At the Chef’s Table with Padma Lakshmi
From her career to her inner wellbeing, Padma Lakshmi has cooked up a truly balanced lifestyle.
BY BONNIE SIEGLER
Former model Padma Lakshmi has achieved a great deal in her 46 years—including keeping us in awe of her beauty, intelligence, and cooking skills. The Emmy nominated Top Chef judge and hostess has also dabbled as a best-selling author, with her most recent book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, flying off the shelves. Her love for food stems from her childhood, growing up eating and cooking traditional Tamil dishes. She first tried her luck at pan-frying some spiced sweet peas—a simple, but delicious culinary achievement.
“You don’t have to be an expert to have a very strong opinion about food,” Padma says. “Left to my own devices, I don’t eat very fancy and I cheat a lot. I love nachos, hot dogs, ice cream, chocolate cake without frosting—I have a ton of guilty pleasures.” Padma doesn’t shy away from carbs or sweets. In fact, she’s enthusiastic about all food. “With a six-year-old daughter, there are always potato chips or mozzarella sticks around. I can nibble on a carrot stick but it’s not going to satisfy me if she’s nibbling on something else. Food, to me, is a very big connector—something that joins us together as human beings. It is the thing, along with love, that you can’t live without.”
SPICING THINGS UP
Padma’s love of food is what set her television career in motion in 1999, after writing her first cookbook. Her current writing endeavor delves into 400 spices and herbs to rev up any menu. “I love sumac,” she says, ticking off some of her favourite spices. “It comes from a red berry that’s been dried and powdered. It has a beautiful vermillion color and adds tartness to any dish, or makes a beautiful garnish.”
Another of Padma’s favourites is za’atar, a blend of spices that she adds to salad dressing for some extra depth. “It has sumac in it, but also thyme, sesame seeds and other beautiful things. It’s almost like Herbes de Provence, but it’s a Middle Eastern version. I also add it to yogurt with a pinch of good salt—like pink Himalayan salt—to make a dip for raw vegetables.”
Padma pauses while considering other favourite flavours. “Sambar powder,” she exclaims. “It’s a spice blend from South India. Different families make it in different ways, but it’s an all-purpose spice that you can use as an introduction to South Indian cooking. It’s probably the spice I tasted earliest in my development and certainly something we always have in our home.”
While she admits her love for spicy foods, a little bit goes a long way—so, a light hand is best. “Just because you use chili in something doesn’t mean it has to be spicy. Urfa chili is a Turkish chili that’s not that spicy but has a kick to it,” she says.
While food remains the emphasis of her career and her personal passion, her focus remains on everyday pleasures. “I love to box for exercise. Also, I’ve just rediscovered roller-skating, which seems like a little thing, but it’s kind of joyous. I’m teaching my daughter, Krishna, how to roller skate, and that’s become a point of bonding with her.”
Always surrounded by big city environments, Padma’s newest passion for gardening seems a foreign concept to her lifestyle. “Discovering gardening later in my life has been a very pleasant surprise. It’s wonderful to watch something you’ve planted months ago grow,” she relates. Padma actually gets down and dirty in her garden, where produces everything from apples and blueberries to lemon verbena and thyme.
Padma is also unabashedly passionate about involving herself into organizations that fight poverty and empower women across the globe. She is also co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America and has made great strides with her candor about her own very intimate health issues. “I wish I would have told my younger self to investigate my debilitating endometriosis symptoms,” she says, reflecting. “Being an advocate for your own health is so important.”
“I think we are not all created equally,” she states. “For me, it’s important that every child have the same opportunity to do well in life. That doesn’t mean that everyone will be a Nobel Laureate or NBA player, but at least they get a chance in life to see what their best self looks like. It’s evening out the playing field.”
COMBINING MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT
Padma believes the mind, body, and spirit are all connected. “I don’t have to try hard to connect them,” she says. “I know if I’m not feeling well emotionally, that’s going to have physical ramifications. If I’m not feeling well in my body, it is undoubtedly going to affect my spirit, so I don’t make those separations. I try to handle my own wellbeing like a whole person, which I think we should all do.”
She supplements healthy eating and exercise with Vitamins C and B plus magnesium powder. “I also take an omega-3 and something called Helio Care, which is an oral antioxidant to help with the sun—I’m very sun sensitive. The thing is to remember to take care of your whole person.”
Padma’s big indulgence in relaxing and unwinding is making herself a picnic in bed on weekends, complete with the New York Times spread out beside her. “When I want to do something for myself that seems indulgent, it means being in my jeans or sweats and a cozy tee-shirt, with my hair pulled up in a ponytail.”
On her bedside table sits a tower of books that include Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and The Geneby by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a personal friend of Padma, which she waits to read on days where she isn’t swamped with meetings.
Women in the public eye are often scrutinized as they age, yet Padma isn’t too worried. “I don’t like the term anti-aging. I think it’s offensive. I like my age—I’m much smarter now and happier than I was when I was young. Maybe my thighs have more cellulite, but I’m not against my age. I don’t care about looking younger.”
What she does care about in her arsenal of living healthy and looking beautiful is “staying out of the sun, drinking a lot of water and eating properly, which means eating vegetables and fruits of all different colours, and laughing,” she states.
“I think happiness is the best beauty tip I can give someone. I can go out and buy an expensive beauty cream but at this point in my life, I’m really looking for something more gratifying and deeper.”