Padma Lakshmi on <i>Top Chef</i>, Beauty, and Her New Orleans "Picks"

The highly articulate Lakshmi has an affinity for local history and culture, and she elaborated on the fact that "New Orleans is the only place in America that has a completely different ethnic food and yet it's very American.
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What do you do when Top Chef Season 11 is a wrap and you're hungry for more? Log on to Bravo and check out Padma's Picks, and get to know more of New Orleans with Padma as your guide. "On Top Chef," said Padma, "we don't have time to really show the audience a city. What I love about Padma's Picks is that I could do that. I connected with local experts who guided me through the city, and there's no better way to get to know any city than through the locals."

The brain child of Bravo, Padma's Picks is a web series hosted by Lakshmi, with a laid-back but in-depth look into the New Orleans culinary scene. The show gave Padma a format to get to explore the city, something she loves to do but usually can't. "When I'm filming Top Chef I don't go out much, for a couple reasons. One is that we work very long hours and I'm tired, so when I'm done with work I really want to spend time with my daughter. The other reason is I eat so much on set that I don't really get to discover a lot of the restaurants."

When I asked Padma what she learned about New Orleans that she may not have discovered just filming Top Chef, she replied with quite a mouthful, and not just about food. She talked about the culture, the history, the music, the people... and given that Padma brings her toddler daughter with her everywhere, she was even impressed by how family-friendly the city is.

"My mom came to visit for the week we filmed and we were so surprised by all the fun and interesting things she and my daughter could do. I got to eat at a lot of the restaurants, get to know the chefs, listen to live music, and I got to meet all these people that were so cool, interesting and informative. I love local culture and history, and I get to share all of that with my audience on Padma's Picks."

About choosing the New Orleans chef-contestant for Season 11 through Padma's Picks, Lakshmi talked about the greater sense of responsibility she felt than when she's a judge on Top Chef. She didn't have the rest of the judges there to weigh in, so she was extra careful in choosing who she felt was the right chef to represent New Orleans. She explained, "I didn't want who I picked to disappoint us in the show and then Tom or Gail might say 'Why did you choose this guy?' And I'd say, 'Well you weren't there tasting the food on the day!'"

Then Padma laughed, thinking of how this works with the audience of Top Chef, "I think this is what our audience must say to us sometimes... 'What were you thinking?' But, as judges we want to say 'Did you taste the food? No? Well, ok then.'"

This got us talking about how the audience of Top Chef experiences the show, and how challenging it can be for the hosts and judges. "It's different than other competition shows for dancing, singing or clothes because you can actually experience whatever the creative product is, but on our show, you can see it and you can see the reactions on our faces, which are immediate and visceral, but you can't really get the same experience as eating it like we do. I think it's a testament to our show since it's been on so long that we do a good job communicating what that's like."

On Padma's Picks, Lakshmi takes the opportunity to do more than just judge food, she explores the food culture and history of what she called a "very deep and soulful city." The highly articulate Lakshmi has an affinity for local history and culture, and she elaborated on the fact that "New Orleans is the only place in America that has a completely different ethnic food and yet it's very American." Her enthusiasm for New Orleans food history comes across in Padma's Picks, as she told me how she discovered so many different influences on the cuisine there, from Spanish to French to Basque, Latin, German and Italian, "and of course African from the terrible history of slavery."

"In New Orleans you had all these nationalities comingling in a beautiful perfect storm of food, culture, music and art."

Before speaking with Padma, I did as I usually do when preparing for a celebrity interview, I asked a bunch of my friends and colleagues what they thought of the person. Truth be told, most people replied "Padma's just the pretty face." I couldn't let that sit, so I asked Lakshmi how she felt about that reaction.

She replied that it doesn't bother her now, but... "In the first few seasons it did bother me. A lot of the reason you may have got that response is that the show is very formatted, so there's not a lot of time for me to show my own personality or opine about everything I know about ingredients or techniques. My first role as the show's host is different than the role of Tom or Gail. Of course I'm a judge with equal weight, but it's my job to make sure other people's opinions get heard, to make them shine. That's what a good host does. Sometimes it is at the expense of sharing my own opinion, or showing how witty or smart I can be, but my job is making sure everyone else is heard, not just the other judges, but the chefs, because they're the real heroes of the show."

The former model talked about how she feels about her beauty, saying that her career as a model was mostly because she got lucky with genetics, but she didn't feel she gets any credit for genes. She didn't go after a modeling career, she was "discovered" sitting at a café. She is grateful for modeling though, as it paid her college loans and gave her the opportunity to travel all over the world. It was her hook to publish her first cookbook, which she said was viewed as "a marketing gimmick for what a model eats." But she took her book seriously and did such a great job that "Easy Exotic" earned a prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award. That kind of accolade and respectability isn't based on good looks.

For Padma, modeling wasn't everything, she sees more of herself in her books, but she gives credit to this part of her past. "I wouldn't have the job I have today on Top Chef if not for the fact that I had the opportunity to travel so extensively as a model. I got to see places and taste foods I would have never had the opportunity to try. So my modeling and all the places it took me made me a more well-rounded, broader-minded, worldly person."

So what's next for the model turned food writer turned TV host? "I really hope Bravo makes Padma's Picks into a regular series for TV, we just had so much fun filming it and we hope the audience loves it as much as we do!"

Regina Varolli is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Going To Culinary School" praised by Bobby Flay as "An answer to every question I've ever gotten about Cooking Schools."

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