Listen toÂ Claire Messud here. Claire Messud and I talk about her new novelÂ The Burning Girl, as well as Claire’s childhood years in Australia, and how childhood friendships can haunt and define us. I’ve loved Claire’s work ever since I readÂ The Emperor’s ChildrenÂ when I was living […]
Itâs easy to look at Padma Lakshmi and think, here is a person made for the spotlight. But for the executive producer and host of the Emmy-Award winning TV show Top Chef, now in its 14th year, success has been a much longer, more interesting road than one might think at first glanceâa lifelong journey to embrace her Indian heritage and her unique, cross-cultural experience.
Lakshmiâs entrepreneurial successes stretch across a broad spectrum: modeling; cookbooks (The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs!, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, and the award-winning Easy Exotic); a rice and lentil line also called Easy Exotic; a pottery and glassware company called the Padma Collection; a jewelry line; acting; television hosting; and a best-selling memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate. When you read this book, you might be surprised to find out how long it has taken Lakshmi to feel comfortable in her own skin, and how her career began to succeed once she came to terms with, and became proud of, the twists and turns in her fascinating life.
The young vegetarianâs first culture clash with the U.S. was with food, naturally. âMy grandfather (who incidentally loved America) warned me: âBe careful,ââ Lakshmi says. ââItâll be snowing outside and you will order something as innocent and pure as a vegetable soup, but in that broth is lurking the melted flesh of an animal!ââ Throughout her childhood, Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants were family favorites because they served riceâthe only item on the menu she would eat.
Decades later, Lakshmi launched Padmaâs Easy Exotic, a line of six frozen rice and lentil dishes designed for working parents who want a quick, healthy weeknight meal on the family table. (Each rice variety is vegan and gluten-free, and three of the six flavors are 100% organic and non-GMO certified.) âIâm not inclined to reach for packaged foods when Iâm cooking at home, so it was important for me to create something I was comfortable putting in my own daughterâs mouth,â says Lakshmi. Fittingly, the entrees are based on family recipes passed down through generations. The Madras lemon riceâa combination of rice, red jalapeÃ±o, black mustard seeds, lemon, and gram lentilsâis what her grandmother made every weekend in Chennai.
Food, and the ritual of preparing it, has shaped Lakshmiâs life and career. She spent a decade modeling in Europe, working with the likes of Helmut Newtonâthe first photographer to book her because of an eye-catching scar on her arm (the result of a car accident). Lakshmi later embarked on a professional acting career. For her first TV role in the U.S., she gained 20 pounds, and though it was a cinch (and a pleasure) to gain the weight, it wasnât so easy to lose it after filming.
Searching for a healthy way forward, she began to experiment with her favorite recipes, tweaking them for what would become the basis of her first cookbook, Easy Exotic: A Modelâs Low Fat Recipes from Around the World.
When asked, âWhat does a model know about food?â her answer was: a lot. The book won the International Versailles Event for Best Cookbook by a First Time Author at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lakshmi identifies this as a professional turning point. âIt opened my eyes to the possibility that I could actually have a career in foodâthat it wasnât just a lark.â
After her first television cooking show was canceled, Lakshmi feared the worstâbut then the Food Network asked her to draw upon her global travels and family Indian recipes for Padmaâs Passport and Planet Food, which gave her a renewed sense of confidence. âNow I see that the exposure to both [Indian and American] cultures gives me a broader perspectiveâboth in my tastes, and in my knowledge,â says Lakshmi, who says itâs her mission to make the worldâs most exotic flavors more user-friendly and accessible to everyone.
True to that vision, Lakshmi is in the process of relaunching her line of spices, but she is taking her time to find the right distribution partner, careful to apply the lessons she learned the first time she introduced the seasoning line on the Home Shopping Network (HSN). âWhen we first launched, we were so excited to have HSN on board because they are such a great distributor, but we didnât realize the HSN customer was not really our target market. It was like selling a baseball bat to a basketball player.â
This time, sheâs recalling advice from her late partner and mentor Teddy Forstmann. âThe reason he excelled at business was because he was good at people. He was good at sussing out what was really important to the person sitting across any table from him. If he could give that to them in exchange for whatever he needed from them, he did it. He taught me in real, concrete ways how not to be penny wise and pound foolish.â
Her basic rule in negotiating is built around the fact that a good deal happens when both parties are happy. âYou will never get 100% of what you want, but you have to remember that the contract is only the first step of dealing with this other person or entity. You have to work with each other, and no one wants to work with someone being difficult from the get-go.â
Lakshmi finds herself constantly dealing with the challenges that come from being a business ownerâand it certainly hasnât all been smooth sailing. âOne of the most difficult business decisions Iâve had to make was choosing to shut down my jewelry line,â she says. âI had orders for six new stores when we closed. But I became pregnant, and because of the legal issues that ensued, I felt it was too much to maintain a fine jewelry company at that time. I had to let go of four employees. It was very painful.â
Her road to good health has also been a bumpy roadâbut again, she found a way to overcome adversity. In 2009, Lakshmi cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, an organization that advocates for early diagnosis, additional research, and awareness of the chronic disease that affects over 190 million women worldwide. Lakshmi is one of those women. âTo me, success is when youâre at a point in your life when you can help other people. Not only monetarily, but when you can use your power and influence to really make a difference when and where people need it.â
For now, most of Lakshmiâs power and influence comes from the hit show Top Chef. âThe pleasure one gets from watching Top Chef is largely voyeuristic, and has an element of fantasy to it,â Lakshmi says. âItâs wonderful to have these complicated dishes broken down for you by four knowledgeable palates, but I donât think most people watch Top Chef thinking, âIâm going to make this at home!ââ
The best part of the show for Lakshmi is launching the careers of so many talented chefs. âFor so much of my life, until about a decade ago, I was so busy trying to make it, I couldnât think past that. Now I feel that the most rewarding part of doing well is to be able to create opportunity for others.â