In the latest season of Top Chef, executive producer and co-host Padma Lakshmi brought together a group of All-Star chefs for a fresh set of culinary challenges, taking the show to Italy for the first time, and paying tribute to the late Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold.
A nine-time Emmy nominee, Lakshmi has appeared on the Bravo reality series since 2002, bringing constant passion and curiosity to the kitchen, while using her platform for the good of others.
This past June, Lakshmi launched a new series, Taste the Nation, on Hulu, aiming to introduce viewers to immigrant communities through their food, while serving up a deeper understanding of the lives they live. “I felt like there was so much negativity coming out of Washington, D.C. about immigrants, and immigrants weren’t really allowed a big platform to speak for themselves in a thorough way,” the host says of the series’ genesis. “Usually, how we find out about another culture is through their foods. So, doing it through food allowed me a way in, and it is a very political show. It’s really a show about immigration and politics, disguised as a food show.”
Well known for her philanthropic work, and her heartfelt commitment to marginalized groups, Lakshmi has for years advocated for the independent restaurant industry. Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., the host has watched on in horror, as far too many of these establishments have been taken down. Unfortunately, in the long term, Lakshmi has an all-too-clear sense of what these events will mean. Simply put, she says, “The restaurant business in America will be changed forever.”
Below, the Top Chef host discusses the highlights of the show’s latest Emmy-nominated season, outlining at the same time her hopes for independent restaurants, going forward.
DEADLINE: Top Chef launched 14 years ago, and continues to resonate with viewers and TV Academy members to this day. Why do you think that is?
PADMA LAKSHMI: It’s really compelling to see someone strive to be the best at what they do. We usually do that through sports, but if you’re not into sports, this is a good way. There are knives, there’s fire, there’s people running around, and you never know what’s going to happen. We shoot the show pretty much like a live television show. We’ll edit it, but we don’t go and do things over. What you see is what really happened, and it only happened once, the time that you see it. I think people can sense that. They can sense that authenticity, they can sense the excitement, and they can sense the adrenaline that the chefs genuinely feel. As hard as Top Chef looks on TV, I always say this is much harder in real life. You can see that in the tension in the chefs’ faces, and that’s very compelling.
I also think our show makes it about the chefs. They’re the real stars of our show. I’m very proud of that, as far as reality programming goes, especially when you think of how many years ago we started. There was a time when a lot of reality television was really kind of lowest common denominator, trashy, people picking on each other, and we don’t engage in that. Our show is actually about the food, to the point of being egghead-y about it. We really get into the nitty-gritty. We go into the weeds on that stuff because we are genuinely interested also, and I think that shows.
DEADLINE: What were you most excited about, heading into the series’ 17th season?
LAKSHMI: I was very excited because we’ve only done an All-Star season one other time, and it was almost 10 years ago. This was great because the audience immediately has a relationship with all of these chefs. Usually, you will see our ratings go up and up as the season progresses because people become invested in the chefs. They have a favorite, and as time goes on, you get to know them better. With this season, the biggest benefit is that that is built in, and if you’re a Top Chef fan, you know who all these people are.
You’ve seen them before, and now you get to see how they are a few years later, more developed in their careers, more mature with their palette, et cetera. So that, for me, was really exciting. There was a different dynamic in the room; just the energy was different.
DEADLINE: From your perspective, what are the tricks to keeping Top Chef fresh, for viewers and for yourself?
LAKSHMI: I’m one of those people that is talking about what to make for dinner as I’m clearing the plates away for lunch. Food is always at the forefront of my mind and I love to eat, so I’m uniquely qualified to do this job, and I get to explore all of the things that I would be interested in anyway.
It helps that we change locations every season. I think while it’s a little bit inconvenient to move to a different city, rather than just going to Los Angeles or New York, it is really good for the show. It’s good for the creative aspects of the show. It informs our challenges. It allows us to look at the regionality of American food. American food is much more regional than people realize, and filming Top Chef and traveling the country all these years has reinforced that belief for me.
DEADLINE: Which episode from this past season do you find most memorable, in retrospect?
LAKSHMI: For me, there were so many moments that were fantastic, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is the Jonathan Gold episode. I never knew Jonathan. I never met him, but I have a very close friend who was a close friend of his.
For me, most of Top Chef is about being a professional chef in a restaurant. It is not about being a good cookbook author, it is not about being a good writer or journalist, but this challenge was exactly about that. For me, I come at food as a food writer. I’m not a chef. I’ve never worked the line at a restaurant, have no interest in doing so. So, this was a chance for us to really look at the legacy of Jonathan Gold, and how he celebrated these mom-and-pop, often immigrant establishments, and it allowed all of those people to talk about his writing.
I think at a time when the country is going through what it’s going through, not only is Taste the Nation addressing that very issue, but this episode really spoke to that. It spoke to the diversity of Los Angeles. Jonathan gave a lot of column inches to restaurants that would have otherwise, in some cases, not survived, and should have survived because they were doing really interesting foods, and that’s the food that average Americans eat. When we go out to eat, we usually go out for something that we can’t cook at home, but not all of us can afford to go to these fancy, white tablecloth, Michelin-starred restaurants. The food that you see on Top Chef is often very rarefied, so I love the Jonathan Gold thing because there were a whole bunch of food people in the room, and we got to explore the journalistic aspects of food.
DEADLINE: In Season 17, you also got to take the show to Italy. What was that like?
LAKSHMI: That was great for me because I spent most of my 20s in Italy, and I started my television career on Italian television. Most people don’t know that. I co-hosted a program called Domenica in, which is an institution in Italy, and I haven’t been back there in a really long time, so it was wonderful to be in Italy. I got to use my translation skills quite a lot, and luckily, my Italian came back to me in a flood because it’s hard. You want the best chefs and you want their astute opinions, but a lot of them obviously don’t speak English, so it was good that I had had a history with that country and can speak the language. The food is beautiful. I loved Italy, and if I thought I could have sustained a career in television there, I would have stayed. But I knew I had to come back home to America eventually.
DEADLINE: Have you entered into discussions yet about next season, and how your production will grapple with COVID-19 safety protocols?
LAKSHMI: Obviously, all of Hollywood is itching to get back to work, just like all of America wants to get back to work. Our economy needs it, and that’s no different for my show. We have talked about it. There will obviously be a lot of safety and health protocols that did not exist before, but I think the goal of my network and my production company and all of us is the same. We need to keep everybody healthy, first and foremost, because if I fall sick, then we can’t film the show. It’s very much in our interest to take as many precautions as possible, but we’re trying to find creative ways around that, that don’t feel like they’re adjustments just because of corona. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I think as more productions get back to work, we will also learn from their protocols and behavior.
We’re trying to share what we think is the right way with others, so that the industry as a whole can make sure that all the crew is safe, as well. I mean, I’m only as safe as my crew is, and I want them to be safe. They’re like family to me. We have to just take the attitude that we’re going to get through it together and find a way, because we all need to go back to work.
DEADLINE: You have a reputation as an advocate for the independent restaurant industry. I know it’s been challenging, in recent months, to see so of these establishments struggling.
LAKSHMI: It’s horrible. A lot are stressed, I know, and I’m talking about big marquee names. Chefs that you would recognize have, or are shutting their doors. A lot of that will be permanently, and some of the best restaurants in the country will go under because of this. Then of course, below that, you have hundreds and thousands of mom-and-pop restaurants that will go out of business.
I think what people don’t realize, especially because we’ve elevated chefs to this kind of celebrity status, is that the margins in the restaurant business are extremely razor thin. So, there’s not a lot of room; there’s not a lot of reserves. I talked to one chef and he was saying, “We pay the invoices of 45 days ago with the money we make this week. So, if we’re not making money this week, we’re already behind a month and a half, from day one that we closed.” Unless they have rent relief and unless they can do enough takeout, which many restaurants can’t do, some old restaurants where people are used to getting takeout will survive, but those aren’t the bulk of the restaurants.
I do think that it’s such a large disaster that has befallen the restaurant business that we’ll have to build it up from the ground again. Hopefully, there will be better protections put in for its labor force, and more humane working hours, finding a way so that everybody has health insurance, and everybody gets family leave, and everybody shares the burden of running that restaurant. And it may mean we have to pay a little more. I think in America, Americans are bargain hunters. It’s kind of in our DNA. We always want to see “value for our money”, and I think we’re going to have to remember that there’s a pair of hands that made that food that has to pay his or her rent, that has a family, that has maybe an elderly person they’re caring for, just like we are. There has to be a little bit more empathy and a lot more equality in restaurants.