Padma Lakshmi: Foodie Meets Fashionista

It's hard to take your eyes off Padma Lakshmi, whom you might know as the host of Bravo's reality-TV hit "Top Chef," or for her three-year marriage to author Salman Rushdie, or for her sexy hamburger commercial for Carl's Jr.

But while many are stuck staring, Lakshmi has her eyes on the prize.

"I've always been somebody who is happiest when she's occupied, when her hands are busy, when my mind is active," Lakshmi said. "For a long time, I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was desperate to find something that fit me and I just decided that if I could organically make a professional living out of the things that interested me, then I would be a happy person."

Padma Lakshmi: Where Foodie Meets Fashion
Padma Lakshmi: Where Foodie Meets Fashion

The Indian-born Lakshmi has cultivated an eclectic and long resume: model, cookbook author, actress, "Top Chef" host, jewelry maker, global franchise. But it all makes perfect sense to her.

"All of what I do is pretty similar," she said. "What I mean by that is that it all has the same ethos, the same flavor to it."

Lakshmi, 39, called that flavor "easy exotic," which is the title of her first cookbook but also an explanation of what makes her tick.

"I'm an immigrant kid who came to America from India when I was very young and grew up in New York City with a single mom and really was influenced by all of those immigrant cultures bumping up against each other," Lakshmi said.

At age 4, Lakshmi moved from India, where she was surrounded by a kitchen full of foreign sounds and smells.

"I was always hanging out in the kitchen with my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, all the women in my family," she said. "That's sort of where all of the action was in my house, the kitchen."

But Lakshmi's exotic memories are mixed with the fabulously unexotic.

"I remember having pretzels with mustard," she said. "French's mustard on a pretzel reminds me of Central Park in the early '80s. It reminds me of getting my face painted. It even triggers off that smell of those horse carriages around Fifth Avenue."

Runway Leads Model Back to Kitchen

Her modeling career happened by accident while studying abroad in Spain. "Somebody asked me if I would model and I said, 'No.' And then they told me what I could make and I said, 'Yes.'"

The modeling helped the bank account, and helped Lakshmi land acting roles in shows such as "Star Trek" and films such as "Glitter." But it also had a positively delicious side-effect: The runway led her right back to the kitchen.

"I learned European cooking techniques when I was in Italy when I went there as a model," she said.

"Every country I would go to, even if it was just on a modeling job, I would go to their markets. If I went to Morocco for Elle magazine, I would be in the spice markets during my off time and just come back with a suitcase full of stuff that I really wanted to try."

Lakshmi described it as diving into each culture, like a cave explorer. "I'm a culinary spelunker," she said on her gastronomic curiosity.

Lakshmi Dishes Up Flavor

When you think of eating, you might not think of fashion models, but with Lakshmi, it works. She whipped up a recipe from her 1999 cookbook, "Easy Exotic," for us.

"There is a recipe for halibut in coconut milk with cabbage, but today we're not doing it with cabbage," she said. "We're doing it with carrots and celery because that is what I found in the fridge."

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