Padma Lakshmi isn't afraid of carbs. Moments after the Top Chef host arrives at a downtown New York City Italian restaurant -- her pick -- she enthusiastically orders the orecchiette con i pomodorini pachino at the waiter's recommendation. It's not just her predilection for pasta that breaches the celebrity stereotype. The New Delhi, India-born former model orders her pasta in perfect Italian -- one of the five languages she speaks -- and showed up without the requisite dark glasses, despite the sunny day. Wearing a simple beige tank top and long, boho-style chartreuse skirt, Lakshmi's only hints of bling are pieces from her own line of jewelry on her neck and left arm. And when some locals walk into the restaurant, she doesn't shrink in her chair hoping not to be recognized. Instead, the reality TV star waves and gives them a familiar hello.
"I've been to the gym eight times in the last 10 days," says Lakshmi, 39, biting into a crisp bruschetta. The foodie and cookbook author candidly confesses that it's hard work to stay slim. "I would rather spend half my life at the gym and eat whatever I want than sit on my ass and starve," she admits.
And eat she does! Lakshmi's appreciation of good food and her perceptive palate have helped catapult Bravo's Top Chef to the No. 1 food show on cable and recently earned her and chef/co-host Tom Colicchio a 2009 Emmy Award nomination for best reality TV hosts. The popular program kicked off its sixth season Aug. 19, this time set in Las Vegas. And good news for fans: The caliber of contestants just keeps getting better. "Tom and I looked at each other midseason and said, 'Wow, today's food is better than we've had in any of the past finales.'"
Not that the previous seasons' fare has been shabby. She can't reveal any details of the current season, but confides her favorite meal to date was made by Season 2 Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. Hall served a classic Spanish dish of fideos (very thin capellini-like noodles) with clams and saffron that she's enjoyed several times since at the Manhattan eatery Casa Mono, where Hall was a chef. (See the recipe below.)
Ironically, her least favorite meal was also cooked up by Hall. Brace yourself: chicken liver chocolate ganache with fried ginger and sherry sauce. What was he thinking? "I don't know, not clearly," she says with a smile. "It was horrible."
Padma's Food Memories
Today's main course is quite the opposite. After the waiter brings Lakshmi her orecchiette, she adds a dash of red pepper and dives into the food. And her memories of food. "I've always had a well-developed palate. Even as a toddler I was rooting around the kitchen, tasting different things." She learned to cook at a young age. Growing up in India, New York, and Los Angeles, "I was always hanging at the hem of whatever maternal relative was in the kitchen, helping shell peas and peel potatoes."
Her love of food is what set her television career in motion in 1998. Lakshmi had been modeling around the world since 1992 for designers such as Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren when she met movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who had recently set up a literary arm of Miramax. Together, they came up with the idea for a cookbook, Easy Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World, because "everyone wants to know what a model eats," she says.
Though Lakshmi acknowledges nobody expected the book to soar, it surprised them all by winning the 1999 International Versailles Event for best cookbook by a first-time writer. After a promotional appearance for the book on the Food Network, she was offered her own show, Padma's Passport, where she cooked cuisine from exotic cultures across the globe. A few years later she met with Bravo execs, who were developing a reality cooking-competition show.
"Initially I don't think she wanted to do it," says Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior vice president of original programming and development. "I think she thought, 'A reality cooking-competition show? Huh?'" But they simply had to have her. "We fell in love. She's so beautiful, so exotic, and so passionate about food," he says. They convinced Lakshmi to come on board as host of Top Chef during its second season, and later her second cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day, hit the shelves.
Next up for Lakshmi? She just signed a development deal with NBC to produce and appear in a food-themed half-hour comedy, but it's too early for details.
Cooking at Home With Padma
Food remains the throughline of her career -- and her personal passion. Although Lakshmi, who was briefly married to acclaimed, British-born Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, has traveled the world in pursuit of exotic dishes, she often craves homespun, simple foods. For a solo dinner, she might whip up an omelet with sautéed mushrooms and spinach, flavored with thyme, oregano, and fresh red chilies. "Plus a beefsteak tomato sliced thick with some fresh olive oil," she says. Her other dinner staple is what she calls her one-pot wonders ("I don't like doing dishes.")
She also treats herself to the occasional weekend bed picnic. "A perfect Sunday would be to work out at the gym, come home, take a bath, get back into a pair of crisp, clean pajamas, and tuck myself into bed with something to read, a tray of sandwiches, and a big pot of tea." And while her choices of picnic reading material are sophisticated -- The New York Times, The Atlantic, Italian Vogue -- her sandwich selections are deliciously simple: BLT, grilled cheese, and egg salad.
"I was rushing around all morning and didn't have time for breakfast," she says, looking at her plate. Every savory morsel of orecchiette is gone. Eating heartily is a much-earned reward for her no-excuses gym time. While there, she lifts weights and does cardio -- the StairMaster, the treadmill (which she adjusts to a steep incline), or the elliptical machine.
Her regimen certainly works. Just take a look at the evidence in a nude Allure magazine photo shoot last May.
Why bare all? "I thought it was a really good forum to show women that you can be curvy and you can be healthy and you can eat -- those things are not exclusive to each other -- and you can have a beautiful body when you're in your 30s. It may not be the body you had in your 20s, but it can be just as elegant and beautiful and sensual and feminine."
Padma's Childhood Scar
Lakshmi didn't always feel so comfortable about her body. Especially the appearance of one seven-inch section of her right arm, the result of a car accident when she was 14. She was on a Sunday afternoon drive in California with her mother and stepfather when their car was rear-ended, and her right arm was shattered. The surgery left a prominent cross-hatched scar on her upper arm.
"When you're going to high school and you're self-conscious about your body anyway, it's a very tender age for something like that to happen," she says, demonstrating the arm cross she'd perfected to hide the scar (left hand over right arm, thumb up).
When she was modeling, few designers booked her for summer shows, but many hired her to model their winter lines -- when her scar was easily concealable in layers. Everything changed for her when she worked with the legendary photographer Helmut Newton. "My scar was the thing that attracted him to me in the first place," she says. "He told me how interesting it was and how it made me look like someone with a past. When someone of that caliber in your field plants that seed, it's a powerful message."
Padma On not Being Perfect
That's another reason Lakshmi was inspired to sign on for the nude magazine shoot.
"It was very important to show this scar because I wanted people to see that you don't have to be perfect, and beauty does come in all colors and shapes and forms. And the thing that makes us not look like everybody else is very important." Her body, she says, narrates the story of her life. "This," she recounts as she points to a brown bump on her forearm, "is the ingrown hair that I always picked on that was exposed to the sun because I was driving in L.A. all those years.
"And right there," she says, touching a small scar on her hand, "are three stitches from when I was holding a baked potato on a boat. I tried to stab it and missed and had to be rushed to the emergency room in Corsica to be stitched up by a very cute French doctor.
"And this," she says of a gathering of swirling scars on her right hand, "is where in the car accident I had to punch out the windshield."
Padma's Struggle With Endometriosis
Lakshmi settles back in her chair as she switches the subject to a different pain -- one that shows no outward scars, but that she worked hard for years to keep hidden. Once a month, Lakshmi was crippled with severe menstrual cramps. Nothing helped, not even prescription painkillers.
"I was balled up in bed with a heating pad, taking Vicodin to get through the worst." She concealed her pain, embarrassed that people would think she was exaggerating.
"I thought I was hypersensitive and just being a wimp," she says. Her mother had suffered the same way. "I thought this was my lot in life."
In 2006, she had to leave a photo shoot doubled over in pain. Her internist sent her to Tamer Seckin, MD, a laparoscopic surgeon in New York City specializing in endometriosis.
Lakshmi was suffering from a severe case of the condition, which affects more than 5.5 million women in the United States. It occurs when the endometrium, the tissue of the inner lining of the uterus, grows in places outside of the uterus -- most often on other pelvic structures, including the ovaries and fallopian tubes, or behind the uterus. Researchers don't yet know what causes this condition, but one theory is that endometriosis is linked to menstruation backflow. Other possible theories include the involvement of inherited genes, the immune system, the lymphatic or vascular system, and chemicals in the body that somehow trigger the condition.
"These tiny pieces of endometrium attach and develop their own blood supply and respond to the hormonal environment there," says Pamela Stratton, MD, chief of the Gynecology Consult Service at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md.
Symptoms of endometriosis vary widely, but include: extremely painful menstrual cramps, pain during or after sex, ongoing pelvic and lower back pain, heavy periods, spotting and bleeding between periods, painful bowel movements, or painful urination during menstrual periods.
Endometriosis is one of the top three causes of female infertility; about 30% to 40% of women who have the condition become infertile. That's one reason early diagnosis and treatment are key.
That treatment can include medication, hormone therapy, and surgery. Treatment for infertility usually involves assisted reproductive treatments.
Getting to an Endometriosis Diagnosis
Lakshmi was relieved to finally have her endometriosis diagnosed, but stunned that it had taken so many years to figure out what was wrong, says Seckin.
"She said to me, 'Why am I being diagnosed this late?' She'd gone from doctor to doctor at some of the best hospitals in the United States. She rewound her history and realized she could have been diagnosed much earlier." And had her condition been identified more promptly, says Seckin, she would have been spared years of agony. Not to mention major surgery.
The longer endometriosis goes unchecked, the harder it can be to treat and the more it can damage the body. Lakshmi's first surgery in 2006 to remove the wayward tissue took four and a half hours.
"I had stitches in three major organs and was bedridden from Thanksgiving to February 1," she says.
Lakshmi has had three additional surgeries since and is now better able to control the pain with over-the-counter medication.
"Endometriosis is the single most delayed diagnosis in reproductive health today, taking an average of a decade," explains Seckin. "And it is the most misdiagnosed, mishandled disease."
Lakshmi knew she wanted to help prevent others from going through what she experienced. So when Seckin asked her to serve as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, a nonprofit group focused on increasing awareness, education, research, and advocacy, signing on was a no-brainer, she says. "Dr. Seckin literally changed my life," Lakshmi says. The respect is mutual, says Seckin. Lakshmi "needs to be given great credit for her sense of social responsibility." (For more information about the foundation, visit www.endofound.org.)
Her work doesn't stop there. In addition to helping raise awareness about this painful condition, Lakshmi volunteers with Keep a Child Alive, which helps children with AIDS in Africa and India.
The meal over, Lakshmi orders a finely filtered coffee -- Americano style -- then bids a warm goodbye as she heads back out to the New York City streets. Ahead of her are dozens more memorable meals. A new season's worth of designed-to-dazzle Top Chef fare will be served by contestants for Lakshmi and her fellow judges -- as millions of hungry viewers join in vicariously tasting every morsel.
Padma's Recipes for Home Cooking
Braised Beef or Lamb With Tomato and Cumin
As with most stews, the longer this cooks, the better it gets. A traditional North Indian recipe, this dish is the perfect comfort food for fall and winter. The stew contains some fiery red chilies, but the heat also comes from such hallmark Indian spices as cloves, black cardamom, and cumin. If you don't particularly like highly spiced food, just cut back a bit on the chilies. Makes 4 servings.
• 2 teaspoons canola oil
• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 2 cups chopped yellow onions
• 4 large dried whole red chilies
• 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
• 2 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
• 3 large bay leaves
• 2 black cardamom pods
• 4 cloves
• 1½ lbs beef stew meat or boneless lamb shoulder, cut in large chunks
• 2½ lbs plum tomatoes, quartered
• 1½ teaspoons garam masala
• several cups of boiling water
• salt to taste
• sugar (optional)
In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, and after 2 minutes sauté onions, chilies, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry for 5 minutes. Stir in bay leaves, cardamom, and cloves.
Add meat and stir-fry for 5 more minutes, searing meat on all sides. Add tomatoes and garam masala.
When the tomatoes start to loosen from their skins (about 4 to 5 minutes), lower the heat and add enough boiling water to cover the whole mixture.
Once it comes to a gentle boil, add a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 1½ hours, stirring every 7 minutes or so, making sure the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. You may add additional water, if needed.
The end result should be a thick stew gravy and meat so tender it mashes apart with a fork.
If the sauce is too sour, add ¼ to ½ teaspoon of sugar to round out the flavor. Mix well.
Serve hot over a bed of plain basmati rice or with oven-toasted flatbread such as naan or pita bread.
Calories: 543, 364 calories from fat; 41 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 109 mg cholesterol; 141 mg sodium; 14 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g protein (For a healthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.)
From Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day by Padma Lakshmi
lan Hall's Fideos with Clams and Saffron
Makes 4 servings
• 1 pound fideos or capellini pasta (fresh if possible)
• 2 cups heavy cream
• 1 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
• 1 cup small cauliflower florets
• 1 cup small broccoli florets
• 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 10 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
• 1/2 cup white wine or seafood stock
• 1 pound fresh medium clams, cleaned
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Break the fideos into 3-inch pieces. Arrange the pieces in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, saffron, and salt to taste and place over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, whisking and watching the pot so the cream doesn't boil over. Remove from the heat, stir in the cauliflower and broccoli, and set aside.
Preheat the broiler. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and garlic over low heat, stirring, until the garlic begins to soften and turn golden, about 15 minutes. Break the garlic up with the back of a wooden spoon, then add the wine, clams, and fideos. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine.
Increase the heat to medium-high and cover the pan. Cook for about 4 minutes, shaking the pan, until the clams have opened. Discard any unopened clams. Stir in the cauliflower and cream mixture and remove from the heat.
Divide the clam and pasta mixture among 4 ovenproof dishes. Place the dishes in the oven and broil until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Garnish with the chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Calories: 748, 377 calories from fat; 43 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 170 mg cholesterol, 104 mg sodium, 70 g carb, 1 g fiber, 18 g protein. (For a healthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.)