After 19 seasons with Bravo’s ever-enduring Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi announced last week that it’s her turn to pack her knives and go. Her departure, following the show’s 20th season, marked the end of an era in modern food television.
Though she has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards for her work, Lakshmi wasn’t always synonymous with Top Chef (its first season was hosted by Katie Lee Biegel). Still, her culinary knowledge paired with her overall charm made her the show’s heart, even more so than celebrity chef Tom Colicchio or recurring Top Chef alums like Kristen Kish and Richard Blais. As Alison Herman writes for Variety, Lakshmi sold the series figuratively with her personality and knowledge, but also literally, with her knack for handling the show’s product placement without distracting from the drama on screen.
After a divisive recent season, multiple critics have noted that Top Chef now finds itself in a bit of an existential dilemma. In a candid and wide-ranging new interview with Ashley Lee of the Los Angeles Times — and the first to directly address her departure — Lakshmi divulged her reasons for leaving the hit show, spilled some hot gossip, and left us with plenty to look forward to regarding her future in the food world. Here are five important takeaways from the conversation:
She wants to prioritize Taste the Nation.
Lakshmi’s culture-focused food show — the second season of which hit Hulu last month — “consumes me in the best way, intellectually, spiritually, creatively, and I just want to keep making it,” Lakshmi tells the Times. Unlike the structured nature of Top Chef, which requires Lakshmi to “facilitate other people’s opinions [...] often at the expense of sharing [her] own,” Taste the Nation allows her to be her “full self.” It also offers her the huge privilege of creative control, she notes.
She wasn’t always taken seriously.
She acknowledged to the Times that she had been dismissed by chefs on the show, but didn’t elaborate further. As Herman writes in Variety, early press about Lakshmi’s role on Top Chef was “openly, or at least implicitly, sexist,” reducing Lakshmi to her appearance or her relationships. One moment of validation came from chef Eric Ripert, who Lakshmi says told her: “Just because you have not worked in the back of a restaurant, don’t think that you don’t belong.”
She cares about the contestants.
Lakshmi is proud of the way Top Chef impacted both chefs and food TV. Even from the start, “we didn’t want it to be on one of those lowest-common-denominator shows, humiliating the contestants or making it gossipy and not about the food. That made all of our skin crawl,” Lakshmi says. “I’m extraordinarily proud that the real stars of our show are the contestants, and that’s not an accident.”
She was the only one who ate everything on the show.
Lakshmi tells Lee she is the only person on the show who eats “every single thing,” and she’s happy to leave that behind. Sorry to season 2’s Ilan Hall, but his chocolate-covered liver dish stands out to Lakshmi as the “all-time worst dish.” By comparison, Buddha Lo’s beef with beets in season 19 and the late Fatima Ali’s deconstructed samosa in season 15 were some of the best.
She wants to push food TV further.
As Lee points out in the interview, Lakshmi’s final season included an Indian food challenge, and she has often taken chefs to task over bad rice. “It’s because most of the fine-dining restaurants in North America are built on Western cuisine and French technique,” Lakshmi says. “That’s also what I’m purposefully highlighting in Taste the Nation, which was born out of all of my frustrations, hopes, loyalties, advocacies and political point of view.”