June 1, 2010— -- 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."
"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."