In honor of the Top Chef Boston finale airing next week, star host Padma Lakshmi reveals some of the sacrifices she’s made for her career, from giving up control of her time to sharing intimate details about her health. Here, the lows and the highs.
I’m not in control of my schedule. I don’t have a set pattern, like chefs who own several restaurants or do catering. When you're a cookbook author, any opportunity to demonstrate what your food is about is prized. You have to be able to go on the Today show, for example, with very short notice. With Top Chef, I’m beholden to what the network decides to do. During filming I can’t plan much because I might have to cancel at the last minute if the shoot goes late. We also shoot in different cities each season, so I am away from home and my other businesses as well as my family and friends. I also don't have much leverage if there's a family function. For instance, one of my very dear friends got married upstate one summer, and I couldn’t go because the network wanted to start filming the next season and couldn't change it because of the many moving parts. On set, I’m there every day—there was no way for me to fly across the country in the middle of production. I remember a few years ago, Led Zeppelin was putting a reunion show on in London, and I was going to go with a friend of mine. At the very last minute, The Ellen Show booked me, and I had to do it. I’d never been on her show before. And it was a very big coup for my career and my cookbook at the time.
There’s a huge loss of privacy. In a way, I’m used to that from my prior career in modeling and acting, but it’s still something I struggle with, especially now that I am a mother. I also co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America. My endometriosis severely affected my life and work, and women from all splices of life have to deal with this terrible and little-known disease. In order for other women to talk about it and to lobby banks and institutions for donations and sponsorship, I’ve had to talk publicly about these intimate issues. Our goal is to raise awareness not only among women but everybody and change public policy on how this disease is looked at and addressed. I don’t want the next generation of women to go through what I went through. So I had to expose a very private aspect of my life in order to help others suffering in silence, as I did for many years.
The biggest sacrifice I've had to make was my ego. When I first got the job on Top Chef, I had done a cooking show and a couple of documentaries on food but not much else on American television. I was surrounded by great chefs and people who were much more experienced than I was in the professional food world. In those first episodes and even into my second season, I tried to show every ounce of what I knew because inside I felt I had to prove myself. But as the host of the show, it's not only my job to judge like the rest of our panel but to listen and moderate the conversation. This often means that my opinion gets swept onto the cutting-room floor. Whether it's in the kitchen, or in publishing or on a television set, no one does anything alone. Understanding the big picture and finding your most useful role in it is crucial. It's important to have a measure of humility and realize when you don't know something. Seek help, as this may actually serve you better in the long run; it allows others to share their knowledge and feel good.
The physical toll of weight fluctuation. During shooting, my body takes a toll physically—I normally gain 15 pounds during one season of Top Chef. There’s a lot of meat, a lot of fat. The contestants are there to win, so they make the food as luscious and decadent as possible. So I wind up consuming a lot of heavy, rich food. In fact, I eat double what Tom and Gail and Hugh have to eat on the show because I am there for all the quick fires. I actually created a special concoction to drink during the show. It consists of 4 ounces of pure unsweetened cranberry juice, 4 to 6 ounces of water, one packet of vitamin C powder and one packet of clear Metamucil fiber. I’ll drink four to five of these per episode. It's painfully tart and sour, like drinking my own personal Drano. My doctor and I are very aware of the constant weight fluctuation, so after filming, I go into food detox for 10 to 12 weeks, cutting out meat and bread. (Though I will eat rice. I get very bitchy if I don’t have carbs.)
But with those sacrifices, I’ve been given great opportunities. The network is completely supportive of my personal life. It’s run by women, which I think makes a difference. They stopped the show so I could have my baby when I had complications in my pregnancy. I was back at work five weeks after giving birth, and everyone was more than supportive, especially of my nursing schedule. My daughter, Krishna, feels very much a part of the Top Chef family—she even has her own playroom on the set! I try to keep some of the same policies in my own office. As women become more powerful in the professional world, we need to pass on these gestures to help the next generation of women succeed.