The Universal Connector
Host & Executive Producer, “Top Chef,” Best-Selling Author, Food Expert, Ambassador for ACLU Immigration & Women’s Health and United Nations Development Programme
By Hilarey Wojtowicz
Padma Lakshmi may be a well-known food expert, as host and executive producer for Bravo’s “Top Chef,” but her entire career began because of one decision to model. Though it happened completely by chance while studying abroad in Madrid, that moment propelled Lakshmi to become India’s first supermodel, an author, culinary mogul and advocate for women’s and immigrants’ rights. Years later, Lakshmi realizes that she wouldn’t have the career she does today if it weren’t for that life-changing experience.
WHY DID YOU MAKE THE SWITCH FROM MODELING TO COOKING?
I always enjoyed cooking, but never thought I would pursue it professionally, until I wrote a cookbook based on how I lost the weight I had to gain for an acting role. I’ve been fortunate to have skills like cooking and writing that helped me pivot to a new career after modeling.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE DISHES TO MAKE?
I eat a mostly plant-based [diet] at home. I make khichdi, a lentil and rice porridge, on Sundays, or I’ll have something like mixed curry or beans and rice for a weekday lunch. I love a simple roasted chicken paired with a green salad. I think mastering food basics is a necessity for home cooks. Then you can riff on a new version of a recipe every so often. Regardless of what I eat, I try to have 50 percent of my total intake be vegetables and fruits.
WHAT DOES FOOD MEAN TO YOU?
Food is the universal connector between all people. It’s the thing that connects us to our heritage. It’s a way not only to feed ourselves but to nourish each other and commune with family. Food is a vehicle for celebrating every milestone in our lives. It’s also been a creative outlet for me, and a way to show affection for those I love and care about. You can tell a lot about people by their relationship to food.
‘As an immigrant, I’ve always believed that America was a shining beacon of hope for
people wanting to make a better life for themselves.’
You’ve made amazing strides through co-founding the Endometriosis Foundation of America, research initiatives and your work with the American Civil Liberties Union for women’s and immigrants’ health and civil rights.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH ACROSS ALL OF THESE AREAS IN THE COMING YEARS?
I hope to make it easier for people with reproductive health issues like endometriosis to get diagnosed earlier, The Universal Connector “As an immigrant, I’ve always believed that America was a shining beacon of hope for people wanting to make a better life for themselves.” so that no one has to suffer for as long as I did without proper care or treatment. As an immigrant, I’ve always believed that America was a shining beacon of hope for people wanting to make a better life for themselves. I believe immigrants make this country great, and it’s America’s culture and history that define us as a nation. We take the best qualities from each respective culture to create a culture that is uniquely American. It would be tragic for our country to now negate all of that. I want to remind Americans that unless you are from a Native American tribe, we’re all immigrants.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUNG WOMEN FOR NAVIGATING THEIR CAREERS?
Seek out mentors. I didn’t have this when I was starting out, so I now meet with a few young women periodically to discuss their business ventures or various goals and what it takes to achieve them. Find a woman you admire, ask her to coffee or lunch, and ask her for specific advice or help in a concrete area. I guarantee whomever it is will most likely be flattered you asked, and will help if they have the time. But be specific. Women who are in a capacity to help are busy with demands on their time already. They don’t need new friends. What most care about is being able to help a young person with resources and wisdom they’ve gained.
WHO WAS THE FIRST PERSON YOU TOLD ABOUT YOUR MATRIX AWARD?
WHAT DOES RECEIVING A MATRIX AWARD MEAN TO YOU?
I’m honored to be receiving a Matrix Award, and to be recognized by New York Women in Communications in the company of my fellow honorees. My goals in my advocacy have always been to level the playing field and help achieve equality of opportunity to those who need it, whether it’s in women’s health or civil rights for immigrants and women. We all should have the equal chance of bettering ourselves and living fully. It’s lovely to be recognized by an organization that has been fighting for an equal playing field for professional women in communications for almost 100 years.
Hilarey Wojtowicz is the senior career and finance editor for Swirled, a millennial women’s newsletter company.
Padma Lakshmi’s 2019 Matrix Award will be presented by Sarah Barnett.
Emmy-nominated Padma Lakshmi is internationally known as a food expert, model, actress and best-selling author, as well as the recipient of the 2016 NECO Ellis Island Medal of Honor and Variety’s 2018 Karma award. Lakshmi serves as host and executive producer of Bravo’s Emmy award-winning Top Chef, which is currently in its 16th season.
Lakshmi was born in India and grew up in America. She graduated from Clark University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Arts and American Literature. Known as India’s first supermodel, she began her career as a fashion model, working in Europe and the United States.
Lakshmi established herself as a food expert early in her career, having hosted two successful cooking shows and writing the best-selling Easy Exotic, which won the “Best First Book” award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lakshmi followed this success with the publication of her second cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, which has over 150 recipes from around the world alongside intriguing personal essays. In 2016, she released her food memoir, The New York Times best-selling Love, Loss and What We Ate, which also won “Best Lifestyle, Body & Soul” at the 2017 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, followed by The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.
In addition to her food writing, Lakshmi has also contributed to such magazines as Vogue, Gourmet and both British and American Harper’s Bazaar, as well as has written a syndicated column on fashion and food for The New York Times.
For the Food Network, Lakshmi hosted Padma’s Passport, where she cooked diverse cuisine from around the world. Lakshmi also hosted Planet Food, a documentary series on the Food Network and broadcast worldwide on the Discovery Channel. Lakshmi was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role as host and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Show in 2009. Other television credits include co-hosting Rai Television‘s Domenica In, Italy’s highest-rated variety news program.
In 2009, Lakshmi co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America alongside world-renowned Advanced Gynecological Surgeon Tamer Seckin, MD. After suffering from the disease for decades herself, she has been able to make amazing strides with the foundation, like launching the first interdisciplinary research facility in the country for Gynepathology, as a joint project between Harvard Medical School and MIT, where she gave the keynote address at the Center’s opening in December 2009. Lakshmi’s efforts were recognized on the floor of the New York State Senate, where she succeeded in passing a bill related to teen health initiatives. The organization’s ENPOWR program has currently educated over 32,000 students about endometriosis in high schools across the state of New York.
Lakshmi also serves as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union, focusing on both immigrants’ rights and women’s reproductive rights. She was also recently named a Visiting Scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In addition to these projects, Lakshmi is a savvy businesswoman with multiple companies of her own. Her debut home décor line, The Padma Collection, hit Bloomingdale’s stores nationwide with tabletop dishware, stemware and hand-blown glass décor pieces. She also created Padma’s Easy Exotic, a collection of culinary products ranging from frozen organic foods, fine teas, and natural spice blends, to hard goods. In 2018, Lakshmi collaborated with MAC Cosmetics for a worldwide capsule collection called #MACPadma.