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Recipe for Success: Padma Lakshmi

The Top Chef host dishes on food, fame, and her struggles with endometriosis -- plus she shares two delectable recipes.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 24, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Padma Lakshmi isn't afraid of carbs. Moments after the Top Chef hostarrives at a downtown New York City Italian restaurant -- her pick -- sheenthusiastically orders the orecchiette con i pomodorini pachino at thewaiter's recommendation. It's not just her predilection for pasta that breachesthe celebrity stereotype. The New Delhi, India-born former model orders herpasta in perfect Italian -- one of the five languages she speaks -- and showedup without the requisite dark glasses, despite the sunny day. Wearing a simplebeige tank top and long, boho-style chartreuse skirt, Lakshmi's only hints ofbling are pieces from her own line of jewelry on her neck and left arm. Andwhen some locals walk into the restaurant, she doesn't shrink in her chairhoping not to be recognized. Instead, the reality TV star waves and gives thema 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 candidlyconfesses that it's hard work to stay slim. "I would rather spend half mylife at the gym and eat whatever I want than sit on my ass and starve," sheadmits.

And eat she does! Lakshmi's appreciation of good food and her perceptivepalate have helped catapult Bravo's Top Chef to the No. 1 food showon cable and recently earned her and chef/co-host Tom Colicchio a 2009 EmmyAward nomination for best reality TV hosts. The popular program kicked off itssixth season Aug. 19, this time set in Las Vegas. And good news for fans: Thecaliber of contestants just keeps getting better. "Tom and I looked at eachother midseason and said, 'Wow, today's food is better than we've had in any ofthe past finales.'"

Not that the previous seasons' fare has been shabby. She can't reveal anydetails of the current season, but confides her favorite meal to date was madeby Season 2 Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. Hall served a classic Spanishdish of fideos (very thin capellini-like noodles) with clams and saffronthat she's enjoyed several times since at the Manhattan eatery Casa Mono, whereHall was a chef. (See the recipe below.)

Ironically, her least favorite meal was also cooked up by Hall. Braceyourself: 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. "Itwas horrible."

Padma's Food Memories

Today's main course is quite the opposite. After the waiter brings Lakshmiher orecchiette, she adds a dash of red pepper and dives into the food. And hermemories of food. "I've always had a well-developed palate. Even as a toddler Iwas rooting around the kitchen, tasting different things." She learned to cookat a young age. Growing up in India, New York, and Los Angeles, "I was alwayshanging at the hem of whatever maternal relative was in the kitchen, helpingshell 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 asRoberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren when she met movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whohad recently set up a literary arm of Miramax. Together, they came up with theidea 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 surprisedthem all by winning the 1999 International Versailles Event for best cookbookby a first-time writer. After a promotional appearance for the book on the FoodNetwork, she was offered her own show, Padma's Passport, where shecooked cuisine from exotic cultures across the globe. A few years later she metwith Bravo execs, who were developing a reality cooking-competition show.

"Initially I don't think she wanted to do it," says Andy Cohen, Bravo'ssenior vice president of original programming and development. "I think shethought, 'A reality cooking-competition show? Huh?'" But they simply had tohave her. "We fell in love. She's so beautiful, so exotic, and so passionateabout food," he says. They convinced Lakshmi to come on board as host of TopChef 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 produceand appear in a food-themed half-hour comedy, but it's too early fordetails.

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 Indiannovelist Salman Rushdie, has traveled the world in pursuit of exotic dishes,she often craves homespun, simple foods. For a solo dinner, she might whip upan omelet with sautéed mushrooms and spinach, flavored with thyme, oregano, andfresh red chilies. "Plus a beefsteak tomato sliced thick with some fresh oliveoil," 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 perfectSunday would be to work out at the gym, come home, take a bath, get back into apair 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 picnicreading material are sophisticated -- The New York Times, TheAtlantic, Italian Vogue -- her sandwich selections are deliciouslysimple: BLT, grilled cheese, and egg salad.

"I was rushing around all morning and didn't have time for breakfast," shesays, looking at her plate. Every savory morsel of orecchiette is gone. Eatingheartily is a much-earned reward for her no-excuses gym time. While there, shelifts weights and does cardio -- the StairMaster, the treadmill (which sheadjusts to a steep incline), or the elliptical machine.

Her regimen certainly works. Just take a look at the evidence in a nudeAllure magazine photo shoot last May.

Why bare all? "I thought it was a really good forum to show women that youcan be curvy and you can be healthy and you can eat -- those things are notexclusive to each other -- and you can have a beautiful body when you're inyour 30s. It may not be the body you had in your 20s, but it can be just aselegant and beautiful and sensual and feminine."

Padma's Childhood Scar

Lakshmi didn't always feel so comfortable about her body. Especially theappearance of one seven-inch section of her right arm, the result of a caraccident when she was 14. She was on a Sunday afternoon drive in Californiawith her mother and stepfather when their car was rear-ended, and her right armwas shattered. The surgery left a prominent cross-hatched scar on her upperarm.

"When you're going to high school and you're self-conscious about your bodyanyway, 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 overright arm, thumb up).

When she was modeling, few designers booked her for summer shows, but manyhired her to model their winter lines -- when her scar was easily concealablein layers. Everything changed for her when she worked with the legendaryphotographer Helmut Newton. "My scar was the thing that attracted him to me inthe first place," she says. "He told me how interesting it was and how it mademe look like someone with a past. When someone of that caliber in your fieldplants 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 magazineshoot.

"It was very important to show this scar because I wanted people to see thatyou don't have to be perfect, and beauty does come in all colors and shapes andforms. And the thing that makes us not look like everybody else is veryimportant." Her body, she says, narrates the story of her life. "This," sherecounts as she points to a brown bump on her forearm, "is the ingrown hairthat I always picked on that was exposed to the sun because I was driving inL.A. all those years.

"And right there," she says, touching a small scar on her hand, "are threestitches from when I was holding a baked potato on a boat. I tried to stab itand missed and had to be rushed to the emergency room in Corsica to be stitchedup by a very cute French doctor.

"And this," she says of a gathering of swirling scars on her right hand, "iswhere 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 differentpain -- one that shows no outward scars, but that she worked hard for years tokeep 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 throughthe worst." She concealed her pain, embarrassed that people would think she wasexaggerating.

"I thought I was hypersensitive and just being a wimp," she says. Her motherhad 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 internistsent her to Tamer Seckin, MD, a laparoscopic surgeon in New York Cityspecializing in endometriosis.

Lakshmi was suffering from a severe case of the condition, which affectsmore than 5.5 million women in the United States. It occurs when theendometrium, the tissue of the inner lining of the uterus, grows in placesoutside of the uterus -- most often on other pelvic structures, including theovaries and fallopian tubes, or behind the uterus. Researchers don't yet knowwhat causes this condition, but one theory is that endometriosis is linked tomenstruation backflow. Other possible theories include the involvement ofinherited genes, the immune system, the lymphatic or vascular system, andchemicals in the body that somehow trigger the condition. 

"These tiny pieces of endometrium attach and develop their own blood supplyand respond to the hormonal environment there," says Pamela Stratton, MD, chiefof the Gynecology Consult Service at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver NationalInstitute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md. 

Symptoms of endometriosis vary widely, but include: extremely painfulmenstrual 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; about30% to 40% of women who have the condition become infertile. That's one reasonearly 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, butstunned that it had taken so many years to figure out what was wrong, saysSeckin.

"She said to me, 'Why am I being diagnosed this late?' She'd gone fromdoctor to doctor at some of the best hospitals in the United States. Sherewound her history and realized she could have been diagnosed much earlier."And had her condition been identified more promptly, says Seckin, she wouldhave been spared years of agony. Not to mention major surgery.

The longer endometriosis goes unchecked, the harder it can be to treat andthe more it can damage the body. Lakshmi's first surgery in 2006 to remove thewayward tissue took four and a half hours.

"I had stitches in three major organs and was bedridden from Thanksgiving toFebruary 1," she says.

Lakshmi has had three additional surgeries since and is now better able tocontrol the pain with over-the-counter medication.

"Endometriosis is the single most delayed diagnosis in reproductive healthtoday, taking an average of a decade," explains Seckin. "And it is the mostmisdiagnosed, mishandled disease."

Lakshmi knew she wanted to help prevent others from going through what sheexperienced. So when Seckin asked her to serve as co-founder of theEndometriosis Foundation of America, a nonprofit group focused on increasingawareness, education, research, and advocacy, signing on was a no-brainer, shesays.  "Dr. Seckin literally changed my life," Lakshmi says. The respectis mutual, says Seckin. Lakshmi"needs to be given great credit for her sense of social responsibility." (Formore information about the foundation, visit www.endofound.org.)

Her work doesn't stop there. In addition to helping raise awareness aboutthis painful condition, Lakshmi volunteers with Keep a Child Alive, which helpschildren 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 ofdesigned-to-dazzle Top Chef fare will be served by contestants forLakshmi and her fellow judges -- as millions of hungry viewers join invicariously 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. Atraditional North Indian recipe, this dish is the perfect comfort food for falland winter. The stew contains some fiery red chilies, but the heat also comesfrom such hallmark Indian spices as cloves, black cardamom, and cumin. If youdon't particularly like highly spiced food, just cut back a bit on the chilies.Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

•                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)

Directions

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, and after 2minutes sauté onions, chilies, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry for 5 minutes. Stirin bay leaves, cardamom, and cloves.

Add meat and stir-fry for 5 more minutes, searing meat on all sides. Addtomatoes 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 themixture 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 mashesapart with a fork.

If the sauce is too sour, add ¼ to ½ teaspoon of sugar to round out theflavor. Mix well.

Serve hot over a bed of plain basmati rice or with oven-toasted flatbreadsuch as naan or pita bread.

Per serving

Calories: 543, 364 calories from fat; 41 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 109 mgcholesterol; 141 mg sodium; 14 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g protein (For ahealthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.)

From Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day byPadma Lakshmi

 

lan Hall's Fideos with Clams and Saffron

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

•           1 pound fideosor capellini pasta (fresh if possible)

•           2 cups heavycream

•           1 teaspoonsaffron threads, crumbled

•           Salt

•           1 cup smallcauliflower florets

•           1 cup smallbroccoli florets

•           1/3 cup extravirgin olive oil

•           10 garliccloves, peeled and left whole

•           1/2 cup whitewine or seafood stock

•           1 pound freshmedium clams, cleaned

•           Freshly groundblack pepper

•           Chopped freshflat-leaf parsley for garnish

Directions

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 ovenand bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and setaside to cool.

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, saffron, and salt to taste andplace over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, whisking and watching the pot sothe cream doesn't boil over. Remove from the heat, stir in the cauliflower andbroccoli, and set aside.

Preheat the broiler. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and garlic over lowheat, stirring, until the garlic begins to soften and turn golden, about 15minutes. Break the garlic up with the back of a wooden spoon, then add thewine, clams, and fideos. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir tocombine.

Increase the heat to medium-high and cover the pan. Cook for about 4minutes, shaking the pan, until the clams have opened. Discard any unopenedclams. Stir in the cauliflower and cream mixture and remove from the heat.

Divide the clam and pasta mixture among 4 ovenproof dishes. Place the dishesin the oven and broil until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Garnish with thechopped parsley and serve immediately.

Per serving

Calories: 748, 377 calories from fat; 43 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 170mg cholesterol, 104 mg sodium, 70 g carb, 1 g fiber, 18 g protein. (For ahealthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.) 

Show Sources

SOURCES:
Interview with Padma Lakshmi, June, 2009.
Tamer Seckin, MD, laparoscopic surgeon, Park East Gynecology & Surgery, PC,  New York City, N.Y.
Pamela Stratton, MD, chief, Gynecology Consult Service, The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Md.
Andy Cohen, senior vice president, original programming and development, Bravo.
Endometriosis Foundation of America.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: "Endometriosis."

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