The cooking competition's host ships an impressive pantry of spices wherever the show goes.
"I am a gypsy at heart," Padma Lakshmi says, lounging casually in a patio chair outside her trailer on the set of Top Chef, recuperating from an all-morning Quickfire challenge shoot. "But I have to make myself at home."
When Top Chef comes to town—right now that town is Louisville, Kentucky—the cooking competition is a massive undertaking. The production requires many moving parts, hundreds of people, and a whole lot of hotel rooms. A few of those rooms are occupied by Lakshmi and her necessary entourage (including her daughter, Krishna, and a "glam squad" of hair, makeup, and wardrobe professionals). For Lakshmi, shooting a season of Top Chef requires not only hours on set and days of shooting, it also requires her to live in hotel rooms for six or seven weeks at a time. And we're not always talking about penthouse suites at the Ritz Carlton as you might envision. Often it's your standard chain hotel, which, as most travelers know, can be comfortable enough but not necessarily homey.
Lakshmi, however, has become an expert at moving in and settling down for the long haul. I asked the Top Chef host and cookbook author what it takes for her to make a hotel feel more like home. Here's how she does it:
"I try to make my hotel room cozy. I try to get a corner suite or something that has enough room for my kid to play in. But we always get flowers for my room, I always have a humidifier. I bring incense—it doesn’t take a lot to pack and it keeps your suitcase fresh. I usually bring sarongs and I just drape them over the couches. I always move furniture around."
"I actually cook in my hotel room on a hotplate. We always bring fresh curry leaves because those are hard to find. I have a little toolkit of spices, like black mustard seeds, some spice blends, sumac, and za’atar, Aleppo chili, and Urfa. I’ll also have kaffir lime leaves that are fresh."
"And then I’ll do things that are easy to make in one pot like lentils and rice in a porridge with a lot of vegetables. I don’t want my kid eating room service for six weeks. I probably don’t get to eat out more than once a week because I don’t have the time and I don’t know who’s cooking my food or what’s in it. I always say the healthiest thing you can do for you and your family is to cook at home. Going out to eat is a treat and a nice activity. For most families, it’s a big deal and it should be a bigger deal, it should be something special."
"We have all these groceries—we FedEx a box of specialty groceries like the ones I mentioned, and then we always go and get some really wholesome simple things, like eggs, toast, peanut butter, bananas, yogurt, Babybel cheeses, Goldfish crackers. Condiments help a lot. We get a blender to make something like a quick pesto sauce from scratch and then boil some spaghetti." (While I was backstage, I even spotted Lakshmi shopping the leftover produce from the day's Quickfire challenge to flesh out her pantry.)
"Especially because I'm eating so much food on set, I really want to be clean and light. The show depends on my digestive system not breaking down. I eat or at least taste every single thing that is ever made on Top Chef, so it’s very important. About 150 people have to lay down their tools if something happens [to me], so I try to be prudent about that. I get lots of water and try to get green juices, just for comfort."
"I have a little speaker so I can play music. I have facemasks—I have moisture masks but I also have clay masks, because not only do I have my TV makeup on, but I’m in a hot kitchen or sometimes we’re staying out in the sun a lot. If I have a bathtub, I bring my own bath salts which I make myself with various oils, so I do a lot of that kind of stuff to just recreate a sense of comfort and coziness in my room."
Food & Wine was on location in Kentucky for part of the upcoming 16th season of Top Chef and will file more dispatches closer to the premier this winter.