Padma Lakshmi: Foodie Meets Fashionista

"Top Chef" host and former model brings "easy exotic" touch to growing empire.

June 1, 2010, 11:22 AM

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."

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.

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."

If the cooking is easy, the transition to hit television host was pretty easy too, as one of her hobbies became her job.

"It's really weird because I always thought the concept of 'Top Chef' was really nice, but I kind of did it to give my cookbook a little push, you know," she said. "I never knew that it was going to turn out the huge success that it has and that's kind of cool."

For five seasons, she has been the on-air guide for the show, challenging chefs each week and sending them home with their knives.

Lakshmi: Up Close and Personal

In almost everything she does, Lakshmi emanates an extraordinary sense of ease, an attitude of "this is me, take it or leave it." Take the deep long scar on her arm, the result of a car accident as a teen. Even as a model, she didn't hide it or cover it up.

"There wasn't really anything I could do about the car accident and certainly something I wouldn't wish onto anyone else, let alone myself," she said. "But I have a scar and it's part of me and it makes me who I am. Hopefully, that experience, as traumatic as it was, makes me more human. And I don't think that is something to shy away from."

Nor is a condition that she has made something of a crusade.

"I am a sufferer of endometriosis," she said. "I didn't want any young women to go through what I went through. I thought that people should know about it."

Endometriosis, which affects millions of women, occurs when the tissue that makes up the lining of the uterus begins to grow outside of the womb. The cells can spread to other organs in the abdomen, causing pain, cramping, scar tissue and infertility.

Lakshmi launched a foundation to help shine a spotlight on the condition.

"Every woman on the planet has her period, at least until she goes through menopause," she said. "I mean, it's not a big deal. It's where we all come from and I want endometriosis to be discussed as openly as breast cancer is."

After several surgeries for endometriosis, Lakshmi gave birth to a baby girl, Krishna. Now she has a cradle in her office, a business model built around a baby.

"I conducted all kinds of meetings from bed," Lakshmi said. "I figured if people didn't understand then I didn't want to be in business with them. I met the head of a network downstairs, you know. It was fine. Everybody has kids. Everybody understands."