Padma Lakshmi on Food, Fame, and Her Health Struggles

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Padma Lakshmi isn’t afraid of carbs. Moments after the Top Chef host
arrives at a downtown New York City Italian restaurant — her pick — she
enthusiastically orders the orecchiette con i pomodorini pachino at the
waiter’s recommendation. It’s not just her predilection for pasta that breaches
the celebrity stereotype. The New Delhi, India-born former model orders her
pasta in perfect Italian — one of the five languages she speaks — and showed
up without the requisite dark glasses, despite the sunny day. Wearing a simple
beige tank top and long, boho-style chartreuse skirt, Lakshmi’s only hints of
bling are pieces from her own line of jewelry on her neck and left arm. And
when some locals walk into the restaurant, she doesn’t shrink in her chair
hoping not to be recognized. Instead, the reality TV star waves and gives them
a familiar hello.

“I’ve been to the gym eight times in the last 10 days,” says Lakshmi, 39,
biting into a crisp bruschetta. The foodie and cookbook author candidly
confesses that it’s hard work to stay slim. “I would rather spend half my
life at the gym and eat whatever I want than sit on my ass and starve,” she
admits.

And eat she does! Lakshmi’s appreciation of good food and her perceptive
palate have helped catapult Bravo’s Top Chef to the No. 1 food show
on cable and recently earned her and chef/co-host Tom Colicchio a 2009 Emmy
Award nomination for best reality TV hosts. The popular program kicked off its
sixth season Aug. 19, this time set in Las Vegas. And good news for fans: The
caliber of contestants just keeps getting better. “Tom and I looked at each
other midseason and said, ‘Wow, today’s food is better than we’ve had in any of
the past finales.'”

Not that the previous seasons’ fare has been shabby. She can’t reveal any
details of the current season, but confides her favorite meal to date was made
by Season 2 Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. Hall served a classic Spanish
dish of fideos (very thin capellini-like noodles) with clams and saffron
that she’s enjoyed several times since at the Manhattan eatery Casa Mono, where
Hall was a chef. (See the recipe below.)

Ironically, her least favorite meal was also cooked up by Hall. Brace
yourself: chicken liver chocolate ganache with fried ginger and sherry sauce.
What was he thinking? “I don’t know, not clearly,” she says with a smile. “It
was horrible.”

Padma’s Food Memories

Today’s main course is quite the opposite. After the waiter brings Lakshmi
her orecchiette, she adds a dash of red pepper and dives into the food. And her
memories of food. “I’ve always had a well-developed palate. Even as a toddler I
was rooting around the kitchen, tasting different things.” She learned to cook
at a young age. Growing up in India, New York, and Los Angeles, “I was always
hanging at the hem of whatever maternal relative was in the kitchen, helping
shell peas and peel potatoes.”

Her love of food is what set her television career in motion in 1998.
Lakshmi had been modeling around the world since 1992 for designers such as
Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren when she met movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who
had recently set up a literary arm of Miramax. Together, they came up with the
idea for a cookbook, Easy Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World,
because “everyone wants to know what a model eats,” she says.

Though Lakshmi acknowledges nobody expected the book to soar, it surprised
them all by winning the 1999 International Versailles Event for best cookbook
by a first-time writer. After a promotional appearance for the book on the Food
Network, she was offered her own show, Padma’s Passport, where she
cooked cuisine from exotic cultures across the globe. A few years later she met
with Bravo execs, who were developing a reality cooking-competition show.

“Initially I don’t think she wanted to do it,” says Andy Cohen, Bravo’s
senior vice president of original programming and development. “I think she
thought, ‘A reality cooking-competition show? Huh?'” But they simply had to
have her. “We fell in love. She’s so beautiful, so exotic, and so passionate
about food,” he says. They convinced Lakshmi to come on board as host of Top
Chef
during its second season, and later her second cookbook, Tangy,
Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day
, hit the shelves.

Next up for Lakshmi? She just signed a development deal with NBC to produce
and appear in a food-themed half-hour comedy, but it’s too early for
details.

Cooking at Home With Padma

Food remains the throughline of her career — and her personal passion.
Although Lakshmi, who was briefly married to acclaimed, British-born Indian
novelist Salman Rushdie, has traveled the world in pursuit of exotic dishes,
she often craves homespun, simple foods. For a solo dinner, she might whip up
an omelet with sautéed mushrooms and spinach, flavored with thyme, oregano, and
fresh red chilies. “Plus a beefsteak tomato sliced thick with some fresh olive
oil,” she says. Her other dinner staple is what she calls her one-pot wonders
(“I don’t like doing dishes.”)

She also treats herself to the occasional weekend bed picnic. “A perfect
Sunday would be to work out at the gym, come home, take a bath, get back into a
pair of crisp, clean pajamas, and tuck myself into bed with something to read,
a tray of sandwiches, and a big pot of tea.” And while her choices of picnic
reading material are sophisticated — The New York Times, The
Atlantic
, Italian Vogue — her sandwich selections are deliciously
simple: BLT, grilled cheese, and egg salad.

“I was rushing around all morning and didn’t have time for breakfast,” she
says, looking at her plate. Every savory morsel of orecchiette is gone. Eating
heartily is a much-earned reward for her no-excuses gym time. While there, she
lifts weights and does cardio — the StairMaster, the treadmill (which she
adjusts to a steep incline), or the elliptical machine.

Her regimen certainly works. Just take a look at the evidence in a nude
Allure magazine photo shoot last May.

Why bare all? “I thought it was a really good forum to show women that you
can be curvy and you can be healthy and you can eat — those things are not
exclusive to each other — and you can have a beautiful body when you’re in
your 30s. It may not be the body you had in your 20s, but it can be just as
elegant and beautiful and sensual and feminine.”

Padma’s Childhood Scar

Lakshmi didn’t always feel so comfortable about her body. Especially the
appearance of one seven-inch section of her right arm, the result of a car
accident when she was 14. She was on a Sunday afternoon drive in California
with her mother and stepfather when their car was rear-ended, and her right arm
was shattered. The surgery left a prominent cross-hatched scar on her upper
arm.

“When you’re going to high school and you’re self-conscious about your body
anyway, it’s a very tender age for something like that to happen,” she says,
demonstrating the arm cross she’d perfected to hide the scar (left hand over
right arm, thumb up).

When she was modeling, few designers booked her for summer shows, but many
hired her to model their winter lines — when her scar was easily concealable
in layers. Everything changed for her when she worked with the legendary
photographer Helmut Newton. “My scar was the thing that attracted him to me in
the first place,” she says. “He told me how interesting it was and how it made
me look like someone with a past. When someone of that caliber in your field
plants that seed, it’s a powerful message.”

 

Padma On not Being Perfect

That’s another reason Lakshmi was inspired to sign on for the nude magazine
shoot.

“It was very important to show this scar because I wanted people to see that
you don’t have to be perfect, and beauty does come in all colors and shapes and
forms. And the thing that makes us not look like everybody else is very
important.” Her body, she says, narrates the story of her life. “This,” she
recounts as she points to a brown bump on her forearm, “is the ingrown hair
that I always picked on that was exposed to the sun because I was driving in
L.A. all those years.

“And right there,” she says, touching a small scar on her hand, “are three
stitches from when I was holding a baked potato on a boat. I tried to stab it
and missed and had to be rushed to the emergency room in Corsica to be stitched
up by a very cute French doctor.

“And this,” she says of a gathering of swirling scars on her right hand, “is
where in the car accident I had to punch out the windshield.”

Padma’s Struggle With Endometriosis

Lakshmi settles back in her chair as she switches the subject to a different
pain — one that shows no outward scars, but that she worked hard for years to
keep hidden. Once a month, Lakshmi was crippled with severe menstrual cramps.
Nothing helped, not even prescription painkillers.

“I was balled up in bed with a heating pad, taking Vicodin to get through
the worst.” She concealed her pain, embarrassed that people would think she was
exaggerating.

“I thought I was hypersensitive and just being a wimp,” she says. Her mother
had suffered the same way. “I thought this was my lot in life.”

In 2006, she had to leave a photo shoot doubled over in pain. Her internist
sent her to Tamer Seckin, MD, a laparoscopic surgeon in New York City
specializing in endometriosis.

Lakshmi was suffering from a severe case of the condition, which affects
more than 5.5 million women in the United States. It occurs when the
endometrium, the tissue of the inner lining of the uterus, grows in places
outside of the uterus — most often on other pelvic structures, including the
ovaries and fallopian tubes, or behind the uterus. Researchers don’t yet know
what causes this condition, but one theory is that endometriosis is linked to
menstruation backflow. Other possible theories include the involvement of
inherited genes, the immune system, the lymphatic or vascular system, and
chemicals in the body that somehow trigger the condition. 

“These tiny pieces of endometrium attach and develop their own blood supply
and respond to the hormonal environment there,” says Pamela Stratton, MD, chief
of the Gynecology Consult Service at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md. 

Symptoms of endometriosis vary widely, but include: extremely painful
menstrual cramps, pain during or after sex, ongoing pelvic and lower back pain,
heavy periods, spotting and bleeding between periods, painful bowel movements,
or painful urination during menstrual periods.

Endometriosis is one of the top three causes of female infertility; about
30% to 40% of women who have the condition become infertile. That’s one reason
early diagnosis and treatment are key.

That treatment can include medication, hormone therapy, and surgery.
Treatment for infertility usually involves assisted reproductive treatments.
 

 

Getting to an Endometriosis Diagnosis

Lakshmi was relieved to finally have her endometriosis diagnosed, but
stunned that it had taken so many years to figure out what was wrong, says
Seckin.

“She said to me, ‘Why am I being diagnosed this late?’ She’d gone from
doctor to doctor at some of the best hospitals in the United States. She
rewound her history and realized she could have been diagnosed much earlier.”
And had her condition been identified more promptly, says Seckin, she would
have been spared years of agony. Not to mention major surgery.

The longer endometriosis goes unchecked, the harder it can be to treat and
the more it can damage the body. Lakshmi’s first surgery in 2006 to remove the
wayward tissue took four and a half hours.

“I had stitches in three major organs and was bedridden from Thanksgiving to
February 1,” she says.

Lakshmi has had three additional surgeries since and is now better able to
control the pain with over-the-counter medication.

“Endometriosis is the single most delayed diagnosis in reproductive health
today, taking an average of a decade,” explains Seckin. “And it is the most
misdiagnosed, mishandled disease.”

Lakshmi knew she wanted to help prevent others from going through what she
experienced. So when Seckin asked her to serve as co-founder of the
Endometriosis Foundation of America, a nonprofit group focused on increasing
awareness, education, research, and advocacy, signing on was a no-brainer, she
says.  “Dr. Seckin literally changed my life,” Lakshmi says. The respect
is mutual, says Seckin. Lakshmi
“needs to be given great credit for her sense of social responsibility.” (For
more information about the foundation, visit www.endofound.org.)

Her work doesn’t stop there. In addition to helping raise awareness about
this painful condition, Lakshmi volunteers with Keep a Child Alive, which helps
children with AIDS in Africa and India.

The meal over, Lakshmi orders a finely filtered coffee — Americano style —
then bids a warm goodbye as she heads back out to the New York City streets.
Ahead of her are dozens more memorable meals. A new season’s worth of
designed-to-dazzle Top Chef fare will be served by contestants for
Lakshmi and her fellow judges — as millions of hungry viewers join in
vicariously tasting every morsel.

 

Padma’s Recipes for Home Cooking

Braised Beef or Lamb With Tomato and Cumin

As with most stews, the longer this cooks,  the better it gets. A
traditional North Indian recipe, this dish is the perfect comfort food for fall
and winter. The stew contains some fiery red chilies, but the heat also comes
from such hallmark Indian spices as cloves, black cardamom, and cumin. If you
don’t particularly like highly spiced food, just cut back a bit on the chilies.
Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

•                
2 teaspoons canola oil

•                
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

•                
2 cups chopped yellow onions

•                
4 large dried whole red chilies

•                
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

•                
2 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

•                
3 large bay leaves

•                
2 black cardamom pods

•                
4 cloves

•                
1½ lbs beef stew meat or boneless lamb shoulder, cut in large chunks

•                
2½ lbs plum tomatoes, quartered

•                
1½ teaspoons garam masala

•                
several cups of boiling water

•                
salt to taste

•                
sugar (optional)

Directions

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, and after 2
minutes sauté onions, chilies, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry for 5 minutes. Stir
in bay leaves, cardamom, and cloves.

Add meat and stir-fry for 5 more minutes, searing meat on all sides. Add
tomatoes and garam masala.

When the tomatoes start to loosen from their skins (about 4 to 5 minutes),
lower the heat and add enough boiling water to cover the whole mixture.

Once it comes to a gentle boil, add a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low.
Cover and simmer for 1½ hours, stirring every 7 minutes or so, making sure the
mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. You may add additional water,
if needed.

The end result should be a thick stew gravy and meat so tender it mashes
apart with a fork.

If the sauce is too sour, add ¼ to ½ teaspoon of sugar to round out the
flavor. Mix well.

Serve hot over a bed of plain basmati rice or with oven-toasted flatbread
such as naan or pita bread.

Per serving

Calories: 543, 364 calories from fat; 41 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 109 mg
cholesterol; 141 mg sodium; 14 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g protein (For a
healthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.)

From Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day by
Padma Lakshmi

 

lan Hall’s Fideos with Clams and Saffron

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

•           1 pound fideos
or capellini pasta (fresh if possible)

•           2 cups heavy
cream

•           1 teaspoon
saffron threads, crumbled

•           Salt

•           1 cup small
cauliflower florets

•           1 cup small
broccoli florets

•           1/3 cup extra
virgin olive oil

•           10 garlic
cloves, peeled and left whole

•           1/2 cup white
wine or seafood stock

•           1 pound fresh
medium clams, cleaned

•           Freshly ground
black pepper

•           Chopped fresh
flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Break the fideos into 3-inch pieces.
Arrange the pieces in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in the oven
and bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set
aside to cool.

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, saffron, and salt to taste and
place over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, whisking and watching the pot so
the cream doesn’t boil over. Remove from the heat, stir in the cauliflower and
broccoli, and set aside.

Preheat the broiler. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and garlic over low
heat, stirring, until the garlic begins to soften and turn golden, about 15
minutes. Break the garlic up with the back of a wooden spoon, then add the
wine, clams, and fideos. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir to
combine.

Increase the heat to medium-high and cover the pan. Cook for about 4
minutes, shaking the pan, until the clams have opened. Discard any unopened
clams. Stir in the cauliflower and cream mixture and remove from the heat.

Divide the clam and pasta mixture among 4 ovenproof dishes. Place the dishes
in the oven and broil until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Garnish with the
chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Per serving

Calories: 748, 377 calories from fat; 43 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 170
mg cholesterol, 104 mg sodium, 70 g carb, 1 g fiber, 18 g protein. (For a
healthier serving, divide into six portions instead of four.)