakshmi had seen this new coiffure in Vogue and was hell-bent on rocking the look on the finale. She begged them to talk sense in to Lakshmi who showed up on set with the ridiculous phallic appendage jutting out of her forehead. Lakshmi laughs, recalling, "It was fantastic to watch the reaction of all those people on set trying to stifle themselves out of politeness. And to watch Casey, one of our EPs, try and daintily talk me out of it without hurting my feelings."

Lakshmi worries that the super-serious, "pack your knives and go" persona sometimes overshadows her actual persona. "I think on the show, you get to see a very specific and controlled version of me -- it's hard for viewers to get a sense of who I am. We're so into analyzing the minutiae of the food that we can come across as very clinical and cold. When people meet me, they're always amazed at how goofy I am." She adds that the "poeticism and beauty and the emotional memory of food" that she and her co- judges frequently muse on, often doesn't come across to viewers. "It's a shame that a lot of that winds up on the cutting room floor -- we could cut a whole new show with that footage."

Talking to Lakshmi, whether during this interview, over martinis at Indochine or on a visit to her homey-yet-chic East Village apartment, it's clear that she's come a long way from her early days in the spotlight as a model-actress more famous for who she was married to (Salman Rushdie -- the two split up in 2007). Lakshmi has joined the ranks of other models-turned-powerhouses like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, as a full-on 360-degree brand: Not only is she the host of Bravo's most popular reality show (and the only one to win an Emmy), she's the owner and designer of an eponymous jewelry line and a tea and spice company called Easy Exotic.

Right now we're chatting about the new season of Top Chef, premiering this month, that filmed in Texas over the summer. "San Antonio was hot," she says. "Hot as hell. I'm from India so when I say it's hot, it's hot." She goes on with a laugh, "If they had asked me I would have suggested Paris or Florence. I wouldn't necessarily have picked Texas in July." Filming with her toddler daughter Krishna in tow proved a bit of a challenge as well, especially, "because she's never had any store-bought or packaged food except for yogurt. She's really little and I just want the flora of her digestive tract to blossom naturally," Lakshmi explains. "I do want her to be able to eat everything eventually, but I want to introduce it in stages; so after her second birthday, she'll start eating fowl, and after her third or fourth birthday, we'll maybe introduce some red meat." This meant that during shooting, she says, "I cooked every day in every hotel room. I'll never forget, we had this conference table we pushed against a wall at the W Hotel in Dallas and we had hot plates and three pans: a frying pan, a skillet and a deep sauce pan for boilng pasta and anything else." Apparently, guest judge Emeril Lagasse noticed. "One day he asked me, 'So what did you cook today? I smelled food in the hall."

In addition to Lagasse, Top Chef's latest season is as chockablock with celebs as per usual, and features guest-judging appearances by the likes of Charlize Theron, Patti LaBelle and Pee-wee Herman. Fun fact: Lakshmi appeared in a Patti LaBelle music video in 1992. "It was a reunion of sorts," she says, "as that was one of my first jobs out of theater school. Also, hearing her sing live, just a cappella, it was quite astonishing and very moving."

As for Pee-wee Herman, she recalls, "the funny thing about Pee-wee, other than the fact that everyone on our set was way more excited about him being there than any other guest we have ever had on -- including Natalie Portman, Nancy Pelosi or even Buzz Aldrin and Joe Jonas -- was that he had really specific dietary requirements and the chefs weren't used to cooking just mostly chicken." And then, she says, "Me and my team decided to play a joke on him and dress my daughter up as a mini Pee-wee by slicking her hair back and getting a red bowtie and short sleeve collared white shirt." It looks like Krishna might be following in mommy's footsteps. ★

Stylist: Luigi Tadini
Hair: Michael Duenas for Exclusive Artists / Schwarzkopf 
Makeup: Kim Bower for Exclusive Artists/Nars 
Stylist's assistant: Carly Langefeld
Clothing by Jil Sander

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