Interview: Padma Lakshmi Behind the Scenes of ‘Taste the Nation’

This week on Eater’s Digest, writer, Top Chef host, and executive producer Padma Lakshmi discusses her new show Taste the Nation and why it’s so needed right now. Her show focuses on immigrant cuisines across America and explores the history, culture, politics, people, and the often forgotten or overlooked contributions to our national foodways.

Lakshmi also talks about her need for creative control on this show and her desire to be herself and to show women as full humans, instead of as sweet sidekicks. “I was tired of women having to be delicate, or kind of coquettish, or sweet, or well-dressed. I’m sick of fucking wearing heels,” says Lakshmi. “I did my own makeup. I lived in my car. I didn’t have a trailer or anything. And it was so liberating.”

Then, Eater Chicago’s Ashok Selvam catches us up on the latest out of his city, including the controversy surrounding lauded restaurant Fat Rice, new to-go booze laws, and the general vibe of restaurant-goers as the city opens up.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts and read the full transcript of our interview below.

Amanda Kludt:

Padma Lakshmi, welcome to the show. Congratulations on your new show. Can you talk a little bit about the impetus for the idea behind the show, how the development process went?

PL:

Sure. It’s basically a direct result of my work with the American Civil Liberties Union. I started working with them shortly after the election in early 2017. At that time, there were a lot of things being said in the media and out of Washington that were really vilifying to immigrants. And as an immigrant myself, I took great offense to that. And concurrently during that process, I was working with my producing partner, David Smith of Part 2 Pictures, and we were going to do an immigration show, because of all this information. And then separately, I was doing a cookbook. And I showed him the research that I had compiled. And he thought we should combine the two projects. The idea behind the show is to go to a community and pick one dish that may or may not be really what they eat, but is in the larger consciousness what we think of when we think of that cuisine traditionally.

And so using that dish is kind of a Trojan Horse to get me embedded into this community. And for 14 years of my life, I’ve been talking about some very highfalutin food on Top Chef. And I knew for a fact that that’s not how most people eat regularly in their lives. And so as someone who’s not a chef, and is a home cook and writer, I wanted to explore on the ground, what people were eating in those different communities. And use that to talk about some deeper issues. Because food is of course, excuse me, fetishized in our culture. But for most people it’s tied with a lot of nostalgia, and identity and emotions. And so I wanted to use food to get to those issues.

Daniel Geneen:

Yeah.

AK:

I noticed in one of the episodes, you’re on the border town of El Paso and you’re talking to a restaurant owner who employees all of these Mexican chefs and cooks, and is an avid Trump supporter. And in the scene you are holding hands and trying to have this conversation. And I was wondering, what does she feel like in this moment, because you are so resistant to Trump and his administration. And yet you are learning through the conversation what his point is.

PL:

I thought it was important to have him in the show. Again, while it’s not a piece of journalism, I think it improved my credibility if I try to be as impartial as I can and show both sides. So I wanted that interview very badly. I was warned that Maynard was cantankerous, moody, profane, politically incorrect and maybe even racist. I think he had intimidated my field producer a lot. And I felt badly for her for putting her in that pre-interview situation. And so I was kind of ready for everything and I really wanted the interview. So I was just, again, going at it with just be fluid and see what he gives you. He grabbed my hand very early on. It was awkward. It was so awkward, but I have uncles like that in my family.

… I think Maynard, especially others in his generation, but also in our generation. I’m almost 50. I think there’s a disconnect for a lot of people on policy versus the actual human exchange of daily life.

And he talks about his employees like his family. And he, I’m sure doesn’t pay them what they should be paid, but I’m also sure that they get paid more by Maynard than they would if they had that same job in Juarez. And so I wanted to look at how these twin cities, who have always kind of existed in a symbiotic relationship with each other. It’s a right of passage for every high schooler to kind of go and party in Juarez. I mean, Maynard’s daughter herself told me that when she had her graduation party, she didn’t want to have it in El Paso. She wanted to have it in Juarez, because that’s what was cool.

And then Juarez got dangerous and stuff. But the actual locals have always had this give and take. Much like in New York where there’s so many people coming in from Brooklyn, from New Jersey, from Queens to the city, working and leaving. And all the cool restaurants are now in Brooklyn. It’s in a way a form of that. And so these laws that are handed down from Washington have completely… So I wanted to see again how these lofty notions that are often made devoid of getting to know the people they actually directly affect do affect those people.

DG:

It seems like you didn’t want to make any kind of hard and fast point about it. And you just wanted to let them have a platform so that all of these people could just say what their day-to-days are like interacting with each other. And then he says, “I’m going to vote for Trump, because what option do I have?” And obviously the implication is, well hey, it’s going to, I mean, even that action makes it so your employees have to spend a lot longer at the border every day. But I feel like you don’t say those things explicitly in the thing, right? Is that a conscious…

PL:

My job was not to be there as an ACLU representative, trying to convince him that his behavior was wrong. My job in that instance, I believe was to document his authentic point of view without trying to manipulate it. If the camera was off and we had time and I didn’t have to go to my next location, I might have sat there and been like, “You’re foolish.”

DG:

In the cold.

PL:

It’s a different conversation that I have when he’s like… You also have to be mindful that you’re in his space. You’ve asked to talk to him, you’ve asked his employees to stop working or talk to me outside on their lunch breaks. So there’s a certain just graciousness that I felt I needed to have.

DG:

I appreciate that though, because I feel like for years, everyone in the media or everyone online, or everyone, maybe people who are particularly vocal who go to the store are telling him he’s full of shit. And then it reinforces what he already thinks about the other side.

PL:

And about the media.

DG:

Yeah.

PL:

Yeah.

AK:

I think also… I don’t know if you all remember Bourdain’s episode where he went to West Virginia and was talking to those people there about what it was like to work in the mines. And this isn’t the exact same thing, but there is a parallel where sometimes you’d need to show these people in their environments and hear what they have to say. And that’s how you can make some sort of progress.

PL:

I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have gotten to know him as well if I tried to talk to him rather than just listen to what he had to say. And that’s why I was there. I wasn’t there because I wanted my audience to know my opinion. I was there because I wanted my audience to be exposed to people like Maynard, to be exposed to people like Rosa in the Peruvian episode. And those are the people that make up this country. That’s what this country is like. And a lot of people, especially in media live on either coasts, and they’re insulated in a way to their own detriment. And so for me, I wanted to come away from the series changed, because I knew… Or just educated. Just more informed.

PL:

And I knew that if I didn’t let them speak, then the point of doing the show would have been lost.

AK:

Were there other-

PL:

… Because I’ve seen a lot of shows like that. And we’ve all seen millions of travel shows. And they’re all nice. And they all take a survey of what’s cool, or hip, or delicious, or what are the hidden gems in a particular city. And that’s great. And that’s kind of a lifestyle show that I’ve done before early in my career, that I really love also consuming. But I wanted this food show to have greater cultural meaning, at least to me. If I was going to do a second TV show and be away from my kid, I wanted it to be worth it.

AK:

It seems like historically not a lot of people get the opportunity to do a smart cultural show about food. Outside of Bourdain’s history, you don’t see a ton of shows like that. And I’m wondering, what has that been like from the inside? Do you see that changing? Was it really hard to get this green-lit?

PL:

That’s a great question. Yeah, I see it changing. I think a big shift was… And a big beautiful instance of it was Samin’s show. Never did you see a woman doing that. You have a lot of examples of men, kind of these male chefs swashbuckling all over the world. And that’s what Tony’s show is about. In another way, Andrew Zimmern is coming at it from another angle. Then Marcus Samuelsson is coming at it from a PBS angle. And then Alton Brown is coming at it from a scientific angle. But they’re all men. And when people first started talking to me about the show or I would talk to them, they’d be like, “It’s like Bourdain.” And I would say, “Well, I was friends with Tony for 20 years.” Not great friends, but I saw him consistently in my life.

And that show only works because of Tony. Because that show relies so much on his personality. I mean, he basically wrote that show in voiceover. And he did that show for 12 years on the Travel Channel, pretty much the way he wanted to in a very low-fi way. This show cannot be that. It cannot be Andrew Zimmern show. It cannot be any of those other shows I mentioned, because I’m not those people. I love travel. I couldn’t do what I do if my life hasn’t been full of travel. First as a child who, traveled between cultures. But also in my early career. So I wanted to be able to do that as a woman. I was tired of women having to be delicate, or kind of coquettish, or sweet, or well-dressed. I’m sick of fucking wearing heels.

I did my own makeup. I lived in my car. I didn’t have a trailer or anything. And it was so liberating. And at some point… Yeah, I mean, I had a makeup artist for some of the episodes. And at some point… I love her. She’s a great makeup artist. And I still use her. But I know for a fact that when you’re trying to capture an environment, the less of a footprint you have, the better. So I just had to make that choice. And I’m vain like everybody else. I want to look pretty. I’m not all of a sudden claiming I don’t care about what I look like. But I wanted the freedom to be crass. I wanted to swear. I wanted to have the full experience that I would have if the camera wasn’t on. And somewhere between the show being bought by Hulu and us going into edit of the episodes, Disney bought Hulu.

And so I was really worried, because I know that after I was seeing memos saying “We really see the show as a co-viewing show. Much like Top Chef.” The kids in the family can watch it with grownups. And I just wanted to make sure I said, “This is an adult show.” I have a kid and I’m always looking for things I can watch with my 10-year-old. So I get it. But I wanted the freedom to be how I am. I don’t know if you guys have watched the Chinese episode yet.

AK:

Not yet.

PL:

There were things in that episode that were going to be cut, that I had to fight to keep in, because we never see women being sexual. Except to try to attract the audience or try to seduce else. We never see people… I’ve not seen a lot of women who are on TV, and who play themselves, who are just all the things that all human beings are. And I knew that the more myself I was, or tried to be, the more that my guests on my show, my interview subjects would be themselves. And I needed to show myself if I wanted them to show me.

DG:

And was it hard at first, because you obviously have insane level of reps doing Top Chef stuff, and it seems like you probably would have gotten into a rhythm in that world and in the way that you act on that set. So was it hard to break?

PL:

It wasn’t hard for me. For so many years with the American public has seen of me is such a narrow version of my personality. And that’s a function of the format of Top Chef. For me to do my job well, it requires me sublimating my personality a lot, because I want to get to the guest judges and what they think. I want to get information out of the contestants, et cetera. There’s so much business to happen that people didn’t really get to see what I was like. I’ve done TV outside of Top Chef. Albeit, a long time ago, because I’ve been doing Top Chef for 14 years. But I’ve worked in different countries. I worked in different languages on live television. So that wasn’t hard. That wasn’t hard at all, because I was dying to do that.

DG:

Right.

PL:

The main thing for me with this show is for good or bad, I wanted creative control. I didn’t want somebody else to tell me how to be. I was not thinking of, okay, I have to be totally different than I am on Top Chef, or I wanted to be more comfortable, which is why my wardrobe is what it is versus what it is on Top Chef. And also would have been inappropriate in a lot of situations I was in. But I really just wanted to be free. I didn’t want to have any artifice. I just wanted to ask the questions and just get the answers. And I wanted that human connection.

I wanted to get to know these people. And given the choice between going to a white tablecloth tasting menu at the best restaurant in any city or having a food truck crawl, I would choose the latter, because that’s what my tastes run naturally toward. I have great respect for Michelin Star chefs. I know the skill and tactical execution involved in that kind of dining. I respect it. I value it. I just, on my own time, I’m not interested in it anymore, or as much. Nearly as much. I’m interested in how most people in the world eat.

DG:

You never hear people say… Who spend years and years in the kind of Michelin level communities. You never hear them say, “I’ve just spent so much time in these communities and it’s really increased my love for it. And I want to spend more time.”

AK:

Some people though, they stay in it. So many of these people.

DG:

They stay, but they’re never like, “I’m more excited now than I’ve ever been about a four hour meal.”

PL:

Yeah. Yeah.

AK:

I follow you on Twitter and you’re very vocal about your political beliefs and opinions. And I’m wondering, would you want to explore a show that’s even more overtly political talking about what food and politics mean, especially in this moment?

PL:

Sure, I would. I mean, let’s hope enough people watch and enjoy Taste The Nation. And that I get that opportunity. I started my hosting career in Italy on a live show, and there was no tape delay, and it wasn’t about food. It was just one of those big variety shows. And I was part of a bigger cast. And I was sort of the sidekick to the main host. And I learned a lot on that show. And I really enjoy the spontaneous conversation of live television. There’s nothing to beat it., The title of this show is not an accident. It’s a play on Face The Nation. And I would love a show like that. But not even that just explores food and politics, although that is of course a natural jumping point. And by the way, and a very deep well from which to call conversation.

But I feel like we’ve gotten so polarized. In media there’s a formula, someone’s pushing a book, or an album, or a show. And they come on and they talk about that. And it’s all very pre-rehearsed. But I would love to do a show that has… And I’ve tried to pitch the show forever, by the way. A show where you have people from all, two or three guests from different walks of life. So you have like Shaquille O’Neal, and Lorde, and Aziz Ansari, I’m making this up obviously. And the conversation between these three people and having that. And there are shows that have tried to do that, but I don’t think anyone has found a way to crack that nut. And that’s a show I would feel excited to watch and participate in as well or host, because it’s what I do in my own living room.

I don’t go out to eat as much as people think I do. But I love to have dinner parties. And I love to curate a guest list. To me, that’s my jam. That is wonderful. And to just introduce people to each other and to hear them speak, because I want to learn. I want to learn how to be funny from Aziz. I want to learn how to be well-informed and right from David Remnick. I want to be able to understand whatever it is. And so bringing those people together is exciting to me. And I think in the next phase of my career, I would like to make a decent living doing what I naturally do for free in my own life.

AK:

Do you think this moment will lead to more opportunities like that, for a show like that, or for, I don’t know, a better representation in TV in general?

PL:

I hope so. When I was waiting for our conversation to start, we were just reading Business Insider.

AK:

It’s dark.

PL:

It’s very dark. And you would think that it would be easy for me to get coverage, because I’ve been on TV for 14 years. Top Chef is in 60 countries. I feel like I’ve earned the right to actually have some copy space in some big food magazines. But I couldn’t get arrested at Bon Appétit, and now I know why.

AK:

Yeah.

PL:

And you hate that, or I hate that. As a Brown person, as a woman, I hate having to explain why I can’t crack a certain nut with that excuse. But when you feel like you have this undertow, this invisible force that you cannot square with any of your actions, or what can I do? Then you start to be like, “Oh, okay.” Because nobody wants to say that. I mean, gross. You don’t want to blame your inability to achieve something that you think is important on that kind of stuff. So it embarrasses you. It embarrasses you to even talk about it.

AK:

And I think the people in power just kind of ignore it because they don’t believe it. And so you need… But when you see so many people with the exact same experience, saying the exact same thing-

PL:

… I mean, what the hell?

AK:

It’s like these people feel gaslit that they’re not being listened to. And it’s like, wait, this is everywhere.

PL:

I cannot believe that it was… That you don’t pay one person the same as you pay the other person for doing the exact same work. I get, hopefully if someone has more experience and more stuff on their resume, they make a different paycheck than somebody who’s starting out. But fuck, that is just blatant racism and sexism. And it’s illegal.

AK:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s horrifying. And I think in this moment, we’re learning about so many industries, and specific companies and brands that have a lot of reckoning to do. And oftentimes, I hope in these moments, it leads to better people getting better opportunities. And better people getting in the room.

PL:

Me too. Yeah. I mean, I have to admit that one time I went to some Persian restaurant in San Diego, and for some reason somebody at Bon Appétit wrote a really long article about that meal that I put on Instagram. But that was just random. Maybe Adam wasn’t looking very hard that day. Yeah, somebody was golfing. But that happens. That shit happens all the time. And it’s good that it’s coming out. I’m happy. No one wants anyone’s career to be ruined, but I’m glad people are making a stink. My neighborhood was totally trashed, completely fucking trashed in the looting and stuff. And it’s fine. I really don’t care. I care much more about the people who had the courage to, in spite of COVID, go out there and demonstrate and protest. Every now and then society needs a seizure, society needs some kind of shock. And it’s unfortunate that it’s on the backs of these black men.

AK:

Absolutely. And to go back to the show, you talk about immigrant cuisines. And one of them is the Gullah Geechee community. And I think that’s important to include whenever you’re talking about the foods that make up America.

PL:

Definitely. That episode was really important to me. It was probably the episode I did the most amount of research for. We filmed this time last year or a little bit later, maybe in August. It was really hot in Charleston. That’s all I remember. But I really enjoyed that episode, because we never think about African American cuisine as having its ancestry and roots in another continent, the way we look at immigrant cuisine. But it obviously does. It is forced migration. And so I was sick of seeing African American food just painted with a broad brush of soul cooking, or Southern food, or whatever. And I wanted to see what was it, in as much as it’s possible, separated from its white colonial ties. And when I was in Charleston with Top Chef, I met BJ Dennis and we became friends. And like I said on Top Chef, we don’t have time to go into a lot of history because of the competition that we have to show.

But we did attribute dinner to Edna Lewis at Middleton Place. And we got a lot of flack for going to what used to be a plantation. And so I wanted to go back there actually, because we can either avoid it and be like, we’re not going to justify that location with our presence. Or we can go there and we can face it and say, “This ugly episode in our history is part of our legacy too.” And so, that whole episode is really, really important to me. Also, about the different African cultures and the theory that certain enslaved people were sought after because of their rice cultivation knowledge. And that the Carolina rice industry declined right after Juneteenth. Right after the end of slavery and that’s not an accident.

AK:

Well, it’s truly excellent. And we hope all of our listeners check it out on Hulu, starting June 18th now.

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