In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.
Padma Lakshmi is a food connoisseur. The Emmy-nominated host and executive producer of Bravo’s Top Chef has published three cookbooks, a children’s book called Tomatoes For Neela, and a 2016 memoir called Love, Loss, And What We Ate. She is also on a constant quest to learn more about how food intertwines with our history and culture. Her Hulu travelogue series Taste The Nation examines American cuisine through the lens of various immigrant communities.
The show’s holiday special, Taste The Nation: Holiday Edition, premiered on November 4 with four episodes that explore Jewish, Native American, Cuban, and Korean food through festivals and customs. The A.V. Club spoke to Lakshmi about the docuseries, as well as her love for PBS, her nostalgia for Rome, and meeting with Mother Teresa for a new round of 11 Questions.
Padma Lakshmi: I remember going on many trips as a kid, but one in particular was in the West Coast. My uncle, aunt, their kids, my mother and I drove up and down the California coast. We saw the Redwoods, Hearst Castle, and The Gum Wall in San Luis Obispo’s Bubblegum Alley. It’s just this weird alley where everyone sticks wads of their gum. It sounds totally bizarre, but as a kid I was into it. We went camping, slept by the ocean. I must’ve been in sixth or seventh grade. I remember a lot of those vacations I did with my uncle, Ramesh, and his wife, Shruti. They were all so much fun.
The A.V. Club: Have you gone back and taken that drive since?
PL: Pieces of it, but I haven’t had the time to do it back then. But it is beautiful.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
PL: I still struggle with understanding how to handle different cuts of meat. I grew up vegetarian and didn’t start eating meat until I was a teenager. I’m still learning what the best way to handle certain meat products, like a liver or something. I don’t like organ meat, but it’s part of my job and intellectual development in food to learn. I’m trying to embrace it, but you’re never going to see me order a T-bone steak rare, let’s put it that way.
AVC: Do you remember what made you start eating meat or try these different foods?
PL: I think it was just good old-fashioned peer pressure in high school. Everyone else was eating pepperoni on pizza and cheeseburgers. I thought, “Okay, they make it seem so good.” I didn’t even start eating fish until I was well in my late 20s.
AVC: Do you still cook vegetarian or do you prefer cooking meat?
PL: I do cook meat. It’s not red meat. If it is, it’ll be roast that I slow roast across the whole afternoon. I’ll make a rack of lamb if I’m having somebody who really loves that at a dinner party. It wouldn’t be something I would reach for.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
PL: Not really, I was just busy wiping everyone down like everyone else. I did for a while, because we were spending the crux of quarantine by the beach, I did start cooking outdoors on an open fire. By no means will I say I picked up expertise in it yet. It’s hard to cook over fire and I had a lot of help.
AVC: The beach sounds like a nice place to ride out the pandemic.
PL: It was the best of a difficult situation. It was the best thing for my daughter, which is why we did it. It did matter where you were, of course, but I think there is level of anxiety with knowing that all of us on the planet are going through. We had it very easy, and I realize how lucky we have been. But it still doesn’t take away the anxiety, that sort of feeling of, “I’m in a holding pattern and waiting for things to be okay, but who knows when that’s going to be.”
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
PL: When I’m in Paris, I will often go to Chez L’Ami Louis. It’s not even for the food because it’s not great. It’s a fun environment to people watch. When I’m in Rome, I’ll go Roscioli for their focaccia bread.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you went there?
PL: I don’t remember the first time I went to Roscioli, but it must have been in the ’90s when I was living in Rome. I love that part of the city, the Jewish Quarter. It’s fantastic. I love walking through there. It’s a whole experience going there, waiting in line to get your focaccia.
Rome has a magical place in my heart always. I started my television career there. I used to co-host [Italian network] Rai 1’s travel program, Domenica In. It’s been a long time now, but I love going back there.
PL: I think I would like to have a car that drives itself but safely. It would free up time for me so I could read more.
PL: Mother Teresa. She was very twinkly.
AVC: Wow, that’s a really big name. When did you meet her?
PL: I didn’t know I was going to meet her until the day of, and had no idea what she was like. She was charismatic, charming, funny. She spoke beautiful Italian. I met her in Calcutta, India at the headquarters of her charity. I was young and in my early 20s. She did not disappoint.
PL: I was building salads at a pizzeria when I was in high school at this family-owned restaurant.
AVC: Were people coming into a pizza place and ordering salads?
PL: No. I had to build these salads and let them sit, and I never thought they should be just sitting.
PL: I like my own family, thank you. I do love New Girl, though. My daughter and I have been watching it. I don’t think I want to belong in the household, but I enjoy watching it.
9. What’s the first piece of art, or earliest piece of media, that inspired you to go into your field?
PL: That’s easy. Julia Child on PBS.
AVC: How did watching her make you realize that this is what you want to do?
PL: I don’t think I consciously saw her and thought “That’s what I want to do.” I didn’t know that it was a career I could even pursue. I was a late bloomer and didn’t get into food until my 30s. But I loved watching those shows and they were trickling into my subconsciousness somewhere. I learned a lot about food by watching public television. My mother waited to get cable until I went to college, which is annoying. But I had PBS and watched all those shows.
PL: I know a lot of funny people personally. I think Ali Wong, Chris Rock, Michelle Buteau, Chelsea Handler. I’m fortunate enough to know them.
PL: Mint and green chili chutney, mayo, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mustard, pickled jalapeños on a toasted sourdough.
AVC: People don’t realize how much a mint and green chili chutney can enhance a sandwich. What would you name this one?
PL: Exactly. The Padma, I think? Or I like Spicy Turkey Club.
Bonus question: What was a surprising takeaway or a new thing you learned while filming Taste The Nation: Holiday Edition?
PL: I didn’t know a lot about Wampanoag rituals or how that tribe has survived for 12,000 years in North America. I have never gone scallop digging, I’ve never dug for crabs. I learned how to do that. I only perfunctorily knew about Chinese traditions but not about Korean New Year because it’s celebrated mostly in the home. That episode, “K-Town Countdown,” was an odyssey of learning for me. I see myself as the audience’s representative. I learn a lot all the time, and I hope the audience is learning with me.
AVC: Do you have a favorite episode from Holiday Edition?
PL: It’s episode two, “Truth And The Turkey Tale,” set in Cape Cod. It sets some things straight. It busts myths we’ve all been told about Thanksgiving.