There’s a saying in tamil about good cooks: ’Her hand has a sweet aroma to it,’" says Padma Lakshmi, host of the hit Bravo reality show Top Chef, suggesting that the ability to create wonderful meals is a gift that cannot be taught. Then she confesses that her own dishes are sometimes disappointing when she makes them for people she doesn’t like.
Barefoot and happily focused on the task at hand, Padma is dropping pistachios into a skillet of smoldering cumin for a rice pilaf. She is preparing dinner for some friends, a meal typical of the kind she turns out for her frequent parties. Knobs of ginger, a tin of amchoor (Indian dried mango powder) and stray lemons litter the countertop—ingredients that will find their way into an irresistible starter of kathi rolls (crispy rolls filled with ground turkey) and a dish of sautéed zucchini tossed with fresh dill. The main course: a succulent fish stew. "I use center-cut mahimahi, because the flesh holds up better," Padma says as she nestles the fillets into a curried coconut broth, proposing one solution to the old problem of fish falling apart in Indian sauces.
Although Padma is a successful model and actress (she will begin filming Exclusion sometime in the next year, directed by Deepa Mehta, who made the Oscar-nominated Water), her love of food has always led her back to the kitchen. As the star of Padma’s Passport and a host of the Planet Food documentary series, both on Food Network, she gamely cooked and ate her way through a multicultural travelscape. Her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, is a "culinary scrapbook" of her life, she says, integrating memoirs and healthy recipes inspired by cuisines around the world. A second book, due out early this fall, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet, is a more ambitious, broadly international compendium, with recipes ranging from quick snacks to complex projects.
On Top Chef, Padma works alongside judges Tom Colicchio and Food & Wine’s Gail Simmons to scout out the true talents in a pool of hopefuls. "I have a lot of fun doing the show," she says. "The chefs are very serious, and I have great compassion for them because they have to think quickly on their feet. What makes it so engaging—not just for the viewers but for me, too—is that these are people who are striving to be the best at what they do."
While Padma has a passion for all kinds of food, she absorbed the orthodoxy of pure South Indian cuisine from relatives in Chennai (formerly Madras), where she was born. As a child, she found "great mystery" in the kitchen, where the women in her family—all excellent cooks—would exchange family gossip and pass along culinary secrets; hiding in the pantry, she would climb the shelves to get at pickle jars, having acquired a precocious appetite for hot chiles. In the early 1980s, when she first lived in New York City, her mother would take her along on scavenger hunts for Indian cooking ingredients, which were then hard to find. They often ended up at Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. As a young woman, Padma was engaged at one time to an Italian man, whose mother introduced her to classic European cooking techniques and taught her to make the perfect creamy béchamel sauce.
While she is a fussy judge of flavor—"The integrity of each spice should be allowed to stand out," she pronounces at one point—Padma is devoted to improvisation in the kitchen and a kind of closely monitored chaos in the dining room. "I can think of nothing more lovely," she says, "than cooking for friends with music blaring, everyone talking over one another, copious drinking, staying up until 2 a.m., getting hungry again and eating out of the pot with a fork." Assuming there’s anything left.
Before serving a new recipe to guests, Padma often tests it on her husband, the Mumbai-bred author Salman Rushdie. Rarely unlatching his eyes from his bride of three years, he seems like a clever schoolboy who can’t believe he’s landed the prom queen. At the moment, however, Padma is less focused on her husband than her cumin, which has cooked for too long on the stove. She throws it out and begins preparing the pilaf again from scratch, insisting that "it won’t taste right" otherwise. Rushdie leans in closer, but she’s all business. "Honey, you can watch me," she teases, "but you have to stay out of my light." Rushdie clearly enjoys not only his wife’s cooking—he declares himself an ideal taster—but also her managerial forcefulness.
Finally, the guests arrive, a group that includes New York City tastemakers like fashion stylist Nina Clemente; Nur Khan, the managing partner of the Rose Bar and Jade Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel; and chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, who has appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef. Before the cocktails are even served, Ripert finishes off a plate of the rice pilaf, with great satisfaction. "I’m a chef, so I eat at all times," he explains. He guesses at the ingredients. "Let’s see, shallots, I’m pretty sure. Curry. Raisins?" Actually, they’re diced prunes; such surprises often turn up in Padma’s recipes.
As the fish stew simmers, the hostess, still barefoot, squeezes onto a love seat in between her friends. Jackie Bernon—her assistant and a deft diplomat who manages everything from scheduling conflicts to rice-encrusted saucepans—mingles while refilling glasses with one of Padma’s delicious drinks, a mix of ginger, lime juice and rum.
Hosting a dinner party is not really like performing, Padma says, but the stage setting is still essential. To create a transporting mood, she might scatter rose petals all over the table instead of setting out formal arrangements. Tonight, her friends lounge about in a space that she describes as "Paris 1920s opium den meets British Raj meets Turkish caravan." And appropriately enough, some of the guests fondly recount their recent weekend in Istanbul, when they were flown out in high style by a Turkish magnate promoting a collaboration with the fashion designer Zac Posen.
Now gliding about in a slinky, multicolored number by Tracy Reese, Padma wants the thrumming soul music turned louder, and for everyone to have more of the sweet lime punch. Then the meal’s seating plan is handed down, dirigiste-style, from the cook. Rushdie sums up his wife’s directorial heft: "Padma says, ’This, not that.’ She has an immediately clear view and very strong opinions about many different things." Ripert concurs on the subject of strong-willed women: "Eventually, they will get their way. To say yes right away saves time, saves energy." At dinner the men, and everyone else, sit where they are told, and without formality, dig in.
Amy Finnerty is a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts section of the Wall Street Journal.