“Top Chef” judge Padma Lakshmi’s memoir “Love, Loss, and What We Ate” is much more than a guide to healthful eating. She appears in Seattle on March 14 at Town Hall.
The public image of Padma Lakshmi is lusciously distant; the cool, gorgeously dressed judge on TV’s “Top Chef” telling contestants to pack their knives and go home.
Locals who tracked the model-actress through the show’s 2012 Seattle season — not to mention years in the gossip columns — will view her in a new light after reading her open, thoughtful memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate.”
“For the last 10 years, people have seen me … in a very prestigious but very formatted show, playing a very specific role that is appropriate to making that show successful. It is a really thin sliver of my life,” she said recently by phone.
Padma Lakshmi on ‘Love, Loss, and What We Ate’
Lakshmi will speak with Debra Music of Theo Chocolate.
7:30 p.m. March 14, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. $5. Tickets online at townhallseattle.org.
At the same time — as when filming in Seattle despite personal turmoil — “I think my work has often saved me.”
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Lakshmi loved the city, and said she looks forward to even a brief return for a March 14 appearance at Town Hall. “Seattle, oh my God …” she said. “I was just going to all these places and the cheeses were so divine … I was walking distance to Pike Place Market, which was a blessing and a curse.”
A theater-arts major who minored in American literature, a self-described “brown girl” who found that skin color mattered in different ways in different countries, Lakshmi fell into modeling on a study-abroad program in Spain. She worked for years in Europe, eventually writing cookbooks and columns and hosting other food shows. Yet it was “Top Chef,” with its host of Emmy nominations, that gave her professional confidence for the first time.
The book, originally meant as a collection of her recipes and philosophies on healthful eating, took a more personal turn partway through its four-year development. It does include a handful of recipes — the tangy tamarind chutney that makes any ingredient “finger-sucking good,” the yogurt rice she calls “the ultimate South Indian comfort food” — but no food-porn photos. It’s the story of how an Indian-born girl reconciled her birth country and her adopted homes, how she grew from a tall, scarred teenager whose rice-and-curry lunches were met with scorn to a food-focused TV star, and how she came to peace with a body that both enabled her career and betrayed her with a debilitating, long-undiagnosed case of endometriosis. (She co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America.)
That body-image peace, after the birth of a treasured daughter, “is something I have to remind myself of consistently,” she said last week. “It’s not that I reached that epiphany and I’m now immune.”
The screen image, she said, is also a persona she takes on after hours of makeup and wardrobe work. “I don’t look like that when I wake up in the morning. I look like that when I’ve been stuffed and polished and blow-dried and gussied up. That’s not even how I look when I walk my kid to school or I’m out to dinner with my friends. That’s certainly not what I sound like. I’m not always telling people whether they’re good or not at their job!”
The book delves into the salacious headlines of Lakshmi’s life and then some: why she married celebrated author Salman Rushdie and why they divorced, the paternity battles around her unexpected pregnancy, her love for much-older billionaire Teddy Forstmann, who died in 2011. She recounts the childhood abuse she suffered. She volunteers some of the experimentation from her early days in the fashion world — some of which she doesn’t regret, “like knowing what it’s like to touch and be touched by a woman.”
After a lifetime of public silence, it’s a lot to expose.
“I don’t think I set out at the beginning, or at any point, to purposely be so revealing, but I did always intend to write an honest book. It’s the only book that’s worth writing, in my opinion,” she said. “I didn’t want it to just be a fluff piece or a PR-generated document.”
It was brave, she said, of her mother to give her blessing “to write the book as I saw fit … a lot of my history is obviously her shared history.”
Food and femininity, she wrote, were intertwined from early on through her Indian relatives. “The secrets of the kitchen were revealed to you in stages, on a need-to-know basis, just like the secrets of womanhood. You started wearing bras; you started handling the pressure cooker for lentils. You went from wearing skirts and half saris to wearing full saris, and at about the same time you got to make the rice-batter crepes called dosas for everyone’s tiffin. You did not get told the secret ratio of spices for the house-made sambar curry powder until you came of marriageable age.”
And, she wrote, in stark contrast to the Western ideal, “to truly have a womanly figure, you had to eat, to be voluptuously full of food.”