In ‘Taste the Nation’, Padma Lakshmi’s Focus Is on the Food
In “Taste the Nation,” which debuted its second season this month on Hulu, Padma Lakshmi, the longtime host of the reality-television competition “Top Chef,” visits various immigrant communities throughout the United States, not only eating their food, but interviewing the people who make it.
Much has been written about how the show is a radical departure for food television, with its ability to highlight the way history, memory and trauma are woven through what we eat. Whether Ms. Lakshmi, 52, is breaking the Ramadan fast with Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., or making piroshky with a queer Ukrainian-American chef, she manages to shine a spotlight on how politics and culture sit downstream from food. Its D.I.Y., documentarian style — not unlike earlier food shows from hosts such as Anthony Bourdain — manages to avoid turning these communities and their cuisine into objects of fascination.
Less attention has been placed on her appearance on the show. Here, unlike on “Top Chef,” the former fashion model presents herself as she is: unfussily, with minimal hair and makeup, and without much pageantry. In an edited interview, Ms. Lakshmi spoke about her clothing choices, why she prefers to do her own makeup and other aesthetic decisions that go into making “Taste the Nation.”
Do you think the culture has changed in the way we talk about women, especially women of color, on TV?
I’ve always been the same. I’ve continued to try and create work for myself that is interesting to me — because that’s the greatest blessing you can hope for, to do the work that you love and get paid for it. But it did take people some time to catch up. People are allowing me to be my full self, allowing me to be both an intelligent thinker and look good as well. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The rules for me as a woman on television are completely different than they are for my male counterparts. That is a fact of life that I just agree to accept and fight against.
Do you think being a former model — in other words, being considered traditionally beautiful — made it easier for the media to exoticize or stereotype you?
You don’t have to be a fashion model to know exactly what I’m talking about or what that feels like. That’s true for corporate women, for women in academia, women in food, women in publishing.
In “Taste the Nation” your appearance is pretty simple. Is this intentional?
I wanted the show to look different from “Top Chef.” My job is to give my platform to all of our participants to tell their stories as they see fit. I also wanted to be comfortable. If you’ve seen “Top Chef,” you know that I’m in stilettos, I’m in a lot of tight sparkly dresses. But with “Taste the Nation,” I wanted to look like myself. I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in these communities where I embed myself for about a week.
What were the other considerations that went into your wardrobe?
My wardrobe person, Rachel Wirkus, doesn’t travel with me. Once we nail the episodes down, we look up the weather around that time of the year. And we make sure that if I’m going fishing with former Cambodian gang members, which I did in the episode set in Lowell, Mass., that I have some tall gumboots. Though when I rewatched that episode, I joked that I looked like I was out of an L.L. Bean catalog. But that’s never intentional.
You also wear a lot of flare jeans.
I’m wearing flares because we don’t have a sound department. Our sound guy, Dimitri Tisseyre — who has done almost every episode with us from the beginning — is such a tyrant, but it’s only because he wants the show to be great. He doesn’t want to see that mic pack. So I’m wearing a belt around my ankle that has the mic pack. And then the wire is snaked from my ankle all the way up to my bra, where the microphone is often hooked.
I assume you have hair and makeup for the show?
My hair is done by my longtime hairdresser, Jeanie Syfu, who travels with me. She will often plug her curling iron into the electrical socket next to the air-conditioning controls on the front dashboard. For the first episodes of the first season we did have a makeup artist, who was lovely, but I felt like there were too many people on set. In documentary, the less you disturb the environment you’re trying to capture, the better.
Did you notice a difference when you reduced the number of people in the room?
I did. You have to understand, we’re driving around in only three vans and one of those vans is for our camera equipment, and then an S.U.V., and that’s it. There are no more than 12 or 15 people at any given time on the road with me. In the back of my S.U.V. is my wardrobe.
You’ve come a long way since being described by a critic as having “come-hither poses” on “Top Chef.”
There are no come-hither poses. I’m just standing there.
I notice you wear the same jewelry repeatedly on the show.
All the jewelry you see me wear, whether it’s a Rolex or gold hoops, is mine. I keep it very simple. I usually always wear the Saint Christopher medallion that was given to me by an old lover who passed away over a dozen years ago. I also wear a three-stone necklace, which is something that my daughter and her father made for me several years ago for my birthday. Dimitri [the sound person] and I have a constant push and pull about that, because he can always hear them jingling. But I don’t care because in life you hear things jingle.
I’m now remembering you took off your Rolex — and these are your words — “to fist” a pig you’re preparing to cook in the episode set in Tarpon Springs, Fla., where there is a large Greek community.
Yes, because it’s a Rolex!
It can be challenging for women to dress in a way that is unobtrusive. We’re often expected to look nice. But if we dress down, that’s also remarked upon in a negative fashion.
Yes, that’s right. How do you look good without calling attention to yourself? We all saw that with E. Jean’s wardrobe recently in her trial against Donald Trump. I thought she was masterful in the way she dressed. I can’t hide the fact that I am who I am and have a Rolex in my wardrobe. But at the same time, I just want to be very approachable. Sexy and smart, but effortless.
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