She may be stunning, but Padma Lakshmi hardly gets by on her looks. Yes, she’s been modeling and acting since her teens, but long before hosting Top Chef, Lakshmi penned Easy Exotic, which won the “Best First Book” award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. She sat down with us for an interview... and left us drooling for more than one reason because, damn, can she talk about food. See what we mean on the following pages.
On what to cook for a date Think about what you make really well. It can be as simple as ribs, which is a very sexy thing to make on a date. You can also get a rotisserie roast chicken from someplace and it comes piping hot. I’m not endorsing semi-made food. I’m endorsing buying something as an anchor piece and then building all the sides because like Thanksgiving dinner, the sides are where it’s at.
On the perfect sides You can very easily do some beautiful roast fennel. You just turn on the oven at 450. You slice the fennel bulbs. You add olive oil, salt and pepper. And you kind of rub it all together with your hands. And then just lay it on a single file baking sheet and bake it for forty minutes, turning every ten minutes so it kind of chars and caramelizes evenly. That’s it.
On meals that close the deal I love a steamed artichoke with lots of condiments because it’s very tactile and it’s romantic to eat that together. Same thing goes for dessert. All you need is a bowl of ice cream and a little saucepan warming some sauce. I mean, that doesn’t take anything to make.
On fellow Fall For Fooders Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook I love Vinny and Jonny. They’re really, really sweet guys. They’ve been on the show a lot. If you’re in L.A., I really like Son Of A Gun. It’s supposed to be their seafood version of Animal. But they still serve chicken. They have a great fried chicken.
On what she likes about the future of food What I think is wonderful is a rebirth and rediscovery of cheaper cuts of meat, because those are the cuts of meat that have the most flavor and the highest fat content. And so those things I love. The best gravy is made when the gristle and all the gelatin in the bones and the sinew melt down slowly over time and mingle with the slow roasted spices and the wine and the onion bulbs and the shallots and all of that stuff. I want to scrape the bottom of every bowl.
On hidden gems I’ve been to French Laundry. I go to Daniel all the time. But really, I will pursue the back of some guy’s pickup truck if it’s got the best barbecue being cooked out of that flatbed. There’s so much rich, regional culinary history that I’ve been lucky to sample because of the show.
On the farm-to-table movement It’s great for a lot of reasons beyond food. It gets the local community enthusiastic about the food they’re eating. That trickles down to the next generation and those people’s children. And it helps the economy. I mean, all the factories that closed down in New Jersey and in Brooklyn have now turned into microbreweries and dairy farms where they make cheese.
On the best veggie for the cold season Green tomatoes are the unsung heroes of winter. They last in your crisper for months. And they fry up nicely and firm. I won’t have BLTs in the winter because I want that lovely, luscious end of August tomato. But you can’t fry that tomato because it’s got too much water content.
On how they eat all that food on Top Chef You just pace yourself. You have to count the contestants and remember that you have to get to the last person. So you can’t overeat the first five dishes—they’ve poured their heart and souls into cooking the food. And we shoot in real time. If the food is ready, the buzzer goes up. It doesn’t matter if I need lipstick. I’m going on.
On staying trim Whenever I’m in food detox and I have to lose the weight from Top Chef, if I cut out four things—fried food, cheese, alcohol and red meat—I’m fine. I can even eat a whole baguette. It doesn’t do anything to me.
On doing things yourself I cooked for all my friends on my birthday. It was delicious, by the way, because I cooked everything I wanted to eat. I cooked my favorite roast chicken. I made sweet potatoes with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. I made roasted potatoes. I did green beans with bacon. I cooked like seven dishes.
On the best way to make brisket Brisket needs to be bathed in a lot of red wine, preferably Barolo, if not Platinum Sterling. And it needs to soak overnight, two nights even better, in the fridge with lots of bay leaves and peppercorns. And then it needs to roast for as long as it takes molasses to hit the ground from the top of the Empire State Building.
On where to eat in New York City I love WD-50. It’s wonderful. I also love Indochine. I love Marea. And I don’t think it’s a good date spot because it’s very loud, but I love ABC Kitchen. That’s where I would eat every day.
On guilty pleasures I never feel guilty about taking pleasure in anything.